Black Actresses on Primetime Should Be the Norm

Photo by ABC (2), Netflix
Were Regina King, Viola Davis, and Uzo Aduba's Emmy victories a precursor to what the future should look like for Black women on TV, or will the roles disappear again?

Black girl magic was on full display during the 2015 Emmy Awards.

At what’s being helmed as the most diverse Emmy Awards to date, Regina King (American Crime), Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black) and Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder) won big while several more Black women were nominated. Davis made history as the first Black woman to win for lead actress in a drama series. Her powerful speech—the best of the night—finally addressed the elephant in the room. Race. Because after all, it’s preposterous that it took 66 years for a Black actress to win in this category.

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In her white and silver Carmen Marc Valvo gown, Davis evoked freedom fighter Harriet Tubman as she began her speech.

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 line is Hollywood. Black actors still can’t seem to get there no-how. Holding back tears during Davis’s poignant speech became impossible when she shouted out her fellow Black actresses: Taraji P. Henson, Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union and Nicole Beharie. She didn’t have to include them in her historic moment; but she did so knowing they share the unfortunate bond of having trouble getting over that line.

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Sunday’s award show was hopefully a glimpse at the changing reality happening in primetime TV for Black women. Black actresses are steadily breaking glass ceilings that network execs have no choice but to pay attention to. Thanks to Shonda Rhimes writing characters that allow Black women to be fully human and complicated, there’s been a resurgence of Black actresses on primetime. Scandal is a hit with Washington as lead, Tracee Ellis Ross shines in black-ish, Henson steals the show in Empire, King acts her face off in American Crime and Meagan Good showcases her chops as a detective in Minority Report. And this doesn’t include the Black actresses starring in cable and Netflix original series. By all accounts it looks like Hollywood is waking up.

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Hollywood is a fickle industry, one that is constantly in a state of ebb and flow. The 90s were a golden era for Black television and films. Finding diverse Black women on primetime in shows like Martin and Living Single and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were the norm. But a dry spell was right around the corner in the early 2000s with almost no Black characters or shows in primetime. Although Mara Brock Akil’s hit series, Girlfriends, was not a primetime show, it left a major void when it abruptly ended in 2008. It’s just within the last couple of years we’ve begun to see the tide rising again.

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Most of us went into this week holding on to Davis’s victory as if it were our own. But we can’t help to think out loud if the Emmy’s was the precursor to what the future for Black women in TV should look like permanently, or if the roles for Black women will disappear again.

If all was right in the world the answer to that pesky thought would be an enthusiastic “Yes! Things are changing forever!” It would mean that the 13.7% of TV show writers that are minorities will significantly increase. It would mean that the women of color in writer’s rooms weren’t decreasing like they did this year but instead rising. It would mean that there is room for more Shondas to own a night on network TV. It would mean that more Violas are nominated and winning the prestigious acting awards and not becoming firsts in the 21st century. It would mean that more Debbie Allens were behind the camera directing all shows, not just ones created by Black women.

Live from the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards

That is what Sunday night’s Emmy Awards would mean if Hollywood was truly committed to being progressive. But history has shown that Hollywood rarely sticks to the winning script. While we’re waiting on the needle to keep moving forward, we’re going to celebrate the Black actresses slaying on primetime. And send up a tiny prayer to the TV gods that the moment is here to stay. 

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