The 2015 prime-time Emmy Awards have set a record, with 18 nominations for black actors and actresses this year. If this weren't already huge enough, Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson have both been nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category for their performances in ABC's How to Get Away With Murder and Fox's Empire, respectively. If either of these two stars should win, she would make history as the first black actress to win the honor.
While Davis and Henson share the highly competitive field with other talented actresses, including Robin Wright (House of Cards), Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Claire Danes (Homeland) and Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), many TV critics and prognosticators have placed their bets on either Davis or Henson taking home the statue.
Henson dominated Wednesday nights with her performance as Cookie Lyon, the ex-wife of a drug dealer-turned-music mogul who gets released from prison after a 17-year stint and returns to lay claim to half of her husband's multimillion-dollar record label, which was initially funded with her drug money. A complex and compelling concoction of smart, loud, savvy, unpolished, funny and compassionate, Cookie became an instant fan favorite with her all-animal-print outfits and signature lines like, "Boo-boo kitty."
Henson has been praised for bringing a richness to a character that, in the wrong hands, could have easily become a joke or a stereotype. In an interview with People magazine, Henson said of Cookie, "She can be really bigger than life, so I took very good care into making her someone that people could identify with—a real person, not just a caricature who could be sassy and roll her neck."
Cookie has been heralded as the heart of Empire, and Henson's performance is undoubtedly a major reason Empire became the first show in over 20 years to increase its viewership episode after episode toward its record-breaking season finale.
In How to Get Away With Murder, Davis portrays Annalise Keating, a morally dubious, take-no-prisoners law professor and high-profile defense attorney who helps her law students cover up the murder of her philandering husband. As Annalise, Davis brought audiences a complicated, layered character who was brilliant, mysterious, messy, ruthless and sexualized.
Davis has often discussed how important it is to her to present Annalise as a woman who isn't perfect. In fact, it was Davis' idea to gift audiences with her epic wig-removal scene and show what it really looks like when a woman comes home after a long day and strips off her armor.
Davis, who was famously described as "less classically beautiful" by a New York Times writer last year, has said that her role on HTGAWM is unprecedented because audiences never see women on TV who look like her playing a character like Annalise.
Davis told The Wrap, "And in the history of television and even in film, I've never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me. My age, my hue, my sex. She is a woman who absolutely culminates the full spectrum of humanity: our askew sexuality, our askew maternal instincts. She's all of that, and she's a dark-skin black woman."
It's definitely a new day, and whether or not Empire or HTGAWM is your cup of tea, Henson and Davis have helped to expand the representation of black women on TV with their game-changing performances, and have also helped to open the door for other black actresses and actors. That's the point of diversity, right?
Akilah Green is a recovering Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist-politico turned TV and film writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She currently works for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, Chelsea. She has also worked as a staff writer for Kevin Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, and as a consultant for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. In addition, she co-wrote and is producing Scratch, an indie horror-comedy feature film, and is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow Green’s adventures in La La Land on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.