Viola Davis Didn’t Think Her Famous Emmy Acceptance Speech Was Landing With the Audience

By
67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Show
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In 2015, Viola Davis made history by becoming the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Drama for her work on How to Get Away With Murder. In her rousing acceptance speech, she quoted Harriet Tubman and insisted that “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.” The speech has since grown into an iconic moment in TV history, but at the time, Davis didn’t think the audience was into it — did she not see the pure pride gleaming off Taraji P. Henson? “I didn’t think it was landing,” she revealed in a New Yorker profile. “I wasn’t so concerned with that, because my whole life I’ve been focused on approval, on acceptance, on shame and all that. I’ve been focused on it for so much. One day it lifted.”

Davis’s speech also became the catalyst for her transition into using her celebrity for advocacy. In the profile, she refers to this as the “unknown responsibility of celebrity” and discusses her commitment to various social issues. “There is no line in my life and in my spirit,” she said, referencing the Tubman quote in her speech,”but there is a line in the culture for me as a woman and me as an African-American.” She got fed up, she explained, with stereotypical parts, many of which were “downtrodden, mammyish” and with publicity tours, doing press for movies with people she’d never met. So Davis decided she needed a “higher meaning in my life,” and it seems that whatever Viola Davis commits to doing, she does extremely well.

Viola Davis Didn’t Know Her Emmy Speech Landed