Viola Davis‘ graceful acceptance speech at the 2015 Emmy Awards was a powerful moment for Black women in Hollywood.
“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said to a round of applause while accepting her historic award for Best Lead Actress In a Drama Series. The FIRST Black woman to do so in the Emmy’s 67-year history.
For obvious reasons that’s no feat to go unnoticed. Contrary to the opinion of Wendy Williams–who said she was tired of Black “Firsts” and that people should simply be recognized as winners–it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal when a space traditionally and exclusively reserved for the same, white type of woman is finally made available for someone different and equally deserving.
In Hollywood, being a Black woman comes with 50-plus actresses all trying out for the same role because there are so few roles offered to them due to their race, which often “doesn’t fit the part.” That is the reality that brought Davis and her Black thespian contemporaries to tears.
But for those who relish in Davis’ win and believe it will magically open up a wave of studio doors to Black actresses, think again. Though Viola most certainly earned her Emmy statue for her starring role in “How To Get Away With Murder,” one has to digest her win with greater context.
As Davis said in her speech, women of color lack opportunity in Hollywood. Had it not been for industry insiders taking a gamble on Hollywood’s top Black actresses on primetime television, we would not have the diversity we finally see on our TV sets.
But let’s be very clear. It was not white-washed Hollywood that made that happen, it was Black TV and film bigshots like Shonda Rhimes and Lee Daniels who gave Davis, Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) and Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”) their platforms and subsequent Emmy nominations (and now one win). Had Rhimes and Daniels not earned the respect they have in Hollywood, it’s unlikely any other producers or directors would have given Black actresses such a chance. Just imagine how many more decades we would’ve had to wait in order to see the manifestation of Davis’ Emmy win.
The truth is, greater Hollywood doesn’t fully understand or exercise true diversity, particularly behind the scenes than in front of the camera. And judging by Matt Damon‘s recent comment flub on diversity, we clearly have a long way to go in educating white people on the importance of variety in both positions of power and roles.
That’s not to say that some white filmmakers don’t already get it, however, it’s not enough of them. Black Hollywood can’t thrive on the backs of just a handful of filmmakers of color opening doors for their own. Until there are more white Shonda Rhimes and Lee Daniels willing to give Black actors and actresses opportunity, we will always see wins like Davis’ few and far between.
So while we celebrate the greatness of Viola Davis, let us not be fooled.