Viola Davis’ historic Emmy win as the first African-American woman to clinch the Best Actress in a Drama trophy (in 2015!) became the news out of the awards show. That was in part because of the “How to Get Away With Murder” actress’s decision to acknowledge the momentousness of her win with an acceptance speech that invoked Harriet Tubman.
“In my mind, I see a line,” said Davis on stage, quoting the Underground Railroad abolitionist. “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.” The actresses then added a line that became the evening’s highlight: “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.”
Davis has continued to speak out on behalf of women, especially black women, both in Hollywood and elsewhere. Here are seven of the most inspirational things she’s uttered since her Emmy win:
1. On the Harriet Tubman quote from her speech: “My husband and I are doing a Harriet Tubman project, and when it was picked up by HBO, one of the producers sent me that quote [from her Emmy speech]. It struck me in such a huge way because of its progressiveness, so it stayed with me ever since, and that’s been several months. I just felt it was apropos, seeing that no woman of color has ever won in that category. That moment had to be acknowledged, or else it would be a missed opportunity. It would be one of those moments I would look back on, and I would have regretted it.”
2. What her Emmy win means to girls looking up to her: “It’s not just the award. It’s what it’s going to mean to young girls — young brown girls, especially. When they saw a physical manifestation of a dream, I felt like I had fulfilled a purpose.”
3. On the hug she gave “Empire” actress Taraji P. Henson, who was competing in the same category: “First of all, that was like the second or third time we hugged through the night. She said, ‘I love you,’ and I said, ‘I love you more than anything in the world, I love you!’ That’s what we said. I think at the end of the day, people want to be seen. And I think that’s why it was important for me and Taraji to acknowledge that in each other, to not just feel like it is competition, to just say, I see you, yes, I see you, too. I love you. I take you in.”
4. On the freedom and depth of character she’s gotten from “HTGAWM”: “It’s given me a way to show womanhood and a leading lady in a different way — and given me a place to shine — than I had in film,” she said. “I feel the same way about Shondaland I feel about Africa and Greece,” she added. “I feel pretty in both places. Men look at me like I’m a novelty, and women think I’m just cool. I feel absolutely at home immediately. I’m not altering myself to fit in. I’m walking in just as I am. And there are open arms stretched out to greet me.” The first season of “HTGAWM” saw important contributions from Davis: the casting of theater legend Cicely Tyson as Davis’s character Annalise’s mother and that now-famous, unprecedentedly honest scene of Annalise removing her wig before going to bed.
5. On the two-dimensionality of women in film: “I think women are very complicated human beings,” said Davis, “and I think there’s an oversimplification of women when you see them on screen.” She comes down rough on romantic comedies: “I always to want to say, Who are you really? Do you pop a Xanax every once in a while? Do you not like someone because you’re jealous? Did you have a really bad relationship that you messed up? Do you go to therapy? Are you mean? Anything? I look for something that shows us as the complicated people that we are. And there’s beauty in that.”
6. Why she’s not down about the stats on female under-representation in the industry: “I was reading Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ last week for some reason, and she spoke a lot about women’s plights in the ’50s. Women who were hiding behind the mask of well-waxed floors and beautiful applied lipstick and suffered in silence. And I don’t think that’s happening anymore. Women are bold! And now that I’m producing, I’m seeing what’s happening behind the scenes with people like Alfre Woodard, with people like Sanaa Lathan, with Taraji P. Henson, with Kerry Washington. These are all women who are producing their own material. They know their beauty, they know their talent. The women I know don’t accept the statistics anymore. They don’t accept the numbers as cementing their future.”
7. On finally being able to be picky about which projects she takes on: “I’ve learned the power of great narrative,” said Davis, “and I want to be able to have some semblance of control over that than to just be at the mercy of what’s out there.”
In addition to the second season of ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” and the Harriet Tubman biopic for HBO, Davis has in the works a Tony Kushner-directed project in which she’ll play civil rights activist and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the first African-American representative elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction. She’ll also appear in a TV adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences” (presumably for HBO), which would star and be directed by Denzel Washington. (Davis won a Tony for her stage performances of the same play.) Finally, she’s attached to a project about Vee-Jay Records, a precursor to Motown.