“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” [Viola Davis]
Viola Davis won the Emmy this week for Lead Actress in a Drama Series for playing Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. For a graduate of Juilliard, winning an acting award is not surprising. However, Davis’ distinction is remarkable because she is the First African-American Woman to win an Emmy as a Lead Actress. Davis reminds us that she is also “of a certain age and a certain hue,” making her award even more exceptional.
Juilliard is not an opportunity one might have expected for Viola Davisd. Born on a former plantation in South Carolina, Davis’ father was a horse groomer and trainer and her mother a maid and factory worker. She was raised in Rhode Island, a minority in her community, taunted with racist insults. Poverty was constant. She stole and scavenged food when she was hungry, tied her braids with the clips from loaves of bread, and moisturized with lard.
Davis has a long list of credits in film, television and theatre. When she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the movie Doubt, she demonstrated the depth of her talent; the Oscar was awarded for a total of nine minutes of screen time. She has also won two Tony awards, one as Best Featured Actress in a play and one as Best Actress in a play. For the most part, however, she has played supporting, not starring roles, from a crack-addicted mother to a rape counselor. Her dedication to the craft, however, is evident. “Even when I get the fried-chicken special of the day,” she says, referring to her smaller roles, “I have to dig into it like it’s filet mignon.”
When Shonda Rimes was ready to cast Annalise Keating for “ How to Get Away with Murder” her first choice was Viola Davis. An absorbing story for audience members, with its twists and turns, passion and complexity, the most memorable scene for many of us “of a certain age” is the one where we watch this powerful, calculating woman remove her makeup and wig. She tells it like it is, in her acting and when she receives awards. Not surprising for a woman whose mother was also a civil rights activist.