Viola Davis Smashed History, Broke Barriers, Ruled the Emmys

The actor, who became the first black woman to win in her category, opened her acceptance speech with a passage from Harriet Tubman.
Viola Davis at the Emmys. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Sep 20, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Viola Davis, Regina King, Uzo Aduba. The respective stars of How to Get Away With Murder, American Crime, and Orange Is the New Black all took home Emmys on Sunday night in a ceremony that highlighted the work of women of color.

Davis made history when she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama. The significance of the achievement was not lost on the How to Get Away With Murder star, who invoked Harriet Tubman in the opening lines of her acceptance speech, using Tubman’s words as a metaphor to talk about the barriers facing women of color in modern-day Hollywood.

“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, quoting the abolitionist leader circa the mid-1800s.

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“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” Davis went on to thank Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder creator Shonda Rhimes, whom she said redefined what it means to be beautiful, sexy, and black. She also gave a shout-out to Scandal star Kerry Washington and Empire lead Taraji P. Henson: “Thank you for taking us over that line.”

Henson was also nominated for outstanding lead actress in a drama, marking the first time two black women have been nominated in this same category at the same time. Also during the ceremony, King took home a statuette for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series or movie, and Aduba garnered the award for best supporting actress in a drama series.

Despite a remarkably diverse Emmys season, women of color are still vastly underrepresented on television. During the 2014–15 season, just 15 percent of female characters on broadcast network TV shows were African American, compared with 77 percent of female characters that were white, according to a recent analysis by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television.

The day before the Emmys, Davis gave a speech at a National Women’s History Museum banquet in which she drove home the need for more diversity in television. While acting isn't rocket science, “I do feel that it’s an important art form,” she said. “It is my mission in life to make women of color a part of the narrative in our business.”