Confession: I missed the Emmy Awards Sunday night. I was driving back to New York for work on Monday. It means I missed Viola Davis become the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. It means I missed Taraji P. Henson going HAM in the audience and from the stage for her sister-friends Viola Davis and Regina King. It means I sat alone Monday afternoon in front of my laptop watching clips of beautiful black actresses celebrating one another’s wins and crying happy tears while I marveled at the #BlackGirlMagic on worldwide display.
There’s no doubt that Henson wanted to win the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role as the magnetic Cookie Lyon on Fox’s Empire. She’s a veteran actress who, after 20 years in the game and an Oscar nomination on her résumé, is just now getting her long-denied just due.
Given the breadth of her part, the flood of magazine covers, prominent interviews and international celebration of Empire, she seemed like a shoo-in. But Davis, a fellow actress whose greatness has also been long overlooked during awards season, was a formidable challenger with her star turn as Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. She deserved the win just as much. And she got it!
When her name was announced as the winner, Davis leaped to her feet in joy, kissing her husband and accepting congratulations from those around her. Across the aisle, Henson was on her feet, too, jumping up as if it were her name that had just been called. As Davis hustled her way to the stage, she made a beeline for Henson, her competitor but also her sister, who stopped her with a proud, hard, gleeful embrace. It was the kind of hug we all got—or wanted—from our mamas and grandmas at graduation. It was as if Henson had won, too.
In a sense, she did. In 2015 Davis had just made history. Henson, who has struggled for recognition, knows the work, the perseverance, the frustration that Davis faced to gain this better-late-than-never accomplishment. Davis had opened the door of possibilities. And Henson celebrated Davis the same way black folks watching at home that night (or, ahem, on YouTube the next day) would have wanted to if they were sitting in the auditorium with Davis.
Davis took the stage and stood at the microphone to accept her award, struck silent as she was overwhelmed with emotion. The camera panned to the crowd to show Henson, the only audience member on her feet, clapping her encouragement for Davis. Elsewhere in the amphitheater, Kerry Washington sat riveted and seemed to hold back tears of joy as she looked on at Davis’ speech. At home, sitting at my kitchen counter, I choked back a sob as Davis so eloquently repped for black women with her passionate line, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
On Tuesday morning Henson visited The Ellen DeGeneres Show to explain her big reaction: “Viola deserved that award,” she said. “And honestly, it would have felt weird if I had gotten it over her. ... She’s been doing it longer. You’ve just got to give respect and know when your time is.”
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