Why Viola Davis’ Award-Winning Speech Gives Dark-Skinned Girls License To Soar

The SAG Awards on Sunday night presented the standard fare that we have come to expect from award shows- but just when things seemed stuck in stagnancy, a miracle happened.

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Actress Viola Davis whose role as Annalise Keating on the ABC hit show How to Get Away with Murder has garnered a slew of acclaim and adulation had the good fortune of winning the top acting prize in the drama series category.

As if it wasn’t enough to watch her majestically strut up the stage to receive her award, she had to heighten the moment by giving one of the most endearing speeches ever recited.

Davis was emotionally riveted by her win and boldly expressed her gratitude for the chance to play “a 49-year-old, dark-skinned, African-American woman who looks like me”.

Anyone who is familiar with the character of Annalise Keating will be able to comprehend the gravity of Davis’ remarks. Keating is a high-powered lawyer who is deliciously complex in ways that are not necessarily afforded black actresses. The fact that one of the show’s producers happens to be Shonda Rhimes is no coincidence and can be attributed to Davis’ casting. Rhimes has a knack of assigning the best roles on television to women of color which has led to the immense popularity of offerings like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and the recent juggernaut, How to Get Way with Murder.

It isn’t so surprising that Davis has carried over her genius to the small screen after years of toiling away unnoticed until her magnificent turn in films like 2008’s Doubt and The Help (2010) gave her the level of exposure and acclaim that was quite frankly long overdue. Her talent is evident and has been for quite some time but being a black actress in Hollywood is no easy feat and can sometimes require a healthy dose of perseverance to survive the rough waves that plague all the players regardless of race but is particularly unforgiving for talents of color.

Davis is a symbol of hope for black women who have to deal with rejection not just from outside forces but also from within their own community. As a girl with a dark brown hue, I grew up hearing relatives and family friends declare how much I resembled my mother except for the fact that she was lighter skinned. I could have succumbed to the consequences that come with those careless observations but I was lucky enough to have a mother who made it her mission to give her only daughter enough ammunition to ward off the impeding storm of color bias.

Her hard work paid off and I went on to blossom into a relatively confident woman who aside from the usual missteps is capable of holding her own despite the sentiment against my skin color. But there are plenty of young impressionable girls who share my skin tone who have been bullied and belittled because they had the misfortune of not possessing the requirements that leans them towards the template of beauty that has been universally celebrated. The fair-skinned and blue-eyed damsel in distress who is rescued by her knight and shining armor is the stuff that fairytales are made of – from Cinderella to Rapunzel, little girls are given a preparatory course of what “beautiful” looks like and if they realize they don’t fit the description, it can be a big blow to their self-esteem. But the ones who suffer the most are the batch that are on the far opposite of the spectrum. The girls who are exploding with evidence of their ethnicity – the wide nose, thick lips, almond-shaped eyes, and skin the color of dark cocoa or even darker. These features don’t translate well in the grand theme of scheme of things and this leads to frustrating limitations especially in the world of entertainment.

That is why Viola Davis is a dream come true for girls like me and countless others who are struggling for acceptance in a world that systematically rejects them without good reason. Last fall, New York Times reporter Alessandra Stanley, penned an article that caused an uproar due to her dismissive comment about Davis who she referred to as “less classically beautiful” compared to her more acceptable counterparts like actresses Kerry Washington and Halle Berry who are certainly closer to the cemented ideal. As damning as Stanley’s statement is, she isn’t in the minority in her assumptions.

Cosmetic and fashion brands still tend to utilize mostly Caucasian women of varying ages for their campaigns and TV advertisements and if they do venture outside the box they go for women who are either of mixed heritage or possess some measure of ambiguity. The top magazines in the business flat out refuse to feature women of color on their coveted covers and if you do the research, the results are dismal. This sends a clear message that black women are globally not deemed very desirable or worthy enough to be honored with the same respect and recognition as white women.

The darker the skin the deeper the wounds and the mountain you have to climb to achieve your dreams will be a lot more formidable which is grossly unfair but a mandated fact.

That is why Davis’s acceptance speech is a lifesaver and the perfect antidote against the brutal ignorance that stands in the way of girls who have everything to offer but somehow are regulated to the sidelines – as punishment for something that is completely out of their control. Director Bill Duke attempted to shed light on this exhaustive issue by producing two films (Dark Girls and Light Girls) but it took Davis’ passionate testimony to enlighten those in the dark (no pun intended) and give strength to the ones who have been suffering for far too long.

Seeing her in all her glory, with her natural tresses perfectly coiled and free matched with her solidly dark hue was a breathtaking moment that will undoubtedly change lives and empower young girls who are badly in need of a validated blueprint to help fuel their hopes and dreams. It is the reassurance that despite what is reflected in the societal mirror, being dark-skinned doesn’t have to be viewed as an impediment or the reason to feel inadequate. You can battle it out with the best of them without succumbing to bleaching creams, nose jobs and hair extensions.

All you have to do is surround yourself with people who will love you exactly the way God made you.

If it worked for Viola Davis – surely it will work for us!