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Roundup: Some Of The Best Writing On Viola Davis' Emmy Win

Viola Davis accepts the Emmy for outstanding Best Actress in a Drama series for <em>How to Get Away With Murder</em> at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday in Los Angeles.
Phil McCarten
Invision for the Television Academy
Viola Davis accepts the Emmy for outstanding Best Actress in a Drama series for How to Get Away With Murder at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday in Los Angeles.

Actress Viola Davis took home an Emmy on Sunday night for her role as defense lawyer Annalise Keating on ABC's How to Get Away with Murder. The moment marked the first time in the Emmys' 67-year history that the award for Best Actress in a Drama went to a black woman.

With #OscarsSoWhite overshadowing the Academy Awards in February, and discussions of a race problem plaguing the VMAs last month, major award ceremonies are increasingly under the microscope for their treatment of people of color. Davis' win sparked a wide range of responses, from the "it's about time" variety to a daytime soap star's widely denounced critique of Davis' acceptance speech.

We've pulled together some of the most interesting reactions here.

Megan Garber at The Atlantic points to the deep camaraderie on display Sunday night between actors of color, even those competing for the same award, like Empire's Taraji P. Henson and Davis herself:

[Henson] rose to her feet when no one else did. She made clear that she was rising because Davis's win was, in its way, a win for her, too ... The awards, last night, were about much more than spiky statuettes. They were about acknowledging the systems that make Hollywood run the way it does, that make our entertainment what it is. They were about the simple truth that you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.Last night, Viola Davis made history. That she did so after receiving a standing ovation from her fellow nominee is a reminder of how her win doubles as a win for everyone.

Caroline Framke at Vox contrasts what it might take for a woman of color to receive an Emmy compared with, say, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, two white men who won the Emmy for Writing for a Drama Series (Game of Thrones):

[Davis'] prominent, juicy role on How to Get Away with Murder is still a rare opportunity for actresses of color. Compare Davis's speech to Weiss and Benioff's speech. The disparity is incredible. Where Davis and her peers often have to work harder for less gratifying roles, HBO trusted Benioff and Weiss, novelists who had never run a TV show, with its biggest project in years. The two have certainly risen to the challenge. But it's hugely unlikely they would have gotten a similar chance had they not been white men.

Amid all of the celebration over Davis' historic win, Marc Bain at Quartz points out that Latinos are the most under-represented group on prime-time television, making his case under the headline "Latinos in the U.S. really need a Viola Davis":

Black women most certainly are underrepresented, as are other minorities. Women overall get only 40 percent of speaking roles on all broadcast, cable, and Netflix programs, according to [a recent report] ... But the numbers show that the problem is even more acute when it comes to Latinas , and the Latino population in general ... Clearly the television industry needs more women like Viola Davis in leading roles. But the numbers prove it needs more Latino actors in those roles as well.

Not everyone saw Davis' win as a milestone. Longtime General Hospital actress Nancy Lee Grahn responded to Davis' win with a series of tweets:

"Im a f---king actress for 40 yrs. None of us get respect or opportunity we deserve. Emmys not venue 4 racial opportunity. ALL women belittled.

Try being any woman in TV. Wish she'd brought every woman in the picture. I wish I'd opportunity to play roles she gets.

I think [Viola Davis]'s the bees knees but she's elite of TV performers. Brilliant as she is. She has never been discriminated against."

Predictably, Grahn's tirade sparked heated discussions about racism in the entertainment industry. Yohana Desta at Mashable had this to say:

Grahn's tweets represent the kind of twisted thinking that has kept women of color back for decades ... In saying that she wants equality for "all women," Grahn shows a steep ignorance that assumes women of color have had the same opportunities as white actresses. For Grahn to think that way — and to say that Davis has "never been discriminated against" — is not only disingenuous, but also oblivious to the obstacles actresses like Davis have had to overcome.

It's also ignorant of the smaller struggles women of color face each day — for example, the simple defiance of wearing natural hair, or being deemed "less classically beautiful" by critics who are accustomed to seeing light-skinned faces.

Perhaps the most poignant reaction to the win came from Davis herself. In her acceptance speech, Davis shone a light on those who came before, and those who were never allowed a seat at the table:

"'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 nohow. I can't seem to get over that line.' That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: 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. So here's to all the awesome people...who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.