Viola Davis Marks Progress for Black Women in Hollywood With 2015 Emmy Win

Wins for Davis, Uzo Aduba and Regina King helped usually conservative voters create a night that meant something culturally

Last Updated: September 21, 2015 @ 11:22 AM

The Emmys embraced change on Sunday night, honoring the rising tide of African-American talent with three acting awards. Those included the first-ever win for a black actress, which went to Viola Davis for “How to Get Away With Murder.”

Davis went into the show as a prohibitive frontrunner for the award, and everybody knew she’d make an eloquent speech if she did win. But the 50-year-old actress still rose to the occasion with remarks that turned a breakthrough moment into riveting television.

Calling on black women from former slave Harriet Tubman to past Emmy nominee Kerry Washington to fellow nominee Taraji P. Henson, she declared, “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.”

And it capped a night in which Uzo Aduba had already won for “Orange Is the New Black” and Regina King had scored an upset victory for “American Crime.” Fully half of the six Emmys handed out to actresses went to women of color, a first for the show.

It was a watershed moment for the Emmys, and it came on a night when the biggest statements made by the voters were in the acting categories.

Jeffrey Tambor, for instance, won the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series award for his role as a father transitioning from male to female on “Transparent.” He dedicated his award to the transgender community in a speech that ended, “Thank you for letting us be part of the change.”

Emmy voters’ recognition of that change turned what is usually a predictable night into one that meant something culturally. From Davis, Aduba and King to Tambor and “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, who won for directing, it was a show that went for inclusion and reinforced that television can be an agent for change as well as for mindless entertainment.

Of course, these Emmys went for entertainment as well, but it was entertainment with an edge. The political satire “Veep” took its first Outstanding Comedy Series award, after “Modern Family” had won for five consecutive years – and “Veep” won at a time, star Julia Louis-Dreyfus pointed out, when politics itself is getting so surreal that it can be hard to satirize.

And then “Game of Thrones,” a genre show that pushes buttons, challenges viewers, kills off main characters and turn a fantasy epic into a week-to-week provocation, scored an upset victory over “Mad Men,” which most people figured would get a nice emotional sendoff at the end of its final season.

Sure, “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm got his first Emmy win in 16 nominations to provide another of the show’s biggest emotional moments – but a few minutes later, when it was time to hand out the award for Outstanding Drama Series, “Mad Men” lost for the fourth consecutive year after beginning its eight-year run with four straight victories.

The win reinforced the idea that “Game of Thrones” is now television’s biggest water-cooler show, though those next-morning conversations around the water cooler have been replaced by real-time reactions on social media.

As usual, these Emmys were often predictable: The comedy acting awards all went to the pre-show favorites, as did the slew of honors for the limited series “Olive Kitteridge.”

But between “Modern Family” losing the comedy-series award for the first time in its history and “Game of Thrones” beating “Mad Men” for the drama prize, and with the historic wins for Davis and Tambor, the show felt fresher and more timely than it has been in years.

(Maybe broadcast executives won’t feel that way, given HBO’s clean sweep of the big program awards: “Game of Thrones” in comedy, “Veep” in drama, “Olive Kitteridge” in limited series and, at last week’s Creative Arts Emmys, “Bessie” in TV movie.)

For once, the Emmys appeared to be welcoming the new rather than resisting it on Sunday night. As Viola Davis and Jeffrey Tambor made clear, TV is part of a changing world — and for one night, the Emmys changed along with it.

Don’t miss the best moments from the 2015 Emmy Awards — read TheWrap’s complete coverage here.

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