Celebrate Viola Davis’s Birthday with the Actress’s Realest, Most Empowering Quotes

The actress, who’s won an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy, is also an award-winner when it comes to speaking out.

viola davis, best performance, by mario sorrenti, styled by edward enninful. W magazine Feb 2012.jpg
Photo by Mario Sorrenti, styled by Edward Enninful.

After taking home an Academy Award for her role in Fences earlier this year, Viola Davis, who turns 52 today, became the first black woman to win an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy for acting. Still, Davis has long hardly only stood out as an actress: Long before her recent stand-out performances, Davis has also been one of the industry’s loudest and boldest voices when it comes to speaking out—and particularly when it comes to doing so for women and people of color.

She’s even built a reputation for herself for doing so in her award-winning acceptance speeches, like when she became the first black woman in Emmy history to win Outstanding Lead Actress in 2015 for How to Get Away with Murder and she took care to remind the room that “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

Davis wasn’t always so confident, but she’s definitely grown to accept herself over the years—and increasingly so lately thanks to chats with her buddy Shonda Rhimes and casual empowering emails from Meryl Streep. Celebrate Davis’s birthday with a look back at some of her own realest, most empowering quotes over the years, here.

“I just look at women sometimes and I just want to ask them, ‘Do you know how fabulous you are?’ I look back at pictures of myself and I remember thinking, ‘I was so fat when I was growing up. I was 165 pounds when I graduated from high school. I was a mess.’ And then I look back at pictures of myself, and I’m like, ‘You were fabulous.’ I wish I would have known that then. I wish people had just kept telling me and telling me, beating me over the head and beating me over the head some more and more and more. I talk to women all the time and try to impart that wisdom.” — to Elle

Academy Award Winner’s Viola Davis’s Bold, Primary-Hued Style Evolution

Viola Davis arrives at the premiere screening of Law Abiding Citizen in 2009 wearing a shocking pink mini dress.

Frazer Harrison

Lime green is not a typical hue for a major awards show, but Davis made it work for the 64th Annual Tony Awards.

Bennett Raglin

Another green moment for Davis arrives at the 15th Annual Hollywood Film Awards Gala in 2011.

Steve Granitz

Davis attendded the The Academy’s 3rd Annual Governors Award Dinner in 2011 in gilded white.

Steve Granitz

A vision in red, Davis attends the 17th Annual Critics Choice Movie Awards at Hollywood Palladium on January 12, 2012.

Steve Granitz

At the 23rd Annual Producers Guild Awards in 2012, Davis wore a gorgeous emerald green gown.

Jeffrey Mayer

Showing off her legs in caped burgundy, Davis arrives at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards in 2012.

George Pimentel

With a stunning jade dress at the 84th Annual Academy Awards, Davis kept her beauty look natural.

Gregg DeGuire

Davis channeled a Grecian goddess at the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Donato Sardella

Davis arrives at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2013 in one-shouldered turquoise.

Jeffrey Mayer

Yellow but most certainly not mellow at the 17th Annual Hollywood Film Awards in 2013.

Steve Granitz

ZIg-zagging in electric blue, Davis arrives at the Los Angeles Premiere Ender’s Game in 2013.

Barry King

Another Academy Awards red carpet, another jaw-dropping green gown, here in 2014.

Frazer Harrison

A feminine and flirty look for a premiere screening of her hit television show How To Get Away With Murder.

Todd Wawrychuk

A dramatic crimson moment at the 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards in 2015.

George Pimentel

Davis attends TNT’s 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in a white halter gown.

Theo Wargo

Taking home the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series award for How to Get Away With Murder, Davis steps out in a rare print.

Michael Kovac

Davis arrives at the The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards in a stunning beaded turquoise moment.

Steve Granitz

Opting for a jumpsuit over the classic gown, Davis arrives at the 10th Annual Women In Film Pre-Oscar Cocktail Party.

Steve Granitz

Contrasting blue stripes make for a statement moment at the 70th EE British Academy Film Awards.

Samir Hussein

To take home her Best Supporting Actress award, Davis chose a scarlet gown by Armani.

Steve Granitz

Viola Davis attends the Time 100 Gala at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 25, 2017 in New York City.


Viola Davis attends the Disney ABC Television Group TCA summer press tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 6, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.


“I own my story. I own my failures. I’m not interested in being perfect. That’s how I deal [with stress]. I don’t put on a mask. I think that the effort to put on the mask is probably more detrimental than just being able to step up and admit your vulnerability in front of people who have enough empathy for you.” — to Vibe

“Do not live someone else’s life and someone else’s idea of what womanhood is. Womanhood is you. Womanhood is everything that’s inside of you.” — to Buzzfeed

“A 25-year-old white actress who is training at Yale or Juilliard or SUNY Purchase or N.Y.U. today can look at a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles. You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.” — The New York Times

Viola Davis.

Courtesy of Giphy

“You always focus on your mistakes as a mom, and you just have to know that you’re doing the best you can with what you know.” — to People

“I don’t have any time to stay up all night worrying about what someone who doesn’t love me has to say about me.” — to Oprah Winfrey

“­Colorism and racism in this country are so powerful that the Jim Crow laws are gone, but what’s left is a mindset. As an actress, I have been a great ­victim of that. There were a lot of things that I am that peo­ple did not allow me to be until I got the role of Annalise [the star of How to Get Away with Murder] … I was not able to be sexualized. Ever. In my entire career. And I’ve never seen ­anyone who looks like me be sexualized on television or in film. Ever. It’s made me more resolved in the decisions I’ve made in creating a character. For instance, I’m so tired of hearing people say, ‘No, we can’t have Annalise say that, because that’s not something she would say.’ What if it is something she would say? What corridor can we go down for an entire season if she said that, if she did that? What values can we add that can be revolutionary?” — to Entertainment Weekly

“I had to defend myself as an artist, but I found myself defending myself as a dark-skinned black woman in front of people who did not know my life. I took my wig off because I no longer wanted to apologize for who I am.” — to Essence

“As black women, we’re always given these seemingly devastating experiences—experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as Black women is take the worst situations and create from that point.” — to Essence

“You can’t be hesitant about who you are.” — to Playbill

“All of the hardships I’ve gone through in life—I can appreciate life so much more because of that. To me, it was almost God’s gift, to give me the kind of life I was given. I mean, I appreciate love, I appreciate friendships, I appreciate having a home. I remember not having food—so to me the joys of life are a lot simpler than other people would assume they would be.” — to Oprah Winfrey

“I believe that the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are, truly being who you are. And I’ve spent far too long apologizing for that—my age, my color, my lack of classical beauty—that now at the age of, well, at the age of 46, I’m very proud to be Viola Davis, for whatever it’s worth.” — the Crystal Awards

Related: Viola Davis Opens Up About Growing Up in Poverty

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