Inspired by Viola Davis’ speech at this year’s Emmys, Emer O’Brien explores the lack of colour still found on our screens.
At this year’s Emmy awards, Viola Davis clearly stole the show, becoming the first black actress to win an award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama for her role as Annalise Keating in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. In her emotional and thought provoking speech, Davis called for more roles in television for coloured women, stating bluntly “you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
This speech reopened the troublesome conversation about representation and racial diversity on our screens. This year was the first time two black women were nominated for the same award at the same time, Empire actress Taraji P. Henson being nominated alongside Davis. Another coloured actress to win an award that night was Uzo Aduba, who celebrated her win as she was crowned Outstanding Supporting Actress for her role as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in the hit Orange is the New Black. The Netflix original series has been praised in the past for its hugely diverse cast, featuring black transgender woman Laverne Cox, among African-American, Asian and Latino actresses.
Representation and diversity is handled quite differently by the other big winner of at this year’s Emmys. HBO’s Game of Thrones, which reached an audience of over seven million in the season four finale, came away with a record-breaking twelve awards. Yet the show still faces difficulties with its portrayal of colour people. GOT holds its origins with George R.R. Martin’s best-selling series A Song of Ice and Fire, which is not exempt from criticism surrounding the lack of racial diversity. Last year, a female fan complained that there was only one African-American woman in the show. Martin responded on his blog by admitting to this shortage of colour in the series, but also promised more in the next book, in the form of “secondary and tertiary characters.” In a similar explanation of the lack of Asian characters Martin stated that the fantasy world of the show is an “analogue of the British Isles… there weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England either.” But in a show that regularly features the likes of dragons and giants, these “realistic” reasons for the severe lack of representation do seem like a weak excuse.
This problem doesn’t just exist on the small screen, however. Another area of controversy this year was the Oscars, where no non-white actors were nominated in any category. While this was acknowledged in a throwaway quip by the host Neil Patrick Harris; “Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest, sorry, best and brightest,” it points to a worrying trend in Hollywood, which is unfortunately echoed on British screens, both big and small.
In the UK, the number of coloured people employed in the TV industry has decreased by 30.9% from 2006 to 2012. These numbers were drawn upon by actor and comedian Lenny Hill in his speech at the BAFTA’s annual TV lecture in March of last year. He added that “for every black and Asian person who lost their job, more than two white people were employed.”
Despite small progress in some areas, both the TV and film industries seems to have gone backwards in recent years. Only one black woman has ever won an Academy Award for Best Actress, and that was in 2002 when Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball. No black directors have ever won Best Picture or Best Director.
In her Emmy acceptance speech, Viola Davis quoted abolitionist 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.”
The line that Tubman envisioned in the nineteenth century is still visible on our screens today in the twenty-first. In our modern day society such inequalities are believed to be of the past, issues of colour are no longer a problem. However the colour-blindness evident on our screens portray a different reality.