Viola Davis, The Emmys, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Hollywood is in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   Not that this concerns Viola Davis, winner of the Best Actress Emmy for her role of Annalisse Keating on “How to Get Away With Murder.” The Act ensures that a percentage of the minority population in any given city will be trained for the jobs in that city’s industries.  In Hollywood, this means that  the film studios are obliged by law to train and hire a certain percentage of local people in the minority communities for all the various jobs necessary to the production of their product, from the gaffers and hair stylists to the editors. camera operators,  actors, writers, and directors.  So if you are, for example, a Puerto Rican woman who wants to work as a film editor, these studios are obliged to train you for such work, and to hire you when  work becomes available.  They do not do this, and are therefore in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  But you don’t hear protests from Hollywood’s African American elite against it.  The only person I know who took a stand against Hollywood’s illegal hiring practices was director Jamaa Fanaka, and it got him blacklisted.

Viola Davis is not about to risk her career by supporting the rights of the African Americans in Los Angeles to receive training and employment as electricians on a movie set.  Her thing is to stand as a symbol of success.  And in Hollywood,  one celebrity’s  symbolic gesture counts for a the tangible progress of a thousand  working people. Davis can stand on the podium and tell the world that “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” and the crocodile tears will flow from the eyes of other actresses who, like herself, have had no shortage of work throughout their glamourous, if mediocre, careers.

Television, where the likability of the performer is more important than the level of ability, is not the place to look for great acting, so when an actor or actress is honored for their performance in a television serial, it is rarely a cause for pride.  Davis holds down the center of the show, sashaying about with a determined confidence, but there is no authentic energy.  She delivers her lines as if they were pieces of one  long monologue,  always the same monotone whether addressing the court or instructing her students in the classroom. But she is likeable, and when the script switches away from its tacky soap opera entanglements  to the teacher’s over-the-top courtroom excesses, it is with gleeful relief that we enjoy Davis’  presence.  But we don’t love watching her in the way one might love watching Dr. House or Walter White.

But I couldn’t care less about television and those who populate its wasteland.  Let’s take a look at the supposition that Hollywood is short on roles for African-American women.  For starters, Viola Davis has had seventy-three roles in movies and television over the last thirty years. In comparison, Claire Danes, the white actress who took the best actress Emmy last year, as well as the two previous years, has had the opportunity to play only thirty-nine roles over the last twenty-five years. There is no denying the low percentages of minority roles in Hollywood films, but it is an exaggeration to claim, as Davis did in her Emmy acceptance speech, that “the roles are simply not there.”  Morgan Freeman has had a lush career spanning fifty years, over which he played 114 roles. Robert Redford, in comparison, played 71 roles over  a career spanning fifty-five years. Even old-timers Ruby Dee and Ossie Davies had no shortage of work, with Davis scoring 107 roles over 55 years and Dee racking up 113 roles over 67 stunning years.

Most people who want to become movie stars are deluded egomaniacs who won’t be able to land a decent agent, let alone a great role.  But there are plenty of jobs in the entertainment industry that are filled by the common-sense rank and file. And the Civil Rights Act of 1964   was passed in order to ensure that the minority populations of Los Angeles have an equal chance at these jobs.  But Hollywood is not in compliance with this legislation, and that is the crime that Viola Davis, if she truly had a social conscience, should have addressed in her acceptance speech, rather than claiming there are no roles for African-Americans, when her own career is evidence to the contrary.

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7 thoughts on “Viola Davis, The Emmys, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

  1. Nice article, Bill. I see your point. Somewhere in that logic the other side would claim Davis and Freeman Dee and Davies are exceptions to the rule. That is, the ratio is unbalanced between white and minority actors. Out of 500 actors only 50 are minority, whether or not those 50 have a large tally to their credit it’s not representative of the work force.

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  2. I would argue that every movie star is an exception to the rule. In fact, i mention in the article that very few actors land a decent agent, let a alone a great role. Once an actor becomes established, there is no problem in getting roles. And there is a power elite among a certain group of African American actors that does more to shut others out than to expand career possibilities for newcomers. 27.7% of SAG members are non Caucasian, so your 50 out of 500 ratio is way off. Over 130 of every 500 actors is minority.

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  3. The examples I chose are representative. Here are some more random names. And keep in mind that Robert Redford only had 42 roles. Sidney Portier-55, kerry Washington-47,Angela Bassett- 84, Samuel Jackson -162, Denzel Washington- 54,Halle Berry-47, Laurence Fishburne – 103, Hattie McDaniel- 95, Danny Glover -170, James Earl Jones – 189, Forest Whitaker -110, Don Cheadle- 79, Cicelytyson – 88, Diahann Carroll – 60, Pam Grier – 96, Rosario Dawson – 73

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