Actress Viola Davis addressed the elephant in the room at Sunday’s Screen Actor’s Guild Awards.
The “How to Get Away With Murder” star received a standing ovation from her peers for making a touching tribute to her 4-year-old daughter and for calling out the lack of diversity in Hollywood during an acceptance speech for the Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series award.
“When I tell my daughter stories at night, inevitably, a few things happen,” Davis said. “Number one, I use my imagination. I always start with life, and then I build from there. And then the other thing that happens is she always says, ‘Mommy, can you put me in the story?’ And you know, it starts from the top up.”
Later, Davis thanked her show’s producers, including Shonda Rhimes, for believing a “mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned, African-American woman who looks like me.”
“And thank you to all the people who love me exactly how God made me,” she added.
The issue of race has been raised repeatedly in the wake of this month’s Academy Award nominations, which for only the second time in nearly 20 years did not include a single actor of color. “Selma,” the acclaimed Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic, was largely seen as the best hope for recognition of black performers and filmmakers, but it fell short, only scoring two nods for Best Picture and Best Song. Had that film’s director, Ava DuVernay, been nominated she would have been the first woman of color to receive such an honor, and just the fifth woman overall. While some have attributed to snubbing of “Selma” to a poorly run Oscar campaign and controversy over its historical accuracy, the film’s predominately black cast and focus has also been seen as adversely affecting its chances.
Davis, who lost in the Best Actress Oscar race in 2012 to her former “Doubt” co-star Meryl Streep, is one of a handful of black stars anchoring prime-time television shows. Black actors have increasingly found television to be a more fertile ground to win leading roles of substance. For instance, “Orange Is the New Black,” another big winner in the television categories, boasts an eclectic, multicultural cast of actresses representing a wide range of ages and cultures.
Meanwhile, “Birdman,” the critically acclaimed satire starring Michael Keaton in a comeback role, won the SAG Awards’ most coveted prize – Best Ensemble – which is sometimes a strong indicator of the eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars. That film has a predominately white cast. The Oscar voters are 94% white, 77% male and their average age is 63 years old.