Last night, was a good night for many at the Emmys. Game of Thrones racked up an impressive win. Netflix series, such as Orange is the New Black and many others, showed that just by being nominated, we are changing the way we get our television content. The most stunning win last night, however, was Viola Davis winning best actress for her portrayal of law professor Annalise Keating on the new series How to Get Away with Murder.
I have to be brutally honest: I don’t always follow the Emmys. Even some of us joked on Twitter that the Emmys reminds us of how much TV we don’t watch. But I did follow How to Get Away with Murder this past year and I was entertained. I heard about the Emmy nod, but similar to the Oscars, I knew her chances of winning were nearly as great as the proverbial snowball. I had no intention of watching the Emmys last night, so it was by chance that, with the thousands of channels at my disposal, this broadcast landed on my screen. Imagine my shock and surprise when I realized that when Ms. Davis won, she was making history.
The speech she gave had so much class. She reminded all of us of so many others that paved the way for this win by thanking them right at the top. Of course the quote that stands out: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” This has been a glaring truth in Hollywood for nearly 70 years and even longer when you count the Oscars. In 2011, there was a documentary called Dark Girls that examined biases against actresses of color in Hollywood and how it was much harder for them to get roles than, not only their white counterparts, but lighter skinned women as well. Many of those Ms. Davis thanked have at one time or another have spoken out against the dearth of roles that are available to Black women. Even when you consider her Oscar nomination for The Help; it was for a role playing just that – the help.
Last night’s win, in my opinion, was big in that it was for a role in which we don’t often get recognition regardless if it’s a dramatic role or a comedy. Let’s face the facts: nearly 30 years ago, Phylicia Rashad was playing a lawyer and a mother of 4, who was married to a doctor on a seminal show that uplifted Black America. Yet, in The Cosby Show’s entire run, Rashad received a nomination but never a win over the likes of Betty White, Bea Arthur, and Rue McClanahan. And that was just in comedy.
Regina Taylor and Cicely Tyson would be the last Black women to be nominated for any dramatic role until Kerry Washington would get her first nomination in 2012. When Halle Berry won her Oscar for Monster Ball, many debated that win as either a ‘giveaway Oscar’ to shut people up about Black actresses not winning or a well-deserved win. Since that time, while Black women were getting more nods at the Oscars, there were still very few being nominated for lead TV roles. Lead roles for Black women on TV had dried up. It’s taken people like Shondra Rhimes and (love him or hate him) Lee Daniels to create TV roles featuring diverse characters to even get them noticed by Hollywood.
Thus, look at the end result. Kerry Washington has been nominated twice for her role on Scandal. Viola Davis got a win for her role and, even in its freshman year, Empire’s Taraji P. Henson got an Emmy nomination for her role, coincidentally in competition with Viola Davis. Depending on how you look at Ms. Davis’ role, this win was even more welcoming than Berry’s Oscar win. It was for a role of a smart, powerful Black woman, even though there were flaws in her character, as she was an accessory to her husband’s murder. In my opinion, this was the best part of Davis’ character. She was never one dimensional. She had vulnerabilities and was just as real and as human as many of us. But hold on…who did she beat? A bi-polar CIA agent, a bunch of clones, a post WWII secretary, a lobbyist, and an ex-convict turned record mogul. We are looking at some very deep and complex characters here who don’t fit into any typical stereotype. Many of these roles that were nominated, any woman of any race could have easily portrayed.
No matter how you look at it, Viola Davis’ win shows that women, especially women of color, have come a long way. But there is still work to be done. This win in some ways was less about it being a first and more about being taken seriously in dramatic roles. The nominees last night all played very complex and powerful people and, in many ways, were equally deserving to win. This win was well-deserved because it was about time for this to happen. For too long Black women have been stuck, playing the help, side piece or mammy in dramas. With this win, Davis shows that she doesn’t have to be The Help; she doesn’t have to be someone psychotic or even a villain to win. She can be strong, yet flawed, and complex to show that these characters matter and, after years of Julia Bakers, Claire Huxtables, Lily Harpers and so many others, this win was well earned.