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Arts & Life

Viola Davis' Emmy Win Shows TV's Power To Shape Perception


Last night, history was made at the Emmy Awards. Viola Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy as outstanding lead actress in a drama series. Here she is accepting that award.


VIOLA DAVIS: And let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.


DAVIS: You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

GREENE: That's actress Viola Davis, who began her speech with a quote from the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans is on the line with us.

Eric, good morning.


GREENE: So you have written so much about race and television. I mean, just capture this moment for us, if you can, both for the Emmys and the whole TV industry.

DEGGANS: I know it's easy to kind of roll your eyes at award shows 'cause they focus on fashion and empty celebrity sometimes. But you see a moment like this and you really see TV's power to shape the world's perception. And you really see how TV's ability to challenge stereotypes is directly related to the opportunities given to actresses like Viola Davis. This woman is dark-skinned, 50 years old, graduated from Juilliard.

Now, since 1974, there's only been three network TV dramas to have a black woman as the star, including the show that Davis is on, "How To Get Away With Murder." And watching actresses like Taraji P. Henson from "Empire" or Kerry Washington from "Scandal" applaud Davis, it just kind of underscored what an incredibly powerful moment we were seeing. I mean, for those of us who have insisted for years that diversity on TV is important, this was the proof right here.

GREENE: Well, that moment certainly stole the show, as it were. But there were other moments of drama as well. A lot of fans of the show "Mad Men" were pretty excited that star Jon Hamm took home an award. Explain exactly what happened.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, he's always been a bridesmaid but never the bride, right?


DEGGANS: 'Cause Jon Hamm's been nominated, like, a total 16 times, eight for his work on "Mad Men" by itself, with no wins. And since the show ended in May, this was his last chance to win an award as best actor in a drama for playing Don Draper. So he's now the only actor from the show who's ever won an Emmy and the only win for the show in its final season, which ended in May.

GREENE: What else stood out to you last night?

DEGGANS: Well, HBO had a really great night. Their epic fantasy series "Game Of Thrones" won 12 Emmys, including one for best drama. "Veep," HBO's sharp, political satire, won an Emmy for best comedy series. And Amazon had an important first. You know, its show "Transparent" had five total Emmy wins, including an acting award for star Jeffrey Tambor, who plays an older man with adult children who's transitioning from male to female. Now, stars and producers of the show have talked a lot about how that show has changed perceptions of transgender people. And Tambor kind of alluded to that in his acceptance speech. Let's listen to it.


JEFFREY TAMBOR: I had a teacher who used to say, you know, when you act, you have to act as if your life depends on it. And now I've been given the opportunity to act because people's lives depend on it.

DEGGANS: And the creator of the show, Jill Soloway, used her acceptance speech to say that transgender people face what she calls a civil rights problem today. So there were lots of important messages in the show.

GREENE: And, Eric, a pretty emotional moment involving Tracy Morgan from "Saturday Night Live," what happened?

DEGGANS: Yeah, well, Tracy announced the final award of the night. And it was emotional to see him because he was nearly killed in a car accident last year. And he walked out on the stage without a cane. He got a standing ovation. And then he joked that he was overjoyed because when he woke up from his coma, he realized the crash wasn't his fault.


DEGGANS: So that line brought the house down.

GREENE: Well, it's good to see a comic back to work and healthy.

DEGGANS: Exactly.

GREENE: Eric Deggans, thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.