Viola Davis, Priyanka Chopra and Harriet Tubman: Erasing the Line

Sunday’s Primetime Emmy Awards further broke down the color barrier in television

History was made Sunday night at the Primetime Emmy Awards, when Viola Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy for a lead role in a television drama. “It’s 2015!” you say. “How could it have taken this long?” you ask. Your guess is as good as mine.

Davis has spoken out before about the lack of television and film roles for women of color, most notably in her SAG Awards acceptance speech earlier this year. She won that award and the Emmy for her portrayal of law professor Annalise Keating on the ABC series How To Get Away With Murder.

Davis, 50, has been acting professionally for more than two decades and began her acceptance speech with a quote from Harriet Tubman:

“In my mind, I see a line,” she said. “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.”

She went on to tell the crowd that “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.”

Taraji P. Henson (Empire), who lost to Davis, was the first to hug her when her name was announced. As Davis spoke, Henson stood at her seat resolute, with a look of stern solidarity on her face. Davis’s ABC network and Shondaland buddy Kerry Washington (Scandal), who was nominated and lost in this category in 2013 and 2014, smiled and nodded through tears, her hands clasped in front of her face.

Davis’s win, and this year’s Emmy Awards in general, were groundbreaking. With the volume of quality content available in this, the age of “peak TV,” each acting category was stretched to include six, seven, or even eight nominees. There were more faces of color on the list than there ever have been — 19 out of 98 total acting nominations. This equates to 19 percent, which isn’t too great. I refer you to the questions in the opening paragraph and again say: I don’t know. But progress is progress, no matter how incremental.

Thirty-four year old breakout star Uzo Aduba took home her second Emmy for her portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Orange Is The New Black. This fall, Aduba, a classically trained vocalist, will star as Glinda the Good in NBC’s live televised musical The Wiz Live! Perhaps she, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, Amber Riley, David Alan Grier, Ne-Yo, Common and the rest of the talented black cast can save the usual trainwreck that is the NBC live musical from a third year of catastrophe.

Regina King, 44, began her acting career at the age of 14 as Brenda on the NBC sitcom 227 (1985-1990). The series, about a group of women living in a predominantly black apartment building in Washington, D.C., was the one of the highest rated black sitcoms of its time, second only to The Cosby Show. King went on to roles on 24 and Southland, and lately, she’s been all over the small screen, appearing on Shameless, The Boondocks, The Strain, The Big Bang Theory and The Leftovers — all within the last 18 months. Sunday night, she won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie, for her role on ABC’s American Crime.

It felt like a watershed moment for those of calling for more diversity in Hollywood, but there is still quite a bit of work to do. This fall, among 34 new series highlighted in TV Guide’s fall preview only two include women of color in a central, starring role. There are several diverse ensemble casts (Heroes Reborn, Chicago Med, Scream Queens, Truth Be Told, Wrecked), but most of the opportunity to shine (or win an Emmy) is still found on #TGIT.

Minority Report premiered Monday on Fox, with Meagan Good (Deception, Californication) starring as Detective Lara Vega, a no-nonsense cop fighting crime with the help of a new batch of pre-cogs — Stark Sands, Nick Zano, and Laura Regan — 11 years after the events of the Tom Cruise film of the same name. Sadly, it launched with a resounding “meh” from critics. The Boston Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer said Good was “convincing and able,” as well as “terrific.” But to no surprise, three separate critics lamented the weak material she was forced to work with.

Also premiering this week is ABC’s stylish, sexy international thriller Quantico. The drama will follow a cohort of young FBI recruits as they navigate their training and an international political conspiracy. Forbes has dubbed the seriesHow To Get Away With Murder meets global terrorism.” Four of its primary characters are played by highly talented women of color: Bollywood darling Priyanka Chopra, Aunjanue Ellis (The Book of Negroes), Lebanon’s Yasmine Al Massri (Crossbones), and Havana native Anabelle Acosta (Ballers).

If there is any show this fall that has a chance to move the needle a little further in the fight to erase Harriet Tubman’s line, it’s Quantico. Hopefully this time next year, the line will be a bit more faded, and black women on stage at the Emmy’s won’t feel quite so revolutionary.

Shonda Rhimes’ #TGIT lineup (How To Get Away With Murder, Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy) returns this Thursday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Quantico premieres Sunday, Sept. 27, at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Minority Report airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox (after Gotham).

Header photo provided by Gage Skidmore via flickr
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