I hate award shows with the heat of a thousand suns, but if giving Viola Davis the platform to say what she said means that me and the world have to suffer through more of those awkward marathon circle jerks, then by all means, I’m on board.
The year is 2015, folks, and last week Viola Davis became the first African American woman to win an Emmy for best lead actress in a drama series. In case you’re curious like I was about black representation in other categories, below is a quick rundown of African American Emmy firsts, per wikipedia. I focused on television mostly because that’s the category Davis won for, but also because I think TV has a disproportionately enormous influence on our culture, much more than movies. The intimacy and frequency of television watching means that what and who is being represented on the screen gets more readily and insidiously soaked up into our unconscious, if for no other reason than the repetition.
Lead Actor, Comedy
Bill Cosby was the first black actor to be nominated, in 1970 for The Bill Cosby Show. The first black actor to win in the comedy category was Robert Guillaume for Benson in 1986. Including Cosby, 10 black actors have been nominated to date, and Guillaume is the only one to win.
Lead Actor, Drama
Cosby was the first to be nominated in this category too, for I Spy in 1966. He won that year, and the next two years as well. Five black actors have been nominated, three of them have won.
Lead Actress, Comedy
Diahaan Carroll was the first black actress to be nominated, in 1969 for Julia. Isabel Sanford was the first black actress to win, for her role as Weezie on The Jeffersons in 1981. Five black actresses have been nominated, and Sanford was the first, last and only to win. Not a single black actress has even been NOMINATED in this category since Phylicia Rashad for The Cosby Show in 1986.
Lead Actress, Drama
Debbie Allen was the first black actress to be nominated, in 1982, for Fame. Viola Davis recently became the first black actress to win in this category. Seven black women have been nominated. When Kerry Washington was nominated for the category in 2013, she ended an 18 year stretch when no black women were nominated in the category after Cicely Tyson in 1995.
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. – Viola Davis
On the face of it, colorblind casting is exactly what it sounds like. Actors of any and all races are considered for all roles. In reality, although I’m too lazy to google it, I can’t imagine colorblind casting has resulted in many (or any) instances of a white actor playing a role traditionally represented by an actor of color. Instead, colorblind casting has made it possible for actors of color to get roles for which they otherwise would never be considered. It’s hard for me to find any fault with that aspect.
In fact, I’ll bet colorblind casting has done some great things for black actors and society as a whole. When Actors Theatre of Louisville cast a black actor as Romeo a few years ago, it generated some really great conversations in the audience and among the staff, about colorblind casting as well as black representation on stage. One of my dear friends worked with school groups seeing the show, and he captured a 24 second video of some of the kids’ responses to the play. Full disclosure: the video plays in Facebook, but you don’t have to be logged in to watch it. It’s 24 seconds and required viewing.
It disturbs me on a deep level to think about black kids growing up seeing almost exclusively white people on TV. This goes for all races and representations – not just the black experience and the white experience – but fundamentally, the people you see on TV are showing you examples of what life is like. Judging from our media, “normal” life is white life.
So if colorblind casting increases opportunities for actors of color to get parts, and increases opportunities for kids to see themselves represented, what’s the harm? Well, for starters, it’s not enough. Not nearly enough. Too often colorblind casting is seen as a progressive statement. When a theatre or TV/film production company hangs its hat on colorblind casting, they’re not just fooling themselves into thinking it’s moving things forward when it’s not, they’re also likely misdirecting resources and focus away from efforts that actually could be making a difference. Like, say, creating interesting roles specifically for actors of color.
By definition, the only thing colorblind casting is doing is going back into the past and opening up doors that were previously closed. It has nothing to do with building new ones. Further, if the roles were written by white men with white actors in mind, the story being portrayed is still, at its core, a story about the experience of being white. We get fooled into thinking that these traditional stories somehow portray universal stories of humanity, but that assumption completely ignores the stories of human experience from the cultures and races that we’ve been marginalizing for centuries. The black experience is not implicitly included in these “universal” stories, because for centuries we’ve specifically excluded black experiences and black stories, pushing them to the fringes, margins and niche markets.
August Wilson explained it (unsurprisingly) a million times better than I can:
To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our humanity our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the culture ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, our difficult but honorable history in America; it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.
Do yourself a favor, and read the full text of his speech “The Ground on Which I Stand.”
It’s not news that people of color are under-represented in media (especially women of color) and colorblind casting isn’t doing anything to change that. At some point, it might be time to just call it “casting” and then start focusing on creating and supporting art that intentionally represents the diversity of the world we live in, and intentionally creates space for black actors and black stories.