Viola Davis Matters

“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” declared Viola Davis at the 67th Emmy Awards, where she became the first black woman to win Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series. A Juilliard-trained, accomplished veteran of stage and screen, Ms. Davis is one of our greatest great actors, along the lines of Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Glenn Close and Al Pacino. Yet we haven’t seen her in as many various leading roles as these other actors. It was refreshing to hear her say why.

In her speech she thanked Shonda Rhimes, who created the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder for which Davis won, as well as several of the male producers and champions of the show. Her point was crystal clear: writers and producers must challenge the status quo and be imaginative about the protagonists they put on screen if we want more top-notch yet underutilized performers like Ms. Davis to play them. And if ABC’s reported increase in viewers under 50 is any indication — after having pushed diversity in their programming, both in front of and behind the camera — we do want just that.

People like me have been calling for diversity on stage and screen for years. (In 2003 I co-founded a theater company whose mission is to cast against-type, and I have written several articles about the need for more roles for actors who deviate from the straight, white, gender conforming, athletic, and able-bodied norm.) But I have frequently been dismissed with an irritated and lazy response like, “Casting is based on being right for the role. End of story.” A famous playwright even said to me once, “Theater should always mirror reality,” which he used to justify his relentless insistence that all the roles in his plays be cast exactly as specified — and most of them were specified as white and male, like himself. (I continue to wonder how this playwright might explain the exclusively white casting of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, or Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods, none of which take place in reality.) What the anti-diversity-in-casting people (often white, straight, and male) always seem to overlook is the question of whose reality we’re talking about.

Yet the success of shows like How to Get Away with Murder – which features a variety of characters and situations we rarely see on mainstream television, including hot gay sex – proves that having a wide variety of realities on screen enriches storytelling, increases audiences and expands everyone’s sense of what is real and possible. For example, in her acceptance speech Davis credited the producers of Murder with redefining “what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”

As audiences we all want the same thing. To see ourselves onscreen doing extraordinary things, and to see extraordinary people resemble us in some way. So in order to achieve this — to benefit from more of the extraordinary talent that is available, and feed our imaginations, and increase our capacity for empathy, and expand our own sense of self — we must consciously demand and create more opportunities for outstanding performers and writers of all races, sexes, gender expressions, sexual orientations and physical types.

Lee Daniels’ delicious series, Empire, is a great example of how these considerations benefit everyone, including the sublime performance by Emmy-nominated black actress, Taraji P. Henson in the wonderfully complex role of Cookie Lyon. In feature film, George Clooney is also changing things up by casting Sandra Bullock in a leading role that was originally written for a man in the upcoming film Our Brand Is Crisis. Says Clooney, “There’s a lot more out there if people just started thinking.” And he’s not the only one thinking: Emily Blunt and Julia Roberts have both been cast in roles originally written for men in movies this year.

It’s easier to keep up the status quo, to keep things as they are and resist change. We do it in our families, our communities, our workplaces and in our country. We fear unfamiliar people. We fear having to share power. But we must remember that in life and in art, letting new people in, however scary it may be, often brings huge rewards. It inspires us to expand our own potential. And so I’ll say it again: onscreen storytelling is only enhanced by diversity, both in front of and (yes, Matt Damon) behind the camera.

In fact, the entire Emmy broadcast was considered by several sources to be the most entertaining in years, in no small part due to the diverse talent and stories that were represented. Awards were given to, among others: women directors Lisa Cholodenko (also openly gay) and Jill Soloway; self-identified dwarf actor Peter Dinklage; African-American actresses Regina King and Uzo Aduba (in addition to Ms. Davis); and to actor Jeffrey Tambor for his beautiful performance as a transgender woman in the Amazon show Transparent – one of the freshest, funniest, sexiest and most relevant (for anyone struggling with issues of identity and family) new shows. It was particularly thrilling to hear Tambor acknowledge the situations of transgender people, and for the show’s director, Soloway, to emphasize the trans civil rights problem in our country and call for action. Hopefully next year we’ll also see more trans actors, in addition to Laverne Cox, in prominent roles as well.

The host of this year’s Emmys, Andy Samberg, found that acknowledging the relevant issue of social disparities actually enhanced his humor rather than yielding buzz kill. Two of his funniest moments included: 1) “Racism is over! Don’t fact-check that,” adding that Jackie Robinson’s coach probably said the same thing on his first game; and 2) “The wage gap between men and women hired for major roles in Hollywood is still an issue — wait, I’m sorry, I misread that. The age gap between men and women hired for major roles in Hollywood is still an issue — wait, I’m sorry, I misread that again. It’s both! So, crappy on two fronts.” The subversive style of Samberg’s humor seemed more inspired by comedy writers like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer than by the majority of current male comedians who often lean toward the reductive and offensive. Another example of how diversity on all fronts can expand everyone’s capacity for expression.

But everyone agreed that the evening belonged to Ms. Davis. In her passionate plea for more talented women of color on screen, she reminded us that activism and art go hand in hand. As Thomas Hardy once said, “Art is a disproportioning of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities, which if merely copied or reported inventorially, might possibly be observed, but would more probably be overlooked.” Challenging the status quo in film and television can show us all what matters: that we are all more alike than we are different, and we must take creative action to spread that message.

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