I’d like to commend the SAG awards for being the only awards show this year to recognize exceptional performances by actors of color. Viola Davis took home the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series for How to Get Away with Murder. Orange is the New Black garnered huge praise with a win for Uzo Aduba for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series and the show itself was acknowledged for its mostly female and racially-diverse cast with a win for best ensemble. It was a breath of fresh air in an awards season that has felt at times like the viewing equivalent of a slice of wonder bread drizzled with mayonaise.
These wins signify a huge accomplishment, not only for the actresses and the acknowledgement of their individual performances, but for black representation in Hollywood. Overwhelmingly, white actors are cast when the race of a character is not specified. We see many actors of color receive their first major recognition when portraying a noteworthy individual in a biopic. So when a show chooses to validate a role that did not have to go to a black actress, it makes a statement.
In her acceptance speech, Viola Davis acknowledged this often ignored aspect of racial inequality, thanking the show’s producers, “… for thinking that a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned, African-American woman who looks like me.”
She goes on to say that when she tells her daughter bedtime stories, she almost always asks to be put in the story. Her daughter asks to see herself, as many of us wish to see ourselves and our stories when we go to the movies or watch television. The difference is that some of us have a greater chance of experiencing that than others. I didn’t have to wait for a true story adaptation like Wild in order to see a young blonde woman that I could relate to on the big screen. My look is par for the course for casting in Hollywood, whether the role be positive, negative, dynamic or cotton candy fluff. Viola Davis used her platform as a SAG award winner to point us all towards a fact we often choose to ignore: media matters. It shapes our lives, our perceptions of ourselves, others and the world around us.
Typically, the performances by people of color that get mainstream attention are biopics with messages of courage and triumph . MLK must be played by a black actor. Selena had to be played by a Latina woman. Ghandi had to be played by an Indian actor (or at least a British actor with Indian heritage). To hell with any story that doesn’t support the narrative of minorities overcoming extreme circumstances of oppression and injustice in order to climb a seemingly impossible ladder of success! That would just go to show that sometimes (and maybe almost always) the system is too powerful, broken and unbalanced to allow people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed. (There are a smattering of exceptions – Denzel Washington in Flight, Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption and Lenny Kravitz in The Hunger Games, just to name a few.)
What Hollywood teaches us is that people of color don’t have to exist in our day to day consciousness. When the majority of critically-acclaimed roles by actors of color are biopics, what we learn is that people of color must prove how extraordinary they are in real life in order to have their stories told. So when Viola Davis is nominated for, and wins, the SAG award for her role in How to Get Away with Murder, it means a lot more than acclaim for just one actress.
It’s not to say that those true life stories should be ignored. Exceptional people should be recognized and their stories should be told. But our complacency with primarily writing fictional roles for white actors leaves us stuck with the same familiar stories for actors of color. It becomes a form of tokenism in itself. We can watch a movie about the Civil Rights Movement, or slavery, or the race-related struggles of a celebrity growing up in trying times, and feel better about ourselves for acknowledging them. It allows us not to think about the lives of ordinary people or try to portray a variety of experiences outside of our own.
Viola Davis is an exceptional actress who deserves the accolades she has received for her performances, but she is not the only great black actress out there. As she pointed out in her speech, this award came not only from her committment to character, but from the vision of the producers and casting directors to look past her appearance and imagine the character in a way that is not standard for Hollywood. While I hope the Academy shows more recognition for diversity in years to come, let’s not be placated by a few nominations here and there. Great actors exist in places other than Oscar fodder. Let’s hope we start seeing more diversity in all media.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.