Viola Davis Emmy Win: Why It is So Much Bigger Than Her…

Watching Viola Davis take home the Emmy for best lead actress in a drama series for “How to Get Away with Murder” was divine intervention.  My Sunday did not start off so well. I received news that my grandfather is in critical condition in the hospital and on top of that, I have been stressed out about money, work and money (did I already write money?).  Today, all I kept thinking was, “How did I get here? This was not the plan.”  However, listening to Davis’ gracious and unapologetic speech was a serious adrenaline rush and a reminder of why I was doing all of this.

Since I first stepped on stage at five years old, there were two things I knew I wanted to do more than anything – write and perform. From competing and winning state championships to performing in regional plays, acting is something I’ve always enjoyed.  However, something happened along the way.  As I got older, I noticed that most of the actresses I was inspired by did not look like me.  As a child, of course, this did not matter.  I thought watching Emma Thompson in “Sense and Sensibility”, Barbara Streisand in “The Way We Were”, Meryl Streep in “Kramer vs. Kramer” or Diane Keaton in “The Godfather II” and saying, “I can do that,” meant that it was a done deal.

Dramatic acting has always been my beat.  It is how I initially made a name for myself.  However, it didn’t dawn on me, until I was a teenager, that trying to further that path would be an uphill battle with rules laid in place completely outside of my control or influence.  When researching how to forge an acting career in Hollywood, article after article directly or implicitly stated that parts for brown girls were extremely scarce and competitive.  If you didn’t have the advantage of nepotism or being born in the right city at the right time – you were SOL.  One book made it very clear, “Blacks don’t sell well overseas.”  The mogul’s words were written so casually, one would think he just asked someone for the time.  That was a serious blow to my already fragile confidence at that time.  Based on everything I had read up until that point, there was no reason for me to even try and I believed it.

So I concocted a master plan – go to film school and learn how to create the movies I wanted to star in.  That has been my strategy for over a decade now and it is has had mixed results.  Some of that has to do with my demographics and choices, but just as much of it was the residue of a greater problem in the industry.  As Viola Davis beautifully stated in her Emmy acceptance speech, “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.” Or more bluntly put – You cannot be cast for parts that were not written for you in an industry who sees you as “black” first, “unmarketable” second and an “actor” third.

Are the times changing?  It seems so.  With Shonda Rhimes spear-heading a diversity and women’s cinema movement ninja style, it seems that Hollywood is finally waking up to what audiences of color have known and shown for decades – we are here.  We want to see images that represent us, conceived and controlled by people who look like us.  Even more encouraging, in the online world (my current territory), trailblazers like Issa Rae and the founders of “Black and Sexy TV” are recreating what it means to be brown in Hollywood.  The latter even started their own subscription service and although they have development deal with HBO, they aren’t waiting on HBO to give them their break. Sooner or later, the online and offline world will completely fuse and I’ve got a feeling that is what many content creators are betting on (I know, I am).

And it all seems to be happening simultaneously.  So whether that be by design or divine, hopefully, little brown girls looking at Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence, Keira Knightley and Emma Stone will now know that their dreams are possible because they are equally eyeing Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, Lupita Nyong’o, Regina King and Meagan Good for inspiration and proof that it is now a reality.

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