Viola Davis’ soapy, over-the-top turn in “How to Get Away with Murder” may not be studied in future acting classes, but it will be forever etched in history as the veteran actress became the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead performance in a dramatic series.
The blame for the 66-year drought lies not with Emmy voters but with the TV industry, which had long failed to create juicy roles for women of color, a shameful legacy that Davis pointed out Sunday in a speech as powerful and memorable as anything that “Murder” creator Shonda Rhimes has ever penned for her star.
“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said after quoting abolitionist Harriet Tubman. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
The groundbreaking victory at Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater could not be dismissed as a blip, thanks to wins Sunday for two other black actresses: Regina King for her supporting work in the limited series “American Crime,” and Uzo Aduba as best supporting actress in the Netflix drama “Orange Is the New Black.”
Nearly one-fifth of the actors competing for Emmys this year were people of color, a stark contrast to the most recent Academy Awards ceremonies, which failed to nominate a single minority performer.
Jeffrey Tambor also made history with “Transparent,” in which he plays a retired professor who decides to become a woman. The Amazon series didn’t win best comedy, but Tambor was named outstanding comedic actor, the first major Emmy for a streaming series.
Jon Hamm’s win for the final season of “Mad Men” did not have the same historical significance, but it got one of the most enthusiastic receptions of the night. The popular leading man, who had lost 15 previous times as both an actor and producer, will go down as the only performer in the critically acclaimed series to ever be honored.
“There’s been a terrible mistake, clearly,” said Hamm, who crawled onto the stage like an exhausted marathon runner relieved to have a glass of ice water waiting for him at the finish line.
“Mad Men” didn’t win for outstanding drama, a mark that would have pulled it ahead of “The West Wing,” “Hill Street Blues” and “LA Law” as the only series to win the top award five times. That honor went to HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” silencing skeptics who thought the show’s violent content and sex scenes would turn off older, more conservative voters.
Andy Samberg didn’t revolutionize the role of host, but his breezy, non-threatening approach served as a nice contrast to a night of deserving drama.
He kicked off the ceremony with a video in which he made elaborate fun of the overload of TV programs available. He also gave a comical nod to the Emmys for making strides on diversity. “Congratulations, Hollywood, you did it. Racism is over!” he said before adding: “Don’t fact-check that.”
HBO’s “Veep” was named best comedy, the first time in its four-year run that it earned that distinction. Star Julia Louis-Dreyfus shocked absolutely no one by winning for the fourth year in a row; co-star Tony Hale took home supporting acting honors for the second time.
Another familiar face: Jon Stewart. For his final year as host of the “Daily Show,” the acerbic talk show won its 11th Emmy for variety talk show.
“You will never have to see me again,” Stewart quipped in his acceptance speech.
“The Daily Show” might have spoiled the party for comedian Amy Schumer if the Emmy had pitted her series “Inside Amy Schumer” against it. For the first time, the Academy put variety sketch series in a separate category, which meant the red-hot comic’s only real competition was “Saturday Night Live.”
Women also impressed with victories for two HBO offerings: “Bessie,” the Bessie Smith biopic produced by Queen Latifah, which picked up four Emmys in a lower-profile ceremony last week, including best TV movie, and “Olive Kitteridge,” which won for best limited series on Sunday along with trophies for actors Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins and Bill Murray, director Lisa Cholodenko and writer Jane Anderson.
It’s worth noting that Anderson also penned and directed the 2003 HBO film “Normal,” in which Tom Wilkinson played a character who plans to have a sex change. It’s not a stretch to say that Emmy-nominated film helped lay the groundwork for “Transparent,” and Tambor’s victory Sunday.
“I had a teacher who said, ‘Act like your life depends on it,’ ” Tambor said in accepting his Emmy. “Now I have the opportunity to act, because people’s lives depend on it.”
Tambor dedicated the victory to the transgender community, thanking it “for letting us be part of the change.”
Turns out there was room for more than one new chapter for the history books.