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Emmys 2015: Viola Davis's incredible speech shows how far Hollywood has to go

Viola Davis, Emmy winner
Viola Davis, Emmy winner
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Game of Thrones' historic Emmy night began with the prize for Writing in a Drama Series, the first win for showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff after nine nominations. The two gave the speech they've likely been sitting on since day one, thanking HBO for "taking a chance on two schmucks with no experience."

Game of Thrones is an enormous televisual achievement, which made this "aw, shucks" moment jarring — especially when Viola Davis accepted her award just minutes later.

With her win for How to Get Away with Murder, Davis became the first black woman to win an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama. In a packed night of better than usual speeches, Davis's acceptance still stood head and shoulders beyond the rest.

She hugged fellow nominee Taraji P. Henson, walked onto the stage to rapturous applause, and clutched the Emmy with fierce gratitude before launching into her powerful speech:

"In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful, white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but I can't seem to get there no how. I can't seem to get over that line."

That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.[ Applause ] You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

She thanked her peers — black actresses, like Henson, Kerry Washington, and others, who have had to fight very hard to fill the very few roles they could. She thanked her writers and Shonda Rhimes (Murder's producer) for redefining "what it means to be beautiful... to be a leading woman... to be black."

But the lines that stand out are her indictments of systemic disenfranchisement: "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."

Viola Davis has been working for decades. She has been nominated for multiple Oscars and won two Tonys. But her prominent, juicy role on How to Get Away with Murder is still a rare opportunity for actresses of color.

Compare Davis's speech to Weiss and Benioff's speech. The disparity is incredible. Where Davis and her peers often have to work harder for less gratifying roles, HBO trusted Benioff and Weiss, novelists who had never run a TV show, with its biggest project in years. The two have certainly risen to the challenge. But it's hugely unlikely they would have gotten a similar chance had they not been white men.

While HBO has made public moves toward a different demographic makeup with diversity fellowships and developing a show for black comedian Issa Rae, the network as a whole is still overwhelmingly white and male.

In admitting that they had scant experience before getting the keys to television's biggest franchise, Benioff and Weiss inadvertently revealed the instinctive way much of Hollywood makes decisions — and Davis used her historic victory to call that broken system out with fire and grace.