Viola Davis made Emmy history last night when she became the first black woman to win the best actress in a drama category. Yes, you read that correctly! It is the year of our Lord 2015 and all of the past winners of that category have been white. They’ve been great actresses, no doubt–Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball, Tyne Daly–but until last night, not a single black woman had won the award.
Davis began her acceptance speech with a quote from 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.”
It’s a gorgeous speech, and you should just watch the whole thing:
It’s hard to underestimate the impact that this award might have on pop culture. Viola strode up onto that stage with all the purpose in the world. She knew what she was going to say, and she delivered. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said, and here is one way we know that is true:
“When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show,” Damon told Effie Brown on his show Project Greenlight. Brown, a black female filmmaker, had urged the group to be careful in their portrayal of a black woman in the film they were discussing–the only black woman, in fact, playing the character of a prostitute who gets hit by her white pimp. Her call for caution was interrupted by a defensive Damon, who impatiently explained to Brown how diversity works. Not at the show level, he said, but on the casting level. Okay.
The thing is, there will always be well-meaning white people ready to explain our positions to people of color. We can’t be racist, we think to ourselves. We would never say that word, or object if our daughters married a black man, or not watch a film just because the characters were black. But racism comes in much more subtle, pernicious forms, and that is exactly what Damon is participating in here. It’s what Viola Davis has fought against all her career, and what led her to say what she said last night with such strength and to such a powerful response.
It’s entirely possible that Davis would never have been cast in How to Get Away with Murder if it weren’t for another black woman, Shonda Rhimes, at the helm. And that’s a shame. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” Davis said last night, and the fact of her winning does not mean that, overnight, decades of wrongs in the film and television industries have been righted. We need more Shonda Rhimes’s, more Viola Davis’s, more black women in roles that are fully human. Racism in America hasn’t ended, but with Davis’s win I hope we are a little further down the road than we were the day before. I hope that someday we will be even further, far enough that the line Tubman and Davis spoke about is a distant memory far on the horizon.