“Congratulations to Michaela Coel and Michaela Coel only” was a popular tweet (or a variation of) circulating around this last night during the 73rd Annual Emmy Awards telecast and well into this morning. Why, you ask? BECAUSE SHE WAS ONE OF THE FEW PEOPLE OF COLOR TO WIN AN EMMY IN A MAJOR CATEGORY LAST NIGHT. (I would add handclap emojis between each word but this is a sophisticated publication of distinguished journalism.)
Let’s be honest, a lot of us are just tired of reporting the same ol’ story that serves as a barometer of how diverse Hollywood is when we know the answer: it’s not. Like many spaces, it isn’t an institution designed for people of color or other members of historically marginalized communities to succeed — and I will sing that song until I am blue in the face.
As much as awards seasons try, we will not see any substantial changes — at least not in this lifetime. It seems like we are fighting a losing battle. We are surprised after every single Emmys, Oscars and Golden Globes (all shade to the HFPA) ceremony about the lack of representation in the winners. We air those grievances and we just sit there and wait till we have to do it again. It’s cyclical and we expect a different outcome each year but do we get anything different?
Yet we still report and some of us act surprised while others just become frustrated for the scarcity and the fact that we continue to report on it expecting a major change. I remember writing a “diversity report” after each major awards ceremony at past jobs and keeping tabs on the people of color who were nominated and won became a chore that I approached with the mentality of “how is Hollywood going to disappoint me today?”
This year we counted nearly 42 nominations for people of color in the acting categories compared to the 36 nominations from the year prior. That’s a good thing, right? More nominations should equal more wins, right? Well, in theory, I guess.
Let’s start with the Creative Arts Emmys last weekend. Outside of the acting categories, we need to give shine to Robin Thede’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, which won its first Emmy for Outstanding Picture Editing For Variety Programming. , Daysha Broadway, Stephanie Filo, and Jess Hernández made history as the first woman of color editing team to win the category. So that’s a good place to start.
On the acting side, a handful performers of color won trophies. Courtney B. Vance won Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for Lovecraft Country; J.B. Smoove won Outstanding Actor in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series for Mapleworth Murders; Keke Palmer won Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series for Keke Palmer’s Turnt Up With the Taylors; and Dave Chapelle won Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for Hosting Saturday Night Live. Maya Rudolph won two Emmys on Sunday night. One for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for hosting Saturday Night Live and Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance for her role as Connie the Hormone Monstress in Big Mouth.
And that’s pretty much where the acting accolades ended for people of color — and that was for the Creative Arts Emmys, a ceremony that isn’t even televised. The Creative Arts Emmys also include trophies for below the line work, shorts and other writing and directing accolades. I am pretty sure that there are plenty of people of color who snatch trophies in these lesser-known categories, but does the general public actual get to see them receive the trophy? No.
However, the Television Academy sure loves to let people of color hand out trophies to their (mostly white) peers. During the Creative Arts Emmys, the presenters included: Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood), Carl Clemons-Hopkins (Hacks), Paris Jackson (American Horror Stories), Maz Jobrani (Gander), Thuso Mbedu (The Underground Railroad), Angelica
Ross (American Horror Story), Roselyn Sánchez (Fantasy Island), Ming-Na Wen (The Mandalorian; The Book of Boba Fett), Yvette Nicole Brown (A Black Lady Sketch Show), Nicole Byer (Nailed It!; Wipe Out), Jamie Chung (Lovecraft Country), Deon Cole (black-ish), Dulé Hill (The Wonder Years), Daniel Dae Kim (The Hot Zone: Anthrax), W. Kamau Bell (United Shades of America), Tituss Burgess (Central Park), and Jana Schmieding (Rutherford Falls)
During Sunday night ceremony, the trend of people of color handing out trophies continued with Cedric the Entertainer as host. The night’s presenters included Uzo Aduba, Paulina Alexis, Anthony Anderson, Awkwafina, Angela Bassett, Misty Copeland, Ava DuVernay, Lane Factor, Allyson Felix, America Ferrera, Sterlin Harjo, Taraji P. Henson, Gayle King, LL Cool J, Devery Jacobs, Ken Jeong, Mindy Kaling, Daniel Dae Kim, Vanessa Lachey, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Billy Porter, Mj Rodriguez, Tracee Ellis Ross, Yara Shahidi, Wilmer Valderrama, Kerry Washington, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, and Bowen Yang.
Many of the presenters such as Nicole Byer, Bowen Yang, Billy Porter, and Mj Rodriguez were also nominees. Presenters J.B. Smoove, RuPaul Charles and Debbie Allen did double duty as Emmy winners and presenters.
This is a great opportunity to reiterate that representation matters. I would have been much more excited about the Emmys if there were more people of color winning trophies rather than handing them out to their white male peers.
Last year, Zendaya made history as the youngest actress to win Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series for her role in Euphoria. Regina King and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II won for their roles in Watchmen while Uzo Aduba scored an Emmy for for her turn as Shirley Chisholm in Mrs. America. Even in 2020, the number of performers of color who won Emmys was sparse.
