|Emmy-winning Viola Davis cantbreathe|
Viola Davis is a superb illustration of the labor required for #BlackSelfRespect. White Terrorism saturates her life, mandates that “classic beauty” be anything but black. She testifies to unrelenting abuse in the 2011 documentary Dark Girls, remembering how she was “constantly being called ‘black ugly nigger’ — those words together.”
This spiritual molestation is common for black people around the globe and helps explain the vicarious adulation so many black females experienced when Davis became the first African American female to win an Emmy for her lead role in the ABC drama How To Get Away With Murder. Danielle Moodie-Mills writes that during Davis’ moment of unprecedented accomplishment, “She stood on that stage, fierce, beautiful and firm in her blackness and womaness.” She paid homage to “General” Harriet Tubman as “she called out racism and challenged a system that refuses to see black women as whole.”
Davis and HTGAWM executive producer Shonda Rhimes are lauded for subverting racist projections of black people and producing opportunities for black actresses to be broadcast as commanding, professional, and valued.
But even though HTGAWM is a ShondaLand production, Rhimes did not write or create this series. Those credits belong to a gay White man, Peter Nowalk. He praises Rhimes as his guru and gushes about the lessons learned from years collaborating on her other lucrative franchises, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. There’s widespread gratitude for Nowalk devising the character Annalise Keating that allowed Julliard-trained Davis to make history.
Yet her unparalleled triumph felt familiar.
Davis’ victory seemed an encore of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry palming 2002 Oscars for exemplary portrayals of black hooliganism and debauchery. Nowalk repackages and camouflages worn-out Racist concepts of blacks toiling to help whitefolks and presents profoundly anti-black moments in the limited scenes when Davis is sans wig, unadulterated black. At its lowest, black female sexuality is – as usual – cast as malignant and scandalous.
One of Davis’ signature works is her 2011 Oscar-nominated portrayal of The Help’s Aibileen Clark, a servant for a White Supremacist family in 1960’s Mississippi. In spite of the film’s success, Davis candidly observes another constant: “I have been given a lot of roles that are downtrodden, mammy-ish… Then you’re going to be hungry for your next role, which is going to be absolutely the same. That’s the truth.” Nowalk’s debut project was “her shot at the anti-mammy,” according to GQ contributor Amy Wallace. Annalise Keating represents “a flinty, stylish defense lawyer and law professor,” and a scarce opening to animate a black female character as “cerebral and alluring… with a handsome husband and a lover on the side.” Ostensibly, Nowalk unshackled Davis from a racist industry, that, according to Kirsten West Savali, “pathologizes, reduces and co-opts blackness at every turn, especially black womanhood.”
But Annalise’s time and energy is almost exclusively in service to Whites. She’s an attorney extraordinaire with blouses worth more than Aibileen’s house. Other than one humdinger of an exception, black people are not privy to her counsel. Whites are the sole beneficiaries of her legal acumen, and the bulk of her customers aren’t even “good” Whitefolks. She successfully, ruthlessly defends White drug traffickers, alleged White sex offenders, admitted and suspected White killers. Her clientele is a smorgasbord of white-on-white crime. Mimicking Hattie McDaniel’s venerated contribution to Gone With The Wind, Annalise has no children and devotes the bulk of her time to the maintenance of unscrupulous white lives.
Now, about that humdinger.
The show’s sixth episode is the lone outlier, the only time Nowalk’s lead character devotes her energies to aiding black people. Keating successfully liberates a death row inmate (David Allen) who had been wrongly caged for decades. Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya digests the plot of the episode and why it signifies vintage ShondaLand entertainment:
“A white senator used Allen as a pawn to gain political power and gentrify an inner-city [black] area for financial gain. Annalise loudly condemns the racialized nature of the Senator’s scheme in one of the best Viola Davis moments in an episode full of spot-on Davis moments (seriously, this is going to be her Emmy reel episode, right?).”
Unfortunately, Racists don’t permit black people to enjoy a full glass. They must kick it over. Before one can appreciate a primetime drama with the courage to indict a White man for the deliberate caging of black bodies, we’re reminded that Annalise is still primarily concerned with the well being of whitefolks. Her white husband specifically.
