Geting Over the Line: Viola Davis Makes History

Alicia D. Caroll ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

In the sixty-seven years the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, there have been seven total African-American nominees, a majority of which have occurred in my lifetime. The first being in 1982 to Debbie Allen, in Fame, followed by Alfre Woodard, Regina Taylor, Cicely Tyson, Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, and Viola Davis. September 20th 2015, 33 years after that first nomination in this category, Viola Davis became the first African American woman to be awarded this honor. This is also the first year that two African American actresses have been nominated in this category in the same year. This is a momentous achievement for Viola Davis, the Academy, and the industry.

It is imperative that we acknowledge how long it took us to get here, because our pace of improvement is simply unacceptable.

Viola Davis aptly quoted Harriet Tubman in her acceptance speech:

“In my dreams and visions, I seemed to see a line, and on the other side of that line were green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white ladies, who stretched out their arms to me over the line, but I couldn’t reach them no-how,” That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something, 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.”

Pictured: Viola Davis Accepting Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Photo Credit: Michael Becker/FOX
Pictured: Viola Davis Accepting Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Photo Credit: Michael Becker/FOX

The drama category, historically, has been sparse for female roles, but those numbers shrink even more when race comes into play. With the trailblazing Shonda Rhimes entering the television scene, diversity on television—specifically among females—has become more of an industry priority. The resurgence of nominations lead drama roles for minorities began with Kerry Washington’s nomination in 2013, almost twenty years after the last nomination for a black female in the same category.

This lack of representation in the awards list isn’t due to the caliber of the performances by black actresses, but due to the sheer lack of lead roles for minority women. It’s not that the roles weren’t strong enough it’s that there weren’t any to choose from. As Davis said in her speech, there is a lack of opportunity for women of color in this industry. With shows such as How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal,  Grey’s Anatomy, Empire, Power, and Orange is the New Black we can see black women as mothers, doctors, lawyers, fixers, and moguls. And with the newly announced casting for upcoming Marvel projects, soon, they will also be superheroes and vigilantes as well.  The opportunities are growing and the pioneers and allies that have been awaiting this win for the past sixty-seven years helped us “get over that line.” There is still work to be done. For starters, I am hoping we do not go another decade without a nomination or win.

Viola Davis in the How to Get Away with Murder episode “The Night Lila Died.” Photo Credit: Mitchell Haaseth/ABC.
Viola Davis in the How to Get Away with Murder episode “The Night Lila Died.” Photo Credit: Mitchell Haaseth/ABC.

Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis were well aware that they would make history if one of them were to win this award. They supported each other, throughout the campaign season, emphasizing to the public that this should be a historic year—we have been waiting for this for a long time. I say we, because you are reading words written by a 21-year-old African American female college student studying Television and Film Production.  Growing up, before I knew what went on behind the scenes of television shows, I wanted to go into this industry not because of the producers or writers but because of Claire and Denise Huxtable, Whitley Gilbert, Ashley Banks, Tia and Tamara Campbell, and Raven Baxter. Now that I am older, those role models have been replaced with Olivia Pope, Annaliese Keating, and even Cookie Lyons. I could see myself in those characters in way that I cannot with others.

Storytelling, especially in visual forms such as television are a distillation of our culture and history. Decades from now, when 2015 is not in living memory, all they will have is the work we leave behind. If our stories, African American stories, female stories and minority stories are not told. We cease to exist, no longer a part of our culture or history. We are deemed unimportant. So it is not only important for current audiences to see themselves reflected in the media they consume, but for future generations as well. It is not only important, it is imperative, that we continue to improve the creative landscape to make room for underrepresented voices in media, for people like me, who see those  green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white ladies, who stretched out their arms to us over the line” and cannot seem to reach.

Help us over that line.

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