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Viola Davis makes TV history with best actress in a drama win at Emmys

Viola Davis won the Emmy for outstanding lead

Viola Davis won the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series during the 67th Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Credit: Getty Images

Why so long? Really long: Sixty-seven years, 67 Emmy ceremonies, even 67 lost opportunities. But not until Sunday night, did an African-American woman win an Emmy for best actress in a drama. Viola Davis's win strikes a blow for parity, strikes a blow for symbolism, and even strikes a blow AGAINST what some critics have decried as a long-standing aspect of TV casting whereby a black actor might be added to an ensemble because it was the right thing to do, or politically correct, or even a bald appeal to black viewers. (A blow, in other words, struck against what some of those critics called tokenism).

Davis' character, Annalise Keating, is after all THE lead in "How to Get Away with Murder." There is no mistaking that, not mistaking it from the very first scene of the very first episode, when she bestrode her law class like the colossus her character is and was to become (albeit, as fans know, with all sort of hidden mysteries, facets, secrets, treacheries and fallibilities; Annalise is complicated --- not a symbol or a single-note either).

Why so long? Davis addressed this Sunday night, and at last winter's Screen Actors Guild awards, where she also won for best actress. There she said, "when I tell my daughter stories at night inevitably a few things happen. No. 1, I use my imagination. I always start with life and build from there." And the other thing that happens, she said, is that her daughter asks: "Mommy can you put me in the story ..."

She continued on this theme last night, saying "the only thing that's separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity."

"You cannot win an Emmy for roles that simply aren't there."

True of course although there have been roles and opportunities in television over the decades -- but few, and widely dispersed. While Kerry Washington may have received nominations for "Scandal" the last couple of years, and Taraji P. Henson for "Empire" this year, no actresses of color had been nominated since '91-93, when Regina Taylor pulled a twofer for "I'll Fly Away" -- David Chase's elegiac drama about the civil rights era.

Alfre Woodard came before --- earning a nomination for Roxanne Turner, in "St. Elsewhere." But with all the Emmy glory "Elsewhere accrued, it did not quite extend to her.

Before her, Debbie Allen. Allen had had a long, and very good run at the Emmys -- beginning in 1981 with "Fame" -- but not quite good enough. For four consecutive years, she earned an Emmy nod, and for four years, the Emmys tired habit of nominating the same people -- and awarding the same people -- prevailed. Tyne Daly was the repeat winner over those years: Fine actress, but so were the other nominees, including Allen.

But the real Emmy pioneer was Cicely Tyson. Tyson in fact won "best lead actress in a drama" in 1974, a full 41 years ahead of Davis, but the win was for "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" -- a TV movie, not a series. Tyson would get many subsequent nominations (including for "Roots") -- also for "Sweet Justice," her '94 series which she co-starred with Melissa Gilbert.

Her first TV series: "East Side/West Side," the remarkable, way-way-way ahead of its time drama about a New York social worker (played by George C. Scott). Tyson's character was an office secretary.

There have been many fine African-American TV actresses over the years, and of course far too few as well.

So in some small way, and in some large way too, Davis's victory is for them as well. I imagined or do now Taylor, Allen and Tyson smiling somewhere.

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