Monday, November 2, 2015

But why is she the first?

Viola Davis celebrates after becoming the first African American woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama.
Source: Getty Images

Dedicated fans of the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder were left teary-eyed and exhilarated when Viola Davis became the first ever African-American to win the Emmy for best actress in a drama - just ask fellow actresses Kerry Washington (Scandal) and Taraji P. Henson (Empire). 

“The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that simply are not there,” said Davis, in a rousing speech that also quoted Harriet Tubman – the civil rights hero who led hundreds of the enslaved to freedom during the mid-to-late 1800s.

In her acceptance speech, Davis addressed the issue of race and the lack of opportunity that is present in the American media industry.

To look at it from the perspective of film, a study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication found that across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 10.8% of speaking characters are Black, 4.2% are Hispanic, 5% are Asian, and 3.6% are from other, mixed race ethnicities. Just over three-quarters of all speaking characters are White, at 76.3%. The study also found that these trends are relatively stable, as little deviation is observed across the 5-year sample.

While television has become noticeably more diverse in that multiple shows featuring and/or based on People of Colour have become extremely popular – like the above mentioned How to Get Away with Murder, Empire, Scandal, and Fresh Off the Boat – this does not necessarily indicate a more realistic representation of People of Colour in media overall.

The argument is that television presents more opportunity for actors in general, as can be seen in the significant shift many prominent film actors have been making to television – for example, Davis and Washington themselves.

What does it then mean to be a Woman of Colour in America, according to Emmy winner? 

Perhaps her use of the Harriet Tubman quote is most telling. "In my dreams, 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."

By Sayema Wasi