Congrats to Ted Lasso, The Crown and Hacks but, with all this talk about inclusivity, these wins don’t reflect how Hollywood is supposedly “shifting” to bolster marginalized voices. Everyone was talking about how groundbreaking Pose was and in its last season it received so many nominations including a history making nod for Mj Rodriguez. The FX series co-created by Steven Canals walked away with three Emmys this year for hairstyling, costumes and makeup — but none for acting, directing or writing. Seeing that the series recently wrapped its run, you would think the Television Academy would give it its flowers but it didn’t.
Lovecraft Country caused waves with its blend of sci-fi and civil rights history and although it earned Courtney B. Vance an Emmy, fellow nominees Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis and the late, great Michael K. Williams walked away empty handed.
As it enters its final season, Issa Rae’s celebrated HBO comedy Insecure received a boatload of nominations and won Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series — and nothing else.
There could have been so many incredible moments this year with the list of nominees. If the aforementioned Mj Rodriguez won, she would have been the first trans woman to win a major category. The Flight Attendant‘s Rosie Perez is the third Latinx actress to score a nomination in the supporting comedy actress category after Sofia Vergara and Liz Torres. If she would have won, it would have been an amazing moment for the Latinx community.
After so many iconic moments during this past season of Saturday Night Live, Bowen Yang was the favorite of many to win for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series — the first Chinese-American to be nominated in the category. If he won, it would have shook Asian Hollywood as the first openly gay Asian male to win the category.
All hope was not lost last night. The RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise added six trophies to its Emmy mantle including Outstanding Competition Program and Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program making RuPaul Charles the winningest Black artist in Emmy history.
In addition, after putting in the work for decades, the iconic producer, director, actor, choreographer, dancer and overall queen Debbie Allen received the Governors Award. This was also a shining moment in a sea of white during last night’s Emmys ceremony. I don’t know about you but Allen was a formative part of my upbringing reshaped television for people of color with shows like Fame and A Different World.
And as mentioned at the top of this article, one of the biggest moments was when Michaela Coel won Outstanding Writing In A Limited Series for the incredible HBO series I May Destroy You, a show that should have earned her all the things. She became the first Black woman to win the category. We are just happy she got this trophy which is why it was such a poignant moment in a night that lacked color. Watch her moment below.
All of these groundbreaking moments are worth celebrating but I would be remiss to not focus on the bigger picture: the lack of inclusivity in awards ceremony. We’ve talked about how these ceremonies are a form of white validation and for the Television Academy to feature people of color as presenters, hosts and to provide music for the ceremony but not give them trophies seems like a disservice and counters how Hollywood claims to be inclusive. It’s like they are saying “You should just be glad to be in this industry and have a seat at the table” in the nicest way possible — which somehow makes it worse.
And for those of you who are saying that diverse talent is taking away work from the dominant culture in film ant TV, please think about your words next time you say something like that out loud. The Emmys just proved that this isn’t the case and Tia Glo (Gloria Calderon Kellett) puts it best when she tweeted:
To the "allies" who told me that they are losing jobs to diversity & there is too much diversity in TV PLEASE look at the winners of tonights Emmy. Who got extensive budgets & campaigns? Still so much work to do for actual equality. Glad to be on the Exec committee to make change
— Gloria Calderón Kellett (@everythingloria) September 20, 2021
The lack of people of color winning is, again, not surprising, but we will power through because if we stop we give in to the system that does not necessarily want to share. We have to continue the hold these systems accountable and aware of their blindspots so that those behind us don’t have to fight as hard.
Some may say that film and TV awards shows don’t mean anything, but in reality, they bolster visibility. Wins help create opportunities for marginalized voices and in turn, open the door for more diverse storytelling. Feels like we are on an endless journey to get there, but if we don’t get there faster it may be time to divest from these awards show and build a new system that levels the playing field.
Yes, Ted Lasso and The Crown are great shows, but there’s a new level of excitement when it comes to shows like Lovecraft Country, Insecure, I May Destroy You, P-Valley, Them, Underground Railroad and newer shows like Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls and Never Have I Ever. These are stories told by Brown and Black that we have never seen before. It’s fresh and new — and these stories are what continues to push marginalized voices forward. It’s up to those in power to give it shine. All we can do is create what we know. Michaela Coel put it best in her acceptance speech:
“Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable. I dare you. In a world that entices us to browse the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible — for visibility, these days, seems to somehow equate to success — do not be afraid to disappear. From it, from us, for a while. And see what comes to you in the silence.”
The hashtag #EmmysSoWhite (or a variation of) started circulating after last night’s ceremony. This conversation isn’t new, but awards ceremonies tend to remind us that if we don’t speak up, nothing will change. Yes, Emmys and Oscars are so white, but perhaps the more appropriate hashtag should be #HollywoodSoWhite. We may be tired of talking about it, but we’re not going to stop. So until next year when I report how white the Emmys are, let’s just keep the party going because resilience will eventually bring change.