Let’s not bury the lede here: Viola Davis became the first African American to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the Emmy Awards on Sunday night.
If you are the type of person who is so inclined to feel things while watching an awards show, you had a lot of opportunities to get emotional during the evening.
There was the moment when Tracy Morgan appeared, looking remarkable just over a year after surviving a tragic car wreck. Not only was he back on his feet to present the biggest award of the night but he was also making jokes about knocking up a bunch of ladies during the after-parties. There was the sight of Jon Hamm, long overlooked for his consistently excellent work on Mad Men, finally making his way to the mic and using his time there to thank, by name, the school parents at John Burroughs in St. Louis who looked after him after his mom died when he was only ten years old. There were the moving acceptance speeches by both Jeffrey Tambor and Jill Soloway of Transparent, urging audiences to be activists for the transgender rights and thanking the transgender community for their inspiration and support.
When Inside Amy Schumer won Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Schumer — choked up and maybe not as prepared as she should have been, considering the odds were ever in her favor — said of her series, which leaves no feminist issue unexplored, “This show really fights for what we believe in.” Soloway described the legal protections against discrimination her Moppa (the trans parent in her own life who inspired her Amazon series) still doesn’t have nationwide. “We don’t have a trans tipping point yet,” she said. “We have a trans civil rights problem.”
It was Davis’ speech, though, that brought the house down, a rallying cry that started out by invoking Harriet Tubman, went on to declare that “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,” before thanking Shonda Rhimes, one of the “people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black,” and ended by addressing her actresses-in-arms by name: Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry, Nicole Beharie, Meagan Good, and Gabrielle Union.
Even Andy Samberg’s monologue was on the side of progress. Barely ten minutes into the show and he was already hating on Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who would rather go to jail than greenlight gay marriage (“If I wanted to see an intolerant lady dance, I would’ve gone to one of Kim Davis’ four weddings”); stating the obvious about a certain Republican presidential hopeful (“Sure, Donald Trump seems racist. [long pause] What else?”); getting digs in at alleged serial rapist Bill Cosby, the gender wage gap and the “age gap” in Hollywood, and the self-aggrandizing vibes sure to accompany the entertainment industry’s long overdue inclusion of people of color on television (“This is the most diverse group of nominees, so, congratulations, Hollywood. You did it! Racism is over! Don’t fact check that.”).
Davis was one of three black women to take home acting trophies. She joined Regina King, who surprised everyone, including, it seemed, herself, by nabbing Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie for American Crime, and Uzo Aduba, who won for Orange is the New Black, a comedy, at least, for now.
Looking back on a summer when, with limited exception, all a person could find at the movies was a less-graphic version of Amy Schumer’s television show and a bunch of failed attempts at superhero movies/sequels/reboots/spin-offs (remember Fantastic Four? They really hope you don’t!), the Emmys showed, in three hours, why television is the more exciting place to be, should you be someone who is excited by diversity, or by women having voices, or by black people existing as more than just background characters, or by Olive Kitteridge.
Hell, even the commercials for the Emmys lit the internet on fire (or, you know, on flame emoji). In yet another blow to the beleaguered Tidal, it was Apple Music who got Selma director Ava DuVernay to helm three TV spots, the first of which premiered during the awards broadcast and starred the dream team of Kerry Washington, Mary J. Blidge, and Taraji P. Henson.
— Mary J. Blige (@maryjblige) September 21, 2015
At the Toronto International Film Festival last week, during a panel called “So You Want to be a Showrunner?”, Jack Amiel, creator of The Knick, insisted that what he was making was not a television show so much as a movie, just broken into smaller pieces: The Knick is filmed out of order, directed by Steven Soderbergh, grand in scope and vision (and budget). But anyone paying close attention to the innovation happening on TV (or on non-TV platforms that are, for all intents and purposes, still TV: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, et. al.) could make the case that movies should be trying to be more like television, instead of the other way around.
When TV is this exciting, when it can, in a single night, give two directing awards to women — to Soloway for Transparent and Lisa Cholodenko for Olive Kitteridge — and bring three black women on the stage in the same year that the Oscars were so all-white-everything that exactly zero people of color are nominated in any acting categories and zero women were nominated for directing, why bring television down by saying it’s practically a movie? Movies should aspire to be more like television, because television is aspiring to be more like the world in which we actually live.