Sunday’s 67th annual Emmy Awards broke historical ground when Viola Davis become the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away with Murder. It’s an achievement to be applauded with tight hugs and standing ovations, like the one fellow nominee Taraji P. Henson gave Davis as she triumphantly took the stage to take her award. But it’s also an overdue honor that triggers shameful, sad memories of separate and unequal injustices that continually color American history—past and present—in Black and White.
“ ‘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,’ ” said Davis, beginning her poignant acceptance speech reciting Harriet Tubman’s words from the 1800s. “ ‘I can’t seem to get over that line.’ ”
As Viola prepares to executive produce and star in a movie based on the life of Harriet Tubman, she evoked movements of the Underground Railroad leader: bravely walking new ground, standing at podiums and shining light on painful wounds that expose audience discomfort.
“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,” Davis continued, to the sound of uncertain claps paced with growing approval. “And to the Taraji P. Hensons, Kerry Washingtons, Halle Berrys, Nicole Beharies, Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union, thank you for taking us over that line.”
Davis’s Emmy win came at the end of a ceremony lauded as the most diverse in the show’s 67-year history, featuring the most actors of color ever nominated. Taraji’s acclaimed work as Cookie on Empire lost to Viola Davis in the Lead Actress in a Drama Series category. Neicy Nash also went home empty-handed after being the lone sister of color given a nod for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her show, Getting On.
House of Lies’ Don Cheadle was passed over again for his ongoing nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy. Andre Braugher’s nominated role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, David Oyelowo’s leading nod for Nightingale, and Michael K. Williams supporting nomination for Bessie were all overlooked. Even mainstream favorite minstrel show (IMHO) Key & Peele was bypassed in the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category.
But Uzo Aduba of Orange Is the New Black cried over her Emmy. After winning last year for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, this year (thanks to new rules) she won for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama. Actor Reg E. Cathey stunned everyone with his British accent to take home the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for work on House of Cards. And Regina King’s Muslim appearance on American Crime beat out Mo’Nique’s nomination for Bessie to take home her first Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie. Although Queen Latifah didn’t win the trophy for lead actress in a movie, Bessie, which she also executive produced, won the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.
All of this is a major step up from 2014’s Emmys, when Kerry Washington’s work on Scandal made her the only female actress of color nominated in any category. (This year, she wasn’t nominated at all). Overall, 2015 is a huge improvement from 1966, when Bill Cosby became the first African American to win an Emmy Award for his acting on I Spy. Or from 1981, when The Jeffersons’ Isabel Sanford became the first sister to win for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. Or 1985, when Robert Guillaume was the first brother to win an Emmy as Best Actor in a Comedy Series for Benson.
“When I think of African-American contributions in television, I think of the people who came before me,” said Uzo Aduba, during an interview about Black contributions in TV. “I think it would be easy to rest inside our moment. But there’s a poem Maya Angelou read at Clinton’s inauguration. She said, ‘Each of you, descendent of some passed on traveler, has been paid for.’ ”
Thanks to the forward deeds paid on and off screen, today’s TV is said to be in its “golden age,” featuring more faces of color than ever. But trophies from White folks don’t mark freedom or a shift in consciousness. Only sustainable, ongoing results in the form of more diversified nominations, more wins like Viola’s and more roles like Regina’s will prove things have truly changed in Hollywood for good.