Archived: Viola Davis' Historic Win Advocates for Black Actresses

By Sheryl Estrada

Viola Davis at the 67th Annual Emmy Awards. Photo via YouTube.

Actress Viola Davis, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2009, has been candid about the challenges women face in the industry including ageism and scrutiny over body image.

For example, a study published in August, “Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Character Gender, Race and LGBT Status,” exposed that women only have 30.2 percent of the 30,835 speaking characters in top-grossing films in the U.S. from 2007 to 2014. In 2014, no female actors over 45 years of age performed a lead or co-lead role.

More than 60 years since the first Primetime Emmy Award was handed out, Davis made history on Sunday as the first Black woman to receive an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

Davis has been vocal about Hollywood’s ineffectiveness in providing opportunities for underrepresented people both in front of and behind the camera.

In her acceptance speech at the 67th Annual Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, she chose to quote a historic Black female Harriet Tubman:

In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.

Davis won the Emmy for her role as law professor and criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. She used her acceptance speech as an opportunity to again bring to the forefront Hollywood’s drastic lack of diversity.

“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said while fighting back tears. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy to be a leading woman to be Black.”

She also gave a nod to Black actresses including Taraji P. Henson, Kerry Washington, Halle Berry, Nicole Beharie, Meagan Good and Gabrielle Union. Henson gave Davis a standing ovation.

“There is a difference when it comes to actors of color in this business,” Davis said backstage. “If it’s been 67 years since an actress of color has won an Emmy then there is certainly a line.”

She and her husband, Julius Tennon, have started a production company to combat the absence of diversity.

Emmy host Andy Samberg mocked Hollywood’s lack of diversity during his opening monologue.

“The big story this year, of course, is diversity. This is the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history, so congratulations Hollywood. You did it. Yeah, racism is over. Don’t fact check that,”Samberg said.

“Of course, given our history being more diverse than ever isn’t always saying that much,” he continued. “I mean, I bet on the day of Jackie Robinson’s first game the baseball commissioner was like, ‘This year’s Brooklyn Dodgers are more diverse than ever in history. You know It’s good.’ It’s probably what he said.”

He also added:”The wage gap between men and woman hired for major roles in Hollywood is still an issue. Wait, I’m sorry I misread that. Theagegap between men and woman hired for major roles in Hollywood is still an issue. Wait, I’m sorry I misread it again. It’s both! Still both. So crappy on two fronts.”

In January, Davis won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama. In her acceptance speech, she touched on her age, race and skin complexion.

“I’d like to thank Paul Lee, Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, Bill D’Elia and Peter Nowalk for thinking that a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old dark-skinned African-American woman who looks like me,” she said.

In June, The Hollywood Reporter hosted aroundtable discussionon women in the entertainment industry, which included Davis.

“I had no precedent for this role,” Davis said of her role as Annalise Keating. “I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualized role in TV, film, anywhere ever Then all of a sudden, this part came, and fear would be an understatement But then my big ‘aha moment’ was ‘This is your moment to not type cast yourself.'”

Emmy award history was also made in June as it was the first time two Black actressesearned the nomination for lead actress on a drama series in the same year. Henson was also nominated for her role as Cookie Lyon on Fox’sEmpire.

“We hugged each other three times,” Davis saidbackstage. “Taraji, by the way, what people need to know about Taraji P. Henson, and it’s very, very, very rare to find this in the business, she is the most supportive actress you could possibly imagine; supportive in ways you can’t even begin to understand, and it’s genuine. I’ve been in this business close to 30 years and I would put her at the top of the list in terms of support. We just whispered to each other, ‘Whoever gets it, it’s great. It’s wonderful. And I love you.'”

Davis is correct that in Hollywood support from other actresses canbe hard to come by. After she received her award, actress Nancy Lee Grahn took to Twitter to bash Davis. After experiencing the wrath of Twitter, Grahn,57, whohasbeen on General Hospital since 1996, has since apologized.

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