On Sunday night, Viola Davis accepted the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her ABC crime drama How to Get Away With Murder. Davis then unleashed a powerful acceptance speech in which she quoted Harriet Tubman’s famous remarks about an “invisible line” separating her from white women. Davis took Hollywood to task for the paucity of roles that minorities, and particularly minority women, have available to them. “You cannot win Emmys,” she told the audience at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, “for roles that are not there.”
Perhaps you’re wondering what the Emmy Awards should matter to a website devoted to cinema. The answer is simply this: Davis is a two-time Academy Award nominee. She’s one of a growing number of actors who, having established themselves with award-worthy film work, have taken high-profile television roles in the past decade. Davis hasn’t abandoned movies – she was in Michael Mann’s Blackhat and will appear in the adaptation of DC Comics’ Suicide Squad, among many other roles – but once upon a time, that movie work would be enough for an actress as acclaimed as she. Now, the number of TV networks looking for A-list talent to staff their scripted programming has exploded, but the number of film studios is more or less stable. The parts that Davis says don’t exist should be on television, if not in the movies.
Yet Davis is the first black woman ever to win the Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama. Moreover, it’s not as though there have been numerous competitors who’d had near-misses. Kerry Washington has been twice nominated in the category where Davis won, but when Washington debuted on Scandal in 2012, she was the first black female lead on a TV drama since 1974. Whomever was the Viola Davis of twenty years ago — Angela Bassett, perhaps? — she never even had a chance at that statue.
The story that Viola Davis told on that stage Sunday night has been told before. Eleven months before the Twin Towers fell, another two-time Academy Award nominee made a movie about it. There are people who will say his story was told poorly, and the box-office numbers suggested that those people are right, but I’m not one of them. I think that it’s a masterpiece of anger, as relevant to its time as Network was to the 1970s.
It’s at times like these that I always come back to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.
At its heart, Bamboozled is the same sort of satire that Network is, and in fact it contains a number of direct homages and references to Network. Both films are about a longtime media worker who feels the system pushing him out, whose sharply angry response to that push finds its way onto live TV, and who sees that response pick up speed while losing track of its target. Eventually, the hero becomes everything he hates, and receives the cruelest punishment of all: he has to live with himself.
Damon Wayans plays that hero, Pierre Delacroix, a TV executive who feels like he is being forced to write racist garbage by his faux-hip white boss (Michael Rappaport). So, in what he believes is a blatant attempt to get fired, he and his assistant (Jada Pinkett Smith) conceive a new type of variety television: a minstrel show, openly dressing itself in the accoutrements of the Confederacy and performed by two black actors wearing blackface makeup. But, in true Network fashion, the show is an immediate hit, igniting a blackface craze across the United States and turning Delacroix into an uneasy superstar.
Wayans’ awkward dialogue delivery proved to be a problem: every critic who disliked the movie singled it out, and audiences seemed to universally hate it. Few people understood that it was a reference to Sidney Poitier’s unusual accent. Those who got that reference seemed to misunderstand what Lee was trying to do with it, interpreting it as a brutal jab at the Academy Award winner. In truth, Lee is trying to say something very important: black people in America are often held to an impossible standard.
Although Poitier was a trailblazer, his was a difficult act to follow in many ways. Poitier was born in the Bahamas and trained himself to lose the Bahamian accent in order to succeed in New York’s American Negro Theater. The result was a genteel, almost patrician voice, which caused bigoted audiences elsewhere in the country to only expect classy acting from black Americans who lacked the so-called “street accent.” At the same time, the bigots could be convinced they weren’t bigots because, hey, they’re watching a movie with a black guy starring in it, right?
For decades, any actors who tried to follow in Poitier’s steps struggled with comparisons to that voice. It wasn’t until Richard Roundtree came along as John Shaft, as smooth and street as rain-slicked pavement, that many people even realized what they had been missing. Lee puts Delacroix in the same place, who is not only holding himself to an impossible standard but doesn’t seem to understand that he is doing so.
The impossible standard comes into play again and again in our media, and not just in Poitier’s day either. How many cases of police shooting an unarmed black person have been prosecuted in the media, by asserting that the victim “was no angel”? How many times is a black actor said to be “difficult,” as Mo’nique claimed happened to her after her Oscar win for Precious, when a white actor might be “demanding”? Even President Barack Obama was described by Senator Harry Reid, quoted in the nonfiction book about the 2008 presidential election Game Change, as having “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to.”
That phrase “he wanted to” is key for Bamboozled. It’s an idea based on a racist double standard: every politician talks a specific way for each audience, because that’s what you have to do to win elections, but once the “Negro dialect” is involved people look at it like a choice. The same goes for the characters in Bamboozled, who have only one path to success but are accused of making the wrong decisions. There’s only one show that Delacroix can run which will sate Rappaport’s desire for a hit: the minstrel show. There are only two parts that the two street performers who become Delacroix’ minstrels can fill: the parts which require blackface. Forced into a corner by racists in the market, their way out is to become pickaninny caricatures, and having done so, any complaint that the market might be racist is met with cries of hypocrisy. They could quit, but if they want to stay in show business, they have to fall in line behind the impossible standard. They’ll have no pickaninny dialect … unless they “want” to.
Viola Davis won her Emmy in part because her character is not a part of the impossible standard – she’s a well-rounded, brilliant, prickly individual, the lawyer show’s equivalent of House M.D. But Davis’ Academy Award nominations mean she can pick and choose the roles which are that well-written. Her speech was not meant to judge all of the black actors in the trenches who take the demeaning roles, because in so many cases those are the only roles which are there. Her speech was meant to tell the same story as Bamboozled: that the line is invisible, the standard is impossible, and the choices that it forces people into are barely choices at all.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City.