“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.”
Those inimitable words of Viola Davis, freely and poetically delivered as she claimed her Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama—the first for Black woman in the ceremony’s 67-year history—eerily mirrored those of Isabel Sanford on the same platform more than 34 years ago. Sanford, better known to audiences as the loving-to-a-fault Louise from the hit ‘70s comedy The Jeffersons, first broke the lead actress color line in 1981 but within a different category—comedy. She began addressing the audience with two simple words that said it all: “At last.”
Her “thank yous” to her cast, crew, family, and friends remained general, but she noted that she would only name two specific names to direct special thanks. The first one went to God, a perennial “thank you” favorite for award winners—or, if you’re Jill Soloway winning this year for Transparent, the Goddess. But the second name was Norman Lear, “the man who hired me,” Sanford mentioned, a white man who wrote or produced shows such as All in the Family, Good Times, The Facts of Life, and 227—shows that either featured leading Black cast members or made earnest efforts to address matters of racism in America, no small feat for the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
Decades later, Davis expressed her gratitude in a similar, yet pointed way, empowered and buttressed by the many black actors and industry insiders who came before. Many of them made sacrifices—including reserving what surely would’ve been public, stern words for their white peers—so that those who came after them wouldn’t have to. Yet her words strike a similar chord to Sanford’s all the same: The only way we can celebrate actresses of color at awards ceremonies is to ensure they have equal opportunities to land roles in front of the camera and shape the narrative storytelling behind the camera.
Yet even with Sanford’s nudge on the issue, years before a Shonda Rhimes would become the preeminent showrunner at a network like ABC, here we are, in 2015, having celebrated another “black first” win at the Emmys. Indeed, Davis’s triumph is a cause célèbre, yet this moment was long overdue—and speaks the persistent issue of inclusion both at awards shows and in the entertainment industry at large.
For black actresses, Davis broke the last color line in the Emmy’s four primetime categories for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress—in a drama or in a comedy. On the comedy side, both actress categories respectively have only been won by one black actress in their history. Aside from Sanford’s feat, 227 star and Twitter favorite Jackée Harry won best supporting comedy actress in 1987 for her portrayal of Sandra Clark. (Notably, Harry’s 227 co-star Regina King, a child star in the ‘80s, received her first Emmy Sunday night for American Crime, one of three #BlackGirlsWinning that night.)
If inclusion, diversity, and equity truly mattered to the people greenlighting TV and film projects, we would have celebrated our last “black first” awards wins a long time ago.
But the first black actress to win in any acting category at the Primetime Emmys came in 1970, when the prize for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama was awarded to Gail Fisher for her role as widowed secretary Peggy Fair on the detective show Mannix. Alfre Woodard eventually triumphed in the same category a little over a decade later, winning in 1984 for her three-episode role as Doris Robson in the police drama Hill Street Blues. On Sunday night, Orange Is the New Black star Uzo Aduba became the first performer since Ed Asner to win for the same role in both the comedy and drama acting categories. And as for Fisher, she went on to become the first black woman to win a Golden Globe, netting two statuettes for the same performance, which was one of the first major roles for a black actress on TV.
But what a difference 45 years makes. Davis won for playing a complex character in How to Get Away With Murder professor Annalise Keating—even if she was once derided as “less classically beautiful.” It’s a role that, had it existed at the time, someone like Fisher could’ve very well taken on, but black actresses had limited options, and the roles written with them in mind often reflected how white America viewed their place in society.
Being employed and working hard as a secretary or a janitor (or even as a scrap collector and entrepreneur such as Fred Sanford in Sanford and Son) shouldn’t be looked down upon—because it’s honest work. Yet when the available roles limit the opportunities for black people and people of color, it’s a testament to a limited imagination, one where marginalized people remain stuck at the same station in life, with no hope of moving forward through their perseverance and dedication.
In that sense, a Louise Jefferson role—the one that netted the second Emmy for a black actress—was something of a step forward. She played the knowing wife of a black dry cleaning businessman—both of them “movin’ on up” to a deluxe apartment in the sky. George Jefferson had his own sensibilities about race as a successful man, the son of a sharecropper, undoubtedly affected by the systemic injustice endured by his family for generations. Even if black people didn’t live in a reality like the Jeffersons reality in the 1970s, the theme song and the storylines—which included an interracial couple, and revolving door of white acquaintances—signaled an air of aspiration.
But those programs with black-led casts, among others on major networks and cable, quickly vanished, with no discernable replacements in sight.
And that’s the show Sanford was part of, a role for which she won the gold and one that helped break barriers for black actresses to come—except for that institutional racism problem in Hollywood. It’s a problem that reared its ugly head in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when an industry-wide drought began for black actors. Many of the shows what’s now known as the CW once featured shows such as The Parkers, Girlfriends, and One on One. But those programs, among others on major networks and cable, quickly vanished, with no discernible replacements in sight.
Only now, in the last few years, has the situation started improving. And it’s because people over the years like Sanford, Davis, Rhimes, Halle Berry, and many other industry stalwarts—the list is endless—have used their success and their own platforms to rally for inclusion and equity.
The entertainment industry is desperately trying keep up with the times, even if it feels like they’re always a decade or two behind the curve—at least in most respects. What explains the lag is attitudes like that of Matt Damon, an actor and Academy Award-winning screenwriter who recently entered troublesome territory for his remarks about hiring diversity. His bold assertion on Project Greenlight, in response to constructive feedback from Effie Brown, an experienced Black producer: It’s only about the roles cast, not who works behind the camera.
In reality, as Brown deftly noted, it’s about both. And even if we’re only focusing on the roles available, the reality is, as Davis pointed out, that they’re simply not what they used to be—or even can possibly be—for women of color. Even when roles were more readily available in the ’80s and ’90s, black women largely got shut out of awards, even though many of the performances were iconic. The Cosby Show’s Phylicia Rashad, Gimme a Break’s Nell Carter, Fame’s Debbie Allen, and many others all went home empty-handed. The vast majority of nominations for actresses at the Emmys in the last 15 years have been almost exclusively white women.
If inclusion and equity truly mattered to the people greenlighting TV shows—and to industry organizations such as the Television Academy—we would have celebrated our last “black first” awards wins a long time ago.
Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice. Follow Derrick on Twitter: @DerrickClifton.
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