“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” said Viola Davis in her Emmy acceptance speech last month.
Since 1982, five black women have been nominated for best actress in a drama series but Davis is the first to win an Emmy for her lead role on ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” (HTGAWM).
“Many of our artists could win these awards, but the opportunity is lacking for black actors and actresses. We are in some ways being oppressed,” said Kyris Brown, 32, director of International Affairs and Admission at Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana.
In her acceptance speech, Davis quoted Harriet Tubman to speak to the struggles black women face in Hollywood. For the seasoned actress, the lack of diversity in television doesn’t stem from a talent deficit among black women. Instead, a lack of opportunity contributes to the minimal presence and typecast characterizations of black women in Hollywood.
“I was shocked that she even won the award. She was the first black woman to win an Emmy,” said Brown, a resident of Cleveland, Miss. “You almost have the expectation that she will not win. You get used to seeing the same thing.” In her interview with New York Times Magazine before the series premiere of HTGAWM last year, Davis said black women often have to fight for roles in Hollywood, making it necessary they raise awareness about the pervasiveness of stereotypical representations and why some of them agree to these roles. She had also shed light on how doing so negatively affected her career.
Yet, Shonda Rhimes and Pete Norwalk, HTGAWM creator and producer, respectively, reached out to Davis to play Annalise Keating, a defense attorney and law professor, who is complicated and complex, unlike Davis’ previous roles as the mammy in The Help, or the addict mother in Get On Up.
The show is largely built around the murder of Keating’s husband, a white psychology professor. Subplots intertwined with his death emerge throughout the season. For example, we learn that Keating has an affair with a black police officer.
Just two episodes into its second season, the audience sees a more vulnerable Keating. We learn about her past relationships, one of which is with a former girlfriend and colleague. We also see her struggle with her public and private identities, and in this role, Davis portrays more than just a mammy.
But, there is still work to be done.
“Mass media [organizations] are white owned and they are not working to empower us. [T]hey limit our understanding of black culture,” said Brown, a student of black history and culture. “For example, while I am a follower of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his narrative remains dominant, while we are missing stories of Nat Turner and Marcus Garvey in the media. The opportunities are not there because there is lack of control.”
Brown’s point on media ownership is consistent with findings from UCLA’s 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report that ultimately finds that lack of diversity in Hollywood begins with white male gatekeepers. Minorities constitute nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, and remain underrepresented in every sector in Hollywood.
In 2013, white people accounted for 94 percent of media CEOs and/or chairs and 93 percent of senior management.
Television network and studio heads were 96 percent white and 71 percent male in the 2012-2013 television season. Actors of color had just 6.5 percent of the lead roles in broadcast scripted programming in that time frame, according to the University of California Los Angeles’ diversity report.
“White men want to give people a bone, and wipe the stain away. White people love to associate progression with the ‘firsts.’ But, when you look at the data in say, education and earning opportunities, you find that there is not an equal playing field,” said Brown.
While Viola Davis’ award should be celebrated and recognized as a progressive shift in history, there must be conscious and continuous efforts to claim an economic stake in media ownership and production.
“Right now Shonda Rhimes is getting a lot of attention, but I hope she doesn’t hit her peak and plateau,” said Brown. “A lot of black people in positions of power don’t create their own. While I don’t agree with the content Tyler Perry produces, I can appreciate him for creating his own. But, now it’s time for diversity in content.”