Sunday, October 4, 2015

How to get away with making history

THE NIGHT OF Sept. 20 was Earthquake Night in Hollywood, and it had nothing to do with seismographs and fault lines. At least the literal kind. It was a night for rattling the cages of expectation. The epicenter of this temblor was the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, and the shock waves could resonate permanently, a Richter-scale event in society. Or not.

“This is the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history,” said host Andy Samberg. “Yeah. Racism is over! Don’t fact-check that.” Right. Don’t bother; you already know the answer. But still, given the impressive roster of Emmy nominees going in to the evening ... well, the potential for there for a lot of history being made.

Which is exactly what happened. Reg E. Cathey won the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his role as Frank Underwood’s barbecue homeboy Freddy Hayes in “House of Cards.” Regina King won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie for her role in John Ridley’s “American Crime.” Uzo Aduba was named Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work as Crazy Eyes in “Orange Is the New Black.”

And oh yes, the big one: Viola Davis won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, for her role as the tough, seductive, ethically panoramic law professor Annalise Keating in ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” a first for an African American actress. Nights like Sunday are exceedingly rare.

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Everyone was eloquent in accepting their awards, but Davis, whose win of an Emmy moved her into rarified air (she’s garnered two Oscar nominations and won two Tony awards, among others) was especially so. Davis quoted Harriet Tubman on Sept. 20, reaching back into American history in the process of making her own.

“’In my mind, I see a line. 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. 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. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”

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SOME PEOPLE will be tempted to look at the tsunami of Emmy winners of color on Sept. 20 and think that all of this is a recent phenomenon — like it just happened in the last year or three. They don’t think about the trailblazers who were working and winning (or trying to) when their detractors and bitter observers of today were still images in an ultrasound.

They can’t remember Bill Cosby, who won best actor in a drama for three years straight in “I Spy.” Or Robert Guillaume, who won an Emmy for best actor in a comedy series (“Benson”).

Or Isabel Sanford, who won for best actress in a comedy series (“The Jeffersons”). Or Diahann Carroll, whose portrayal of a widowed nurse in the groundbreaking sitcom “Julia” (1968-1971) won her an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globes win for Best TV Star-Female in 1969.

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Nancy Lee Grahn initially took exception to Davis’ victory. The “General Hospital” star said in her Twitter account: "Im a f--king actress for 40 yrs. None of us get respect or opportunity we deserve," she tweeted at the time. "Emmys not venue 4 racial opportunity. ALL women belittled."

That’s not nice to see ya. The gist of her complaint had a lot in common with the people who responded to the BLACK LIVES MATTER meme with the reflexive rejoinder that “all lives matter,” reaching for the anodyne generality while blowing right past the damage done to the particular.

After the Twitterverse weighed in and embarrassed Grahn, the actress admitted that she “got schooled” by the response to her butthurt tweet. But her initial reaction revealed the soft underbelly of a current of discontent from Neanderthals among us.

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WHAT GRAHN touched on briefly, and what others have intimated themselves in the recent past, is an abiding sense of pop-cultural superiority, a barely disguised entitlement about who our pop culture icons should be, and what they should look like.

Since late last year, the pop-culture isolationists represented by Grahn’s first-blush reaction to Davis’ Emmy win have vehemently opposed “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens,” the forthcoming J.J. Abrams restart of the legendary movie franchise, for having the nerve to cast the black British actor John Boyega in a leading role.

Their unspoken but obvious assumption is that “Star Wars” is a white sci-fi fantasy. Nonwhites need not apply, ever. Never mind the fact that the “Star Wars” canon has already included Lando Calrissian, a character in two “Star Wars” films played by the African American actor Billy Dee Williams; Mace Windu, a character in two other “Star Wars” films played by the African American actor Samuel L. Jackson; and intergalactic archetype of evil Darth Vader, played in voiceover by the African American actor James Earl Jones, a mainstay of the franchise.

A sad thing, selective memory is.

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At least some of the cultural evolution deniers have a problem with the ways that Davis’ Emmy coronation and Boyega’s status in a sure-fire hit film are making history. But that’s necessary; it always makes history when you’re the first to ever do something.

And that’s what Viola Davis and John Boyega have in common: making history in spite of those determined to live in the past. You can’t drive around their two landmark accomplishments in television and the movies. The only option is to live with what’s happening. If there was any more to be said, Boyega said it himself late last year, on social media — not with a throwdown or a fight, but a simple declarative bombshell.

“To whom it may concern: Get used to it.:)”

Image credits: Davis:  Getty Images via  Guillaume: Corbis via Butthurt Yoda: Arewehavingsexwithyourmomyet (Imgur).

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