Viola Davis

Viola Davis

Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AXN
September 08, 2023
In The Mix

Emmy Moments: Viola Davis

This year the Emmy Awards turns seventy-five! Get in the spirit with our series of time-defying flashbacks.

On the cusp of making television history, Viola Davis thought first of how to help those yet to make their mark.

In 2015, Davis had secured her first Emmy nomination — for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series — for her star turn as Annalise Keating in ABC's How to Get Away with Murder. Also nominated: Taraji P. Henson, for Fox's Empire. If either actress were to win, she would become the first Black performer in Emmy history to triumph in that category.

That prospect was on Davis's mind as she considered the remarks she would make if she were so honored. "I decided to go a different direction when I knew that there was a possibility that Taraji or I could win," she explained backstage, after accepting the gold. "I knew that whomever I thanked would pale in comparison to the historic moment."

So when the Emmy was placed in her hands, she echoed the words of a famous figure in U.S. history. "'In my mind, I see a line,'" Davis recited from the stage of the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live. "'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. I can't seem to get over that line.'

"That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s," Davis continued. "And let me tell you something. 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 backstage she added: "I know the power of influence — Cicely Tyson influenced me at a very down point in my life. It can catapult someone out of their life and toward their dreams."

As for who specifically helped lift her to her Emmy win, Davis named Murder's executive producers Pete Nowalk and Shonda Rhimes. "Annalise Keating was not written specifically for a Black woman, but they used their imagination and chose me for the role. And that's where it starts."

See more Emmy Moments

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #9, 2023.

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