Viola Davis finally won an Oscar.
(Well, at least at the time of this writing she did. But with the Best Picture fiasco, you can’t be too sure.)
Nominated twice before, Davis won this year’s Best Supporting Actress for her role in a film I have not yet seen, Fences.
I watched so few movies in 2016 that I have no insight into which actors or films should have received awards last night. And I didn’t even watch the Oscars, except during a prolonged Netflix outage that made my normal binging impossible.
But one of the moments I caught live was Viola Davis’s acceptance speech. When she began with gratitude to the Academy and segued into an observation, “You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered,” I braced for cliche.
I expected the simplistic answer. “And that one place is here, and we are the people with the greatest potential.”
Sort of a graduation speech on steroids.
But her answer shimmered with brilliance. “One place, and that’s the graveyard.”
With the eyes of a poet, Davis encouraged us to dig up the buried stories of ordinary people. “Tell the stories,” she proclaimed. “Tell the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.” Dig up the stories like the one she played in, a story “about people, and words, and life, and forgiveness, and grace.”
I love stories like that.
Davis opened my eyes to the stories around me, the stories of ordinary people whose lives reflect the extraordinary moments of grace in all its glory. How often have a flattened another’s life rather than engage the complexity that every life holds? How many times have I dismissed a story as too ordinary, lifeless, when all it needed was someone to notice the embers and bring them to life?
But I winced at one line that Davis spoke.
In a moment of exuberance, she gushed, “I became an artist—and thank God I did—because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
And that simply is not true.
I think of a teacher I know who has sat with my child through dark days, when the struggle wasn’t about how to write or what you can discover in the lab, but about whether life itself is worth living.
I hear a doctor talk with a family about their loved one’s prospects of health. And even though she talked life and death, beneath it all was the meaning of life, even in death.
I see a group of college students talking late into the night about purpose and meaning and hope. They are celebrating life even as they probe its meaning.
It’s just not true that artists are the only ones who celebrate what it means to live a life.
I do not mean to diminish the place of artists in the world. We need them. We need their ability to speak truth to power, to reveal things we miss. We need them to open our hearts to receive the goodness of this world, a goodness reflected in ordinary stories “about people, and words, and life, and forgiveness, and grace.”
But we also need something else from them. Their final task is to remind us that all who deal with words and life and forgiveness, that all who breathe, are artists themselves, taking these ordinary things and, through them, celebrating what it means to live a life.
And if that’s what it means to be an artist, then I’m all in.