Black History Month: Viola Davis

[Toni-Ann Robertson | Contributing Writer]

Some say, rather convincingly, that as a society we have triumphed in the fight against racism. They say that segregation is non-existent in schools and especially on buses. Most consider the United States of America to be a ‘melting pot’: a nation in which there is no ‘you and I’. Instead Americans refer to ‘us’ – a harmonious whole.

If this is to be true, why is there still such racial division evident in Hollywood? For example, in the roles created for black actors and actresses opposed to those created for their white counterparts. The United States of America is the biggest contributor to the entertainment industry. As such, they become the template from which other countries model their treatment of characters and storyline, and hence the deployment of actors and actresses. Viola Davis for example, in 2015 became the first African-American female actress to win the Emmy Award for best actress in a drama series, for her role as Professor Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder.

Her speech lifted a veil, casting light on what it means to be a black actor in Hollywood:

“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 was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: 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. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black. And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union: Thank you for taking us over that line. Thank you to the Television Academy. Thank you.”

Davis – through her quotation of Harriet Tubman in the 1800s – makes the point that actually, little has changed within film industry in regards to their maltreatment of black people. There still exists a ‘line’, a division that only few black actors or actresses can cross. Hence, through the mention of those who have aided her in accomplishing her award, she praises those have chosen to ignore this line.

One could ask does film and television merely mirror the society we live in? If this is true, it is up to the future writers, directors, and producers to change the entertainment industry and create roles which are universal.

As the leaders of tomorrow, we have to crave unity so as to create change and ensure that the future does not continue to be a struggle for black people. The line must be erased, totally and permanently.

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Black History Month: Viola Davis