Jeneé Osterheldt

Viola Davis’ Emmy sisterhood is something to build upon, not destroy

The highlight of Sunday’s Emmys: the Apple Music commercial starring Taraji P. Henson (from left), Kerry Washington and Mary J. Blige. Because sisterhood.
The highlight of Sunday’s Emmys: the Apple Music commercial starring Taraji P. Henson (from left), Kerry Washington and Mary J. Blige. Because sisterhood. Fox

I tuned in to the Emmys on Sunday not to see the show, but to see a commercial.

My Twitter timeline was ecstatic over the Apple Music spot, directed by Ava DuVernay, the celebrated and under-awarded director of “Selma.” How did a commercial steal the Emmy spotlight? Three women: Mary J. Blige, Kerry Washington and Taraji P. Henson. We got to watch this powerhouse of talent having a girls’ night, dancing together and laughing over music.

The thrill goes deeper than seeing some of our favorite celebrities. Television doesn’t show female friendships nearly enough, period. Even more rare on TV: black women with friends.

Black characters are making breakthroughs, but how many of them have besties? Olivia Pope has co-workers on “Scandal.” “Being Mary Jane” has frenemies. On “How to Get Away With Murder,” Annalise has students. “Sleepy Hollow’s” Abbie Mills has a back-from-the-past partner. Molly Woods of “Extant” has aliens and robots. On “Empire,” Cookie has, eh, Cookie. And it’s too early to tell what Detective Lara Vega has on “Minority Report.”

On Sunday, Viola Davis became the first black woman to win best actress in a drama for “How to Get Away With Murder.” The first. Ever.

We should be shocked, but let’s remember that when “Scandal” debuted three years ago, Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a drama in nearly 40 years. Let that soak in.

When Davis’ name was announced, Taraji P. Henson, also nominated in that category for “Empire” fierceness, immediately jumped up to hug her. It was a beautiful show of solidarity. And Davis took it a step further in her acceptance speech:

 ‘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 nohow. I can’t seem to get over that line.’

“That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s,” said Davis, who will soon play the abolitionist in an HBO film. “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.”

Davis saluted show creator Peter Nowalk, executive producer Shonda Rhimes and the “people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.

“And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union: Thank you for taking us over that line.”

While everyone else was in awe of the inspiring Tubman quote and the awareness of opportunity, I was most moved by the sisterhood. It was a real #BlackGirlsRock moment. Davis brought every black woman currently leading a drama into her speech, because real women don’t compete against one another. They empower one another.

Unfortunately, soap opera actress Nancy Lee Grahn took that moment to tear Davis down in a series of tweets.

“Im a … actress for 40 yrs. None of us get respect or opportunity we deserve. Emmys not venue 4 racial opportunity. ALL women belittled,” she wrote in a since-deleted tweet.

She basically dismissed the racial disparity, went on to say Davis has no business quoting Harriet Tubman and made the grand assumption that Davis has never been discriminated against.

This is the same Viola Davis who was pretty much called ugly in comparison to lighter skinned actresses in the New York Times, the very same commentary that called Shonda Rhimes an angry black woman. But in Grahn’s world of privilege, I guess that doesn’t count as discrimination. She must subscribe to Deadline.com’s Nellie Andreeva theory: There’s too much diversity.

Do I think all women have it bad? Yes. As women, we are all fighting for equality. We all have hardships. But the journey for women of color is even harder.

“There is a difference when it comes to actors of color in this business,” Davis told The Associated Press backstage on Sunday. “If it’s been 67 years since an actress of color has won an Emmy (in that category) then there is certainly a line.”

And white women shouldn’t take offense when black women speak out about their experience.

Grahn has since tweeted a well-spun “I’m sorry.” She even admitted she needed to check her own privilege. I wonder if she has any black female friends. Rather than trying to take shots at Davis, maybe she should get to know her.

I’ve been a fan of the “If I shine, you shine” mentality since the ’90s, when Wu-Tang Clan and other hip-hop giants talked about winning through unity. But more recently, writer Ann Friedman has gotten credit for the Shine Theory as it relates to declawing cat fights and pushing sisterhood.

“When we hate on women who we perceive to be more ‘together’ than we are, we’re really just expressing the negative feelings we have about our own careers, or bodies, or relationships,” Friedman writes. “Here’s my solution: When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her.”

So when I say black girls rock, it doesn’t mean other girls don’t. It doesn’t mean I don’t celebrate all women. I do. I think Claire Danes rocks the same way Viola Davis rocks. When I say black girls rock, I say it because, as Davis pointed out, the system at large doesn’t recognize our beauty, our talent and often our humanity.

That’s why that Apple Music commercial struck such a chord. It captured a vibrancy and a softness we don’t often see in black women on big and small screens.

So rather than yell back at me that all girls rock or white girls rock, recognize your privilege. Make friends with us girls whom you feel so inclined to war with.

And ask yourself this: Why don’t you think we rock, too?

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or email josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

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