Brow Beat

Viola Davis Made History at the Emmys, but the Best Part Was Her Powerful Speech

Emmys history was made Sunday night when Viola Davis won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away With Murder, becoming the first black woman to do so. That moment, of course was not lost on Davis, who opened her speech by channeling Harriet Tubman:

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. 

Davis continued by saying that the only thing separating women of color from everyone else is “opportunity”—“you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” while also ostensibly taking the chance to poke back at former Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley, by thanking her HTGAWM creative team for “[redefining] what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”* To cap it off, she acknowledged several other black actresses who, like her, have helped bring more diversity to television, including Taraji P. Henson (who was also nominated in the same category), Gabrielle Union, and Kerry Washington.

Her outspokenness shouldn’t come as a surprise: Davis has always been vocal about the limited opportunities she and her fellow colleagues of color have had, and to a great extent still have, as working black actresses. And the moment gave what was a mostly uneventful awards show—we get it, you all love The Daily Show and Olive Kitteridge—a much-needed spark of vigor and topicality.

At the beginning of the show, host Andy Samberg made some self-deprecating jokes, on behalf of the Emmys and the industry at large, about its terrible track record with representing diverse voices. “This is the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history, so congratulations, Hollywood, you did it!” he announced to self-congratulatory applause from the audience. “Yeah. Racism is over! Don’t fact check that.” Of course, this has been the de rigueur of Hollywood for the last couple of years now, the predominantly white industry making fun of its whiteness and exclusivity while not doing much about it internally. So that’s what makes Davis’ speech all the more powerful: It’s rare that a person of color has that platform, on one of the biggest nights in Hollywood, to make such an announcement—and thankfully for all of us, she seized it.

Correction, Sept. 21, 2015: This post originally misstated that Viola Davis said the only difference between black women and white women was opportunity. She said it was the only difference between black women and everyone else.

Read more in Slate about the Emmys.