Her lying, adulterous, womanizing, murderous, “handsome,” White husband.
Following her courtroom conquest, she jettisons her makeup and straight hair - props to imply strength. She confesses that she’s been lying, planting evidence, and framing the innocent to protect her guilty White spouse, Sam Keating. The scene concludes with Davis’ character dissolving into a whimpering puddle while declaring her need for psychopath Sam ad infinitum.
The politics of black hair exponentially magnify the significance of this scene and all other settings when Annalise reveals her natural. Franchesca Ramsey reminds us “there are very few black women on TV wearing their natural hair.” “There's a long, complicated history of black women being told by society [Whites] that their natural hair is unprofessional, ugly, distracting, and a whole host of other insults.” In another display of #BlackSelfRespect, Davis lobbied to have HTGAWM include her unprocessed do. It’s fascinating to deconstruct Nowalk’s politicking of black hair.
Upadhyaya unpacks the unmasking: “Annalise sits at her vanity and slowly peels back her layers. She removes her wig, her eyelashes, her makeup, never breaking eye contact with the reflection of her natural self. It’s an intimate, powerful moment television doesn’t often show: A black woman removing all the elements White Supremacy tells her she has to wear to be beautiful, successful, powerful. And let’s not forget that that wasn’t just Annalise taking it off: It was Davis, too...”
What happens in the narrative at this moment? Sam admits to having an affair with a dead blond girl. More layers are unearthed as the audience discovers that before they were married, Sam was her therapist – helping Annalise cope with the trauma of child rape. He was previously married, but had an affair with Annalise. She accurately diagnoses his fetish for mistresses who are “weak, broken, messes that” require his straightening. The scene ends with Sam violently subduing and momentarily smothering his black wife.
Annalise’ authentic locks re-emerge at the top of episode six. Wes, a law student and main character played by Harry Potter star Alfred Enoch, determines that his law professor is lying to protect her murderous white husband. He confronts Annalise and her natural hair to declare explicitly and repeatedly that she is “disgusting.”
This is not “anti-mammy” or “anti-racism;” this is the routine war to insist that black females be rebuked, abused, and de-feminized at all times.
The anti-blackness of Nowalk’s series is most forcefully emphasized in the presentation of black female sexuality. During a Variety interview, he disclosed, “Some of the characters are very driven by sex and I think that’s cool. I think Annalise — and Viola and I talk about it — she’s definitely driven by sex.” The problem becomes blatant in how Nowalk animates Annalise’s sexuality.
Her marriage – again, her husband's a White killer – began as an affair with a married man. His infidelity continues, while she’s stepping out with a dying cancer patient’s husband. And she doesn’t merely have adulterous sex with this black male, she betrays him continually, has him incarcerated unjustly, and decimates his life. This is not a critique born of “respectability politics.” This is an emphatic restatement of Melissa Harris-Perry’s conclusion that “the implications of sexual images for black American women are different.” “The sexualized myths of black women have conspired to narrow the political and social world for sisters.” How To Get Away With Murder was supposed to be beyond those confines.
Alessandra Stanley helped launch the series when her contentious New York Times piece described Davis as “darker-skinned and less classically beautiful.” Earlier in the same paragraph she writes, “As Annalise, Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way.” Unarmed black teens like Renisha McBride and Michael Brown Jr. are “menacing.” Is the sexuality of primetime, Emmy-winning White actresses branded as “menacing”? The scripting of Annalise’s promiscuity promotes Stanley’s perception.
This is best illustrated during the first season's winter finale. After an ugly verbal dispute and a second round of domestic abuse, Annalise’s White husband gives a mic drop and reminds us that black females are disgusting.
“You're nothing but a piece of ass. That's what I saw when I first talked to you in the office that day. Because I knew you would put out. That's all you're really good for. Dirty, rough sex I'm too ashamed to tell anyone about. That's how foul you are. You disgusting slut.”
Should this be the Emmy reel episode?