Last night Viola Davis exploded the internet.
By now, many have seen or at least heard of her powerful moment of zen
(word to Jon Stewart) that took place on the stage of the Microsoft Theater
– formerly The Nokia for you Hollywood nostalgics out there.
In a cyber culture that is constantly bombarded with the Kardashians self-pimping exploits, Viola Davis focused our attention on something of significance.
She didn’t break the internet.
For a brief moment, she fixed it.
Viola Davis won an Emmy for her widely lauded work on the ABC hit drama which was created by Peter Norwalk and backed by the television powerhouse, Shonda Rhimes. When Davis’ name was called, she was clearly both in shock yet very aware of the moment that was upon her. Looking exquisite in her white dress with black leaf accents, tapered to perfection around her skin delicious umber brown, she grounded her feet, elevated her heart and delivered a speech that will not be soon forgotten.
“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.
That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s.”
Like millions, I was very happy that this incredibly gifted actress was being acknowledged on a national platform for the brilliant execution of her craft. Like millions, I was very proud that such a deserving woman was to be the face of history, as the first Black woman to win an Emmy for a leading in a drama series in the 67 year history of the award show. But I also couldn’t help but think of a conversation that took place on PBS just a few years ago.
While on a press tour promoting the 2011 film “The Help”, written and directed by Tate Taylor, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer stopped by The Tavis Smiley show. Within their conversation, Tavis raised a point of that has been the center of debate in the entertainment business for years; the lack of character diversity for Black artists in green-lit Hollywood films and television projects.
Anyone who has watched a Tavis Smiley interview knows that even when he presents a contrary viewpoint, it is never nasty or adversarial. In fact, one of the many things that I admire most about the man is the incredible humility he shows. He often casts himself as the little guy in the room, often deferring to the intellect and talents of his guests. He handles those with whom he fiercely disagrees with arresting patience and poise where as he could easily dominate his conversations with his sharp wit and intellectual confidence (look no further than his exchange with Ann Coulter if you want to see the epitome of mercy in action).
Nevertheless, when the questions of roles, race and responsibility that Tavis asked of Octavia and Viola made their way to the airwaves, they were quickly pulled into an internet vacuum of “he must be a hater”.
Ms. Davis, while agreeing with him that there is a lack of diversity in Hollywood, levied similar accusations of Black, self-righteous obstructionism at Smiley.
“That mindset that you have, that a lot of African Americans have is destroying the Black artist”. She went on to criticize those who look for a plurality of opportunities by saying “ we, as African American artists are more concerned with image and message and not execution”.
Shocked at her assertion that he was a destroyer of sorts, Tavis pushed back. I won’t use this entry as a transcript of their conversation but please do yourself a favor and click here to watch the interview on PBS. It is a riveting exchange that is loaded with 24 minutes worth of loving and enlightening nuggets of wisdom.
Speaking with great eloquence and passion, Ms. Davis would go on to make the point (a misguided point, in my opinion) that Black actors aren’t politicians. I, like Tavis was disappointed but I was not surprised.
I completely understood her defiance and rejection of the cloud of color consciousness that hovered overtop her movie’s Oscar run. To have to always feel the weight of an entire people on your shoulders can be emotionally exhausting. Her reaction was a human impulse, not an immoral one.
African Americans are held to a responsibility and a standard that no other demographic is held to and after years of bigotry, fighting, auditioning, rejection and socio-political conversations, the burden can be fatiguing. Some call it unfair.
Maybe it is.
But remember that the journey of African Americans in this country is unlike any other group in this country. With such a unique journey that has come with it’s own share of prosperity and plight, it is our collective responsibility to think of the advancement of the whole while simultaneously focused on our own personal ambitions.
I disagreed with portions of her response on the Tavis Smiley show because while stories like the ones told in “The Help” are absolutely necessary and no less entertaining, it is no secret that where African Americans are concerned, there remains a paucity of character types and opportunities for ethnic minorities in Hollywood.
However, last night I Ms. Davis didn’t have to fight or feel defensive or anything. She could just be. And what she chose to be was a voice of love and truth. Last night’s Emmy speech was so monumental for me not only because of the passion, beauty and command with which Ms. Davis spoke with, but also because in less than 2 minutes she wove a beautiful tapestry of emotions, dealing with her appreciation of just how far we’ve come and her displeasure with how much further we have to go.
She acknowledged her creative contemporaries and the power players who have come before before her that helped make her win a possibility. In doing this, she affirmed the power and necessity of African Americans in positions of influence to be mindful of their responsibility to something much larger than their own financial, artistic or political comfort zones.
She also laid a powerful indictment at the feet of the entertainment industry, calling to task a dated and exclusive business model that lacks the courage to break outside of the confines of traditional casting ideas.
The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity
I can’t think of anyone more appropriate to address this than an uber talented, well studied, hard working, beautiful Black woman who plays an intelligent and layered law professor of middle age who is the object of sexual desire on network television; a spot that is typically reserved for established, white house-hold names and younger, pouty lipped size 2s.
Last night, after all of the blinding camera lights, endless cell phone ringing for comment and congratulations and after her cheeks finally got a much deserved break following a 3 hour assault of Hollywood kisses; some genuine, some not – I imagine that Viola Davis and her husband returned home and stared at the moon and into each others eyes in cycles of loving pride, shock and exhaustion. I also imagine that somewhere, Tavis Smiley was beaming with pride for Viola being acknowledged for her creative brilliance. I imagine that in between going over notes for his next show, text messages from friends while nursing a cold cup of coffee, that he took a deep sigh and felt vindicated, even if briefly in the point that he had attempted to make years ago on his program. That as this year’s best lead in actress in a drama put it
“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there”