The road actresses of color have had to travel to find success on television has been a long and desolate one since Diahann Carroll began playing a nurse named Julia Baker in 1968. In fact, for 40-odd years, it wasn’t really a road so much as a narrow, washed-out, rubble-laden path that more often than not, didn’t seem to be leading anywhere spectacular.
And then Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington happened, and that path began to widen. Sunday, as Viola Davis became the first black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her work portraying law professor Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away With Murder,” it finally began to resemble something that wouldn’t require indestructible spiritual mettle and patience of biblical proportions.
When Washington began her tenure as Olivia Pope on “Scandal,” it broke an unbelievable drought. Not since Carroll led “Julia” had a black actress been entrusted with a lead role in a network drama. The runaway success of “Scandal” proved black women could lead immensely popular shows. Outsize ratings for BET’s “Being Mary Jane” illustrated that black women desperately wished to see themselves on television playing characters who were interesting and multi-faceted and flawed.
When enthusiasm for Shondaland reached fever pitch and ABC announced that “Scandal” would be followed by “How to Get Away With Murder,” it became clear that this wasn’t a fluke.
“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,” Davis said as she accepted the award on Sunday night.
An Emmy win solidifies the notion that putting black women on television isn’t just a trend that will burn out when it loses its novelty, but a critical necessity. Davis made that clear, name-checking the rest of the members of television’s sisterhood of black groundbreakers: “Empire’s” Taraji P. Henson, Nicole Beharie of “Sleepy Hollow,” Meagan Good of “Minority Report,” “Scandal’s” Washington, Halle Berry of “Extant,” and “Being Mary Jane’s” Gabrielle Union.
“Thank you for taking us over that line,” Davis said, addressing her fellow actresses of color specifically. “Thank you to the television academy. Thank you.”
The historical import of wins for Davis and Regina King, who won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for “American Crime,” was not lost. As Davis began making her way to the stage, she grabbed fellow drama nominee Henson in an emotional embrace, and Henson remained standing as Davis spoke. When King won, Henson couldn’t contain herself, and yelped with excitement. When Davis finished, the crowd at Microsoft Theater rose to give her a standing ovation. Even Uzo Aduba, who could already call herself a winner after netting a Creative Arts Emmy last year for playing Suzanne in “Orange is the New Black,” was overcome with emotion as she accepted her first primetime Emmy for the same role. Aduba went from being a guest star to a series regular on the show, hence the change.
“I appreciate you for putting belief back in my heart,” Aduba said directly to “Orange” showrunner Jenji Kohan in her acceptance speech. “… I love you most because you let me be me.”
Davis began her speech by quoting another black female trailbazer, 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,'” Davis said. “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.”
In a larger sense, 2015 has felt like the year of #BlackGirlMagic — even when they lose, as Serena Williams did in her quest for a calendar-year Grand Slam at this year’s U.S. Open — black women seem to be winning. Vogue magazine followed its decision to place Beyoncé on the cover of its September issue by making Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o the face of its October one. For once, readers could approach a newstand in September and see a bevy of black female faces staring back at them: Queen Latifah on the cover of Variety, Beyoncé on Vogue, Washington on the cover of Self, Ciara on the cover of Shape, Misty Copeland covering Essence, Williams on the cover of New York magazine, Amandla Stenberg on the cover of Dazed and Willow Smith on i-D. What’s more, the reflections of black beauty represented were themselves diverse: hair both natural and straight, bodies big and small, skin tones dark and light. It was a revelation.
And after decades of invisibility, of black women being squirreled away in ancillary, less than desirable roles, Davis’s win serves as a high point in a year of finallys. As in finally, people are beginning to wake up and see what black women themselves have always known: that black girls are indeed, magic.