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.