On Sunday night (September 20), Viola Davis made history when she became the first black woman to win an Emmy award for best lead actress in a drama, thanks to her dynamic performance as Professor Annalise Keating on "How to Get Away With Murder." Her speech began with a quote from Harriet Tubman, and ended with Davis thanking TV actresses of color like Gabrielle Union, Nicole Beharie, Taraji P. Henson, and Kerry Washington for "taking us over the line"; the line that "separates women of color from anyone else."
It was a powerful, moving moment, and one that certainly garnered a whole lot of attention from fans and media alike. The overwhelming majority of this attention has been positive, but for every Oprah and Patricia Arquette and Idris Elba lauding Davis' words, you have someone like soap actress Nancy Lee Grahn, who spent her evening defending her suggestion that Davis' win was less-than-extraordinary, since "acting awards don't fix racial injustice" because actors are "irrelevant." Here's why Grahn is wrong:
Grahn is wrong because, in the year 2015, a website like "Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color" is able to exist, highlighting the astounding lack of roles of substance for people of color. Grahn is wrong because at every single level in the TV-making process, from the studio execs who make the decisions, to the showrunners, to the directors, to the writers, to the actors themselves -- roughly 40 percent of television characters are female, though 78 percent of those females are also white -- people who are white and male (and under 40 years old, when it comes to the actresses) still have an astounding hold over the entire industry.
She's wrong because just this past winter, the American Civil Liberties Union opened up an investigation into Hollywood's hiring practices, calling its shut-out of female directors -- and even bigger shutout of female directors of color, all of whom tend to hire more women who look like them in front of the camera -- an actual crime, and because the #Oscars[were]SoWhite that they inspired an enduring, months-long hashtag pointing how rarely actors of color are recognized for their achievements.
Basically, no matter what some people might say about acting awards being unimportant in the grand scheme of life, for the people of color who are watching these stories and -- god forbid -- attempting to break into the industry themselves, having a face and a story that feels familiar and accessible to them is anything but. And having these faces and stories win actual awards is a pretty big freaking deal.
"In an America that’s increasingly multi-culture and increasingly diverse, it’s important that all of our stories be out there in the culture," "Dear White People" director Justin Simien told MTV News this past February. "It’s really important to see yourself in the culture somewhere. It lets you know that you belong.”
"Representation matters because, no matter who we are, we want to see ourselves reflected in the media that we support," #OscarsSoWhite hashtag creator April Reign told MTV News, via email, on Monday morning. "It is important that kids of color know that dark skinned, natural-haired artists such as Viola Davis can literally be at the top of their craft and be recognized for the work they have done so well... Everyone should have an opportunity to have their story told from their point of view. This is why it is crucial that there are people of color in the boardrooms green lighting projects, casting directors of color, producers of color, and so on. This country has a rich and complex history, and all of its stories should be told by those who have experienced them."
Also, regarding accusations that acting awards don't really matter, Reign told MTV News earlier this year that people with Emmy/Oscar/Grammy/etc. wins under their belt tend to move towards the front of the line for later projects, and can even demand more money during salary negotiations. Plus, "it’s true in any profession" that "you want to be recognized for your work."
Of course, at the end of the day, Davis winning an Emmy is not going to solve the myriad of problems when it comes to diversity on television. But it's a huge step, and as SAG-AFTRA’s National Director of EEO and Diversity Adam Moore told MTV News earlier this year, the more you as a viewer tune in to shows like "How to Get Away With Murder," "Scandal," "Black-ish," "Orange is the New Black," and even stuff like "The Flash" and "Supergirl" -- both of which cast black actors in iconic roles that, historically, have always been white -- the more you'll force studio execs to reverse their long-withheld hiring biases against women of color.
“People are starting to slowly but surely recognize that they’re limiting themselves by telling the same stories,” Moore said. “In the potential pool of great stories that no one has seen before that people are hungry for… audiences are showing quite clearly, if you don’t do that for us, we will go somewhere else to find it. We’ll go watch ‘Transparent’ because no one else is going to do that. We’ll go watch ‘Orange is the New Black,’ because nobody else is doing that.”
"To support women of color on screen, viewers must support their projects," Reign added. "Watch your favorite shows that star actresses of color. Go see the movies that provide nuance and depth in the characters of color. Demand more. I have no doubt that the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag I created helped to increase the dialogue about inclusion in Hollywood. But it cannot stop there. We must see actionable change to ensure that our stories are told. We as consumers must demand what we want to see and then support those projects with our voices and our dollars."