Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson Make Emmy Award Nomination History

By Sheryl Estrada

Actresses Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson. Photos by Shutterstock.

Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson have made history in Hollywood.

The 67th Primetime Emmy Awards nominations were announced Thursday, and it is the first time two black actressesearned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in the same year. And, if either actress wins, it will be the first time a black woman receives an Emmy award in that leadcategory.

Davis is nominated for her role as a multi-dimensional law professor and criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, Henson as the outspoken and shrewd ex-wife of former drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul Cookie Lyon on Fox’sEmpire, co-created by Lee Daniels. The nominations come after the first season of both TV shows.

Ironically, the actresses were also nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in 2009, Davis for her role in Doubt and Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Davis, 49, has been candid about the lack of diversity in Hollywood as well as the challenges actresses face in the industry including ageism, body image and skin color.

In January, she won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama. In her acceptance speech, Davis touched on her age, race and 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 a roundtable discussion on women in the entertainment industry, which included Davis and Henson.

“I had no precedent for this role,” Davis said. “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.'”

Empire earned stellar ratings in its first season. However, there has been discussion the show may perpetuate negative stereotypes, which exist for Blacks in America.

“There’s a debate in the black community that hasn’t really surfaced, hasn’t really boiled to the top yet, but I hear it in barber shops and other places, Larry, about whether or not the problem with Empire is that it advances the worst of every pathology that black people have,” PBS Host Tavis Smiley said during an interview on PoliticKING with Larry King. “Crime, and drug dealing, and this and that, and the other, so I think a lot of people are looking for some positive characters that may come out in the second season.”

However, Daniels said that more people are for the show than against it due to the high ratings. The finale attracted more than 20 million viewers.

“America — and black America — has spoken,” saidDaniels, director of the films Precious andThe Butler. “I think that people are people and I explore — in all of my work — the human condition. Nobody’s perfect and I think that’s what I’m trying to get across with Empire.”

During the Hollywood Reporter roundtable, Henson, 44, shared that her character, Cookie, is a based on her father. “You either loved him or you hated him because he was always speaking truth,” she said. She also discussed how she believes Empire is breaking new ground on primetime network television.

“Art is so powerful,” Henson said. “I felt like this subject matter [of Empire] is dealing with is something that we’d never seen on primetime network television. Empire has forced people to have conversations that they were afraid to have. And that is what art is supposed to do. I just didn’t know it was going to shake things up this much!”

The 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards will air onSeptember 20.

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