Remember the historic whiteout that hit Hollywood on Jan. 15, 2015?
We’re not talking about the weather, of course, but rather this year’s Oscar nominations — in which not a single person of color snagged one of the 20 major acting nominations.
Whether Academy insiders egregiously snubbed critical faves like Selma‘s David Oyelowo and Beyond the Lights‘ Gugu Mbatha-Raw — or if it was more a case of the film industry failing to deliver interesting, diverse roles/casting — the resulting public-relations black eye was definitely not the kind of color we’d been seeking.
For a study in opposites, you need look no further than the 2015 Emmy race for Lead Actress in a Drama Series — which is shaping up to be a groundbreaking contest between How to Get Away With Murder‘s Viola Davis and Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson.
Just how historic are we talking? Since the inception of the category in 1953, no black woman has ever taken home the statuette. What’s more, two or more black women have never been nominated for the Lead Actress in a Drama division in the same year.
In fact, if Scandal‘s Kerry Washington lands her third consecutive nomination this year — and Henson and Davis aren’t unspeakably snubbed — half of this year’s nods in the category would go to African-American actresses.
“I think it is 100 percent going to happen — all three African-American actresses will be in this year’s Emmy race,” says Cori Murray, Entertainment Director for Essence Magazine. “Taraji and Viola have been Oscar-nominated in the past and Kerry had a lot of critical acclaim for Ray and The Last King of Scotland — but the juicy movie roles just weren’t coming. TV is where it’s at right now.”
The only thing more definitive than the worthiness of these ladies’ performances will be the promotional push to get them into contention — a factor that may be most crucial to Henson, considering the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ skittishness around genre shows and Empire‘s (erroneous) dismissal in some circles as merely a soap opera.
Fox and Empire‘s producers at 20th Century Fox “will be mounting a big Emmy push for” the freshman ratings phenom, according to one insider, starting with an event for Academy voters on Thursday, March 12 at the Ace Theater in downtown Los Angeles that will preview the first hour of Empire‘s upcoming Season 1 finale — and include live musical performances and a Q&A session. “Taraji is expected to be front and center in the advertising and editorial,” says the insider.
Ilene Chaiken, showrunner for Empire, says that while it’s not in her nature to think about awards shows, she hopes voters look at not only the outré aspects and extreme quotability of Henson’s ex-con-turned-label-exec Cookie Lyon, but also at the character’s more subtle moments. “There’s no question in my mind Taraji’s performance is worthy in every way — and ‘Emmy-worthy’ gets included in that,” says Chaiken. “The impact of the character she’s created — the way she’s been received in the world — is exceptional. You can’t look away from that. I love what she brings to the role in terms of humanity as well as those great ‘Cookie moments’ — and the fact that those things live in the character with equal authenticity is what makes Taraji truly remarkable.”
ABC, too, is acutely aware of the critical buzz for Davis’ performance as How to Get Away With Murder‘s outwardly hard-charging but internally messy defense attorney Annalise Keating. As one network insider puts it, “the show is a priority for us on many levels, including winning the awards it deserves.”
Darren J. Schillace, senior vice president of marketing at ABC, is a tad more diplomatic, but nevertheless supportive: “We’re very fortunate at ABC to have many actresses who could take home the Emmy, and we will be supporting all of them in that quest,” he says. “Viola is most certainly included in that.”
Throughout the course of HTGAWM‘s inaugural 15-episode run, Davis’ performance proved to be as subtle as it was mercurial: Her Annalise could jolt an entire courtroom into submission with her deep, booming voice and outrageous legal maneuvers, then back at home get pulled under a riptide of tears, vodka and murky morality. The show’s Oct. 16, 2014 installment, though, served notice that the Lead Actress race had a new front-runner: At the end of the hour, Davis audaciously let the audience see Annalise remove her glamorous armor — her jewelry, her false eyelashes, even her wig — and come face-to-face with her bare self while digesting news of her husband’s infidelity.
Right from Empire‘s pilot episode, meanwhile, Henson has been the blazing sun around which the cultural and ratings phenomenon has revolved. The Person of Interest vet has created a stunningly unique character, one whose wicked sense of humor finds her flashing her lingerie-clad backside to a romantic rival, then hissing, “Oh, and Anika, this is an ass” — but whose ferocious maternal instinct and palpable love of the music business are two of the primary reasons the show cannot be dismissed as mere camp.
Essence‘s Murray points out that regardless of how the 2015 Emmys play out, both Henson and Davis should have plenty of future opportunities to snag statuettes, considering both of their shows have been renewed for sophomore seasons — and have delivered ratings and buzz across all races and age ranges. “We love Cookie. We love Annalise – or at least we love watching her be messy. We’re all Gladiators,” Murray says, tipping her hat to the Scandal fandom. “This could just be the beginning.”