On September 20, a black woman from Central Falls made history on live television. A black woman from the smallest city in the smallest state of the Union won Outstanding Actress in a Drama at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards, one of the most important nights in the world of television. In the Primetime Emmys 67 year history, Viola Davis is the first black woman to win in that category. Davis won an Emmy for her role as Annalise Keating in the ABC hit drama series, How To Get Away With Murder. Annalise Keating is one of the most complex characters on television. Annalise Keating isn’t your mammy, sassy sidekick, or maid. As a black woman, who spent the first 6 years of her life in Central Falls, seeing Viola accept her Emmy and deliver the acceptance speech of the year made me proud and hopeful. Proud that a black girl like me can progress from Central Falls High School to Juilliard; Trinity Rep to Broadway. Ms. Davis’ acceptance speech gave me goosebumps for many reasons, the main reason being that in under two minutes she addressed the lack of representation of women of color in media, acknowledged and thanked fellow black actresses and showrunners, and quoted Harriet Tubman. Viola Davis took that moment and made it about a people rather than just one person. A group of people, women of color, who are often underrepresented and misrepresented in mainstream media. Representation matters. Diversity isn’t the wise old black man with more quotes than a Kendrick Lamar parody Twitter account, or the sassy sidekick who’s only around for a quarter of the episode. Diversity isn’t the only characters of color being drug dealers and prisoners. How can women of color get their way in mainstream media?
“In our current society, popular media is considered mainstream or regular media. When the majority is made up of a “minority group”, it is seen as abnormal and is categorized into another genre of media that is not as relevant as other forms of mainstream media, which are predominately white. When an art form is created or originated by a “minority” group, it is not seen as “regular”, therefore it is not considered mainstream.”
I wrote that in 2011 during my freshmen year of college for a term paper on representation in mainstream media. At the time, I felt the reason why women of color were rarely portrayed on primetime television was because producers, directors, and writers did not see the importance and relevance of telling the stories of women of color. This was before Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Empire, Orange is the New Black, Power, Being Mary Jane, Minority Report, Jane the Virgin, and other shows that include a racially diverse cast where lead actors were women of color. I look back at that now and see that in the last four years, television has transformed where the premise of many of these shows challenged the racial stereotypes we often see on television. Women of color are not just minor characters; our stories are not abnormal.
In her acceptance speech, Viola said,
“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. 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.”
Viola highlights the importance of having not only women of color on screen, but most importantly behind the camera, writing and directing stories. Representation is crucial behind and in front of the camera. Who better to write about women of color than women of color?
Viola Davis got her way by working her hardest for decades. Viola got her way by standing on stage and using that powerful moment to talk about a group of people who have been ignored and misrepresented for years. Ms. Davis’ speech reminds us that there is still much work to be done, but women of color will get away with getting it done our way.
“I’m a black woman who is from Central Falls, Rhode Island. I’m dark skinned. I’m quirky. I’m shy. I’m strong. I’m guarded. I’m weak at times. I’m sensual. I’m not overtly sexual. I am so many things in so many ways and I will never see myself on screen. And the reason I will never see myself up on screen is because that does not translate with being black.” -Viola Davis
NOTE: This piece was written as a guest blog for Sorry 4 The Blog, a Rhode Island based community blog where writers cover the latest in current events, sports, music, celebrity news, fashion, and more! Check out Sorry 4 The Blog here: http://sorry4theblog.com