It seems hard to believe that it took over 50 years, but on September 20 Viola Davis became the first black woman to win the Emmy for outstanding actress in a drama.
Davis (50) picked up the gong for her portrayal of Annalise Keating in the acclaimed US television series How To Get away With Murder, and used the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the glaring lack of opportunity for black women on television.
“The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said when accepting the award. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
It was a speech that prompted tears from her fellow African-American nominees Kerry Washington and Taraji P Henson, as well as a wave of support from actors such as Idris Elba, who has complained in the past there is a lack of roles for black actors in United Kingdom television. He tweeted: “Congrats Viola, truly an inspiration to many. Well done, so proud of you.”
In America, black women make up just 2% of the characters on television, and when the drama Scandal debuted in 2012 with Kerry Washington as the lead, she became the first black female protagonist in a network drama in nearly 40 years.
However, this year there were three black actors nominated for the outstanding actress in a drama award at the Emmys, and the best supporting actress in a drama award was also taken home by an African-American actor, Uzo Aduba, for her role in Orange Is the New Black.
The need for equality, opportunity and diversity
If this year’s British awards ceremonies are anything to go by, the tide could also be changing in the UK. The 2015 television Baftas saw Georgina Campbell win best actress, the first mixed-race woman ever to do so.
However, following Davis’s win, Campbell said that as an actor from an ethnic minority “you can find that your avenues are depleted, your opportunities to shine and play fantastic leading parts hindered by the colour of your skin”.
She added: “Viola is correct, ethnic minorities cannot excel in this industry until there is more equality, opportunity and diversity in the casting system. I was shocked to discover I’m the first non-white actress to win best leading actress at the TV Baftas.
“We need more risk taking in casting, more thinking outside the box and more appreciation for talent rather than aesthetics.”
It was a view echoed by Bola Agbaje, an award-winning British-Nigerian playwright who has written screenplays for both film and television, who said the UK was still decades behind the US when it came to developing television programmes that featured black characters in leading, interesting roles.
“I think it’s amazing that Viola Davis has won, but from my perspective, as a creative, I think we are a long way off in the UK to being in the same situation because the roles are just not available here for women of colour,” she said. “That’s not just black women; that’s women of all ethnicities.
She applauded Davis for highlighting how it was opportunity, not talent, that was the fundamental obstacle to diversity on screen.
Actors Viola Davis and Kerry Washington. (Reuters)
Agbaje said: “There’s an assumption that we are just complaining, that people think ‘oh here we go again’, but the key thing that Viola Davies said that really struck home for me was that she talked about opportunity. That is what a lot of our complaints are based around. What we are asking for is to be on the same playing field as everybody else otherwise we will never make any progress in seeing more women, and men, of colour on TV.”
Knocking on those doors
She said that despite her efforts to develop numerous television projects with black women and men in the lead roles for British television, she said they had always been shut down before the scripting stage for being too niche or not suited to mass market television.
“In 2015, it is very dispiriting when you look at what’s on television” she added. “As a black woman in this industry you have to be so strong willed because otherwise you do get to the point where you feel like you might as well quit, because you are trying to progress and there are these gatekeepers that are stopping us from getting there.
“There are black writers in the UK, we do exist and there are so many that I could reel off, but we are just not given the same opportunities as everybody else in everyday life. Diversity is brandished around as this word but the voices are out there, but the gatekeepers of British television are just not knocking on those doors yet.”
Paulette Randall , who was the first black woman to direct a play on the West End and has written for several television shows on both the BBC and Channel 4, said that Davis’s and Campbell’s win filled her with cautious hope.
“I sincerely hope this is a sign that the tide is changing. It’s about the choices that the people at the top make in terms of what ends up on the screen, the stories that people want to tell – it’s as simple as that really.
“There are changes happening but I’ve seen an emergence before when there’s this sudden realisation they should put more people of colour on screen but then that phases just passes, so I’m just hoping and praying that this is not a phase and is something that is part of what we consider to be regular TV.
“I just hope that now we are in 2015 the people in those rooms, making the decisions about what goes on our screens, can think beyond what’s in the mirror.” – (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015