THE BLOG

Success Comes in All Shapes, Colours and Sizes

01/26/2015 12:35 EST | Updated 03/28/2015 05:59 EDT

For two decades, the Screen Actors Guild has been highlighting its members' best performances. The annual gala isn't as white as the 2015 Oscar nominees, but it's pretty close.‎ ‎

Over 21 SAG award ceremonies, only ‎seven non-white actresses have ever garnered a nomination for "outstanding performance" in the TV drama category (roughly 94 per cent of all nods in this category go to Caucasian-looking actors). The Oscars have a similar track record: since 1990.

With so few actors of colour to speak of, it is difficult to trace any trends regarding the incongruent inclusion of minorities in the arena of artistic success. ‎Some say the lack of meaningful roles or developed character arcs -- especially for Asians, Latinos and African Americans -- contributed to their perpetual absence in the winners' circle. Others point to audiences' intolerance for non-white central characters. Another hypothesis: the pool of ethnic talent is so shallow, they say, that the only plausible outcome is that the inevitably white "best qualified" be bestowed the highest honours. ‎

At the 2015 SAG awards, ‎Viola Davis became the third actor of colour to ever take home the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a TV Drama.‎ ‎

The first actor to break the glass ceiling was Sandra Oh (2006), a Korean-Canadian actress who remains one of few Asians ever to be given a meaningful role in a mainstream drama. Besides Oh's acting brilliance, the character she played on Grey's Anatomy ‎broke the usual mould reserved for demure, quiet, oriental china doll tropes. Sandra Oh gave a shout-out to fellow Asian actors in her acceptance speech, ostensibly a nod to those who are still struggling to break free from the straight jacket of stereotypes usually reserved for them.

The following year, African-American Chandra Wilson nabbed the 2007 SAG statue for her role as Dr. Bailey on Grey's Anatomy.‎ It's a character the actress poured her heart and soul into.‎ ‎In her acceptance speech, an emotional Wilson explained: ‎"To be able to take this [award] home to my girls and say: with this [dark] skin, this [wide] nose, with this height, these arms: I am here! Thank you SAG for taking me as I am."

‎There is a sense of "Am I dreaming? Pinch me!" disbelief when an actor who falls so far outside Hollywood's stringent "leading lady" prototype rises to this venerable plateau. ‎

This time, it was Viola Davis's turn. With ageless chocolate-coloured skin, the actor endowed with decidedly afro-centric features was given the lead role (!!!) in a new legal drama. In a new primetime legal drama. How to Get Away with Murder chronicles the personal and professional life of Annalise Keating, a law‎ professor at prestigious American college.‎ ‎‎Viola Davis' performance has impressed TV critics and audiences alike.

In her tear-jerker ‎allocution, Davis, with her naturally-curled coif, picked up where her aforementioned predecessors left off: "I'd like to ‎thank [TV producers] for thinking that a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old dark-skinned African-American woman who looks like me... Thank you to all the people who love me exactly how God made me."‎

It is worth noting that all three actresses were allowed to blossom on a TV show produced by African-American powerhouse Shonda Rhimes.    

Prior to Scandal, it had been almost 40 years since any network television drama starred a black woman. Rhimes has taken the small screen by storm in spite of (or because) she threw typecasting tropes to the wind.  

Like the lauded SAG actors themselves, ‎America likes to see itself reflected on the small screen. Perhaps it is a lesson all Hollywood execs need to (re)learn. Commercial success comes in all shapes, colours, and sizes.