The nominations for the 69th annual Primetime Emmy Awards were announced Thursday, and at first glance, things looked pretty good for black Hollywood. Of the seven shows nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series, Black-ish and Atlanta made the cut and their male leads, Anthony Anderson and Donald Glover respectively, are competing in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category.
Lena Waithe, who plays the wry and stylish Denise on Master of None, landed her first Emmy nomination for co-writing the critically hailed “Thanksgiving” episode. Ava DuVernay continued her victory lap with her award-winning documentary The 13th, which received a whopping eight nominations, including an Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program nod to Kira Kelly and Hans Charles. Viola Davis was recognized for her consistently great performance as the brilliant and cunning Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder, and Thandie Newton is in the running for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for the sci-fi Western Westworld.
While the Emmys tend to be more inclusive than the Oscars, black actors and actresses still face certain hurdles, particularly in the lead acting categories. Sterling K. Brown has a strong chance of winning in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama series category for his performance in This Is Us (deservedly so), but he is the only black actor and actor of color in that category this year. Only two black actors have won previously—Bill Cosby for I Spy (1965-1968) and Andre Braugher in 1998 for Homicide: Life on the Street—revealing an almost 20-year gap since a black actor has won in this category.
Viola Davis’ historic win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2015 hasn’t moved the needle much; this year she is the only black actress and woman of color in that category. Tracee Ellis Ross is also the only black woman vying for a win in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series category; Isabel Sanford still holds the record as the only black actress to win, in 1981, for The Jeffersons.
Which makes the Emmys’ total snubbing of Issa Rae and Insecure all the more troubling. Debuting on HBO in fall 2016, Insecure was acclaimed by both critics and viewers alike, but come nomination time, the show got no Emmy love.
Upon closer inspection, there were quite a few black shows and performances that garnered the same amounts of critical acclaim as their mainstream (read: white) counterparts but weren’t acknowledged by Emmy voters. Underground returned for a heart-stopping second season this spring, anchored by a tour de force performance by Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman, but her work went unrecognized by Emmy voters.
This, in part, speaks to the politics of the Emmy race: An awards campaign is only as good as the network that backs it. This year, HBO received a staggering 111 nominations, followed by Netflix with 91 and NBC with 64 nominations. While Hinds received plenty of press for her transcendent work in the “Minty” episode, the surprise cancellation of Underground by WGN’s new parent company, Sinclair Broadcast Group, pretty much killed Hinds’ (and the show’s) awards campaign.
Queen Sugar, the brainchild of Ava DuVernay, is a darling of the critics but has also been ignored by the Emmys. Based on Natalie Baszile’s novel, Queen Sugar unapologetically centers blackness against a beautiful Southern backdrop rarely seen on television. A show that deftly interrogates toxic masculinity, black-vs.-white wealth and black activism deserved more consideration.
The same for Fox’s Shots Fired, created by filmmaking spouses Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. The limited series was a timely snapshot of police brutality in the age of Black Lives Matter, with Sanaa Lathan as Ashe Akino, an expert investigator dispatched by the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the shooting of a white college student by a black police officer. Both the show and Lathan’s performance went under the awards radar.
Which brings us to the simple and uncomfortable truth that, in the almost 70 years of the Emmy Awards’ existence, no black drama has ever won in the Outstanding Drama Series category. We’ve had slightly more success in the Outstanding Limited Series category, with Emmy wins for The Corner (2000) and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and three wins for Outstanding Television Movie, with Miss Evers Boys, Don King and Bessie. But Emmy awards for acting in, writing and directing black dramas overall are too few and far between.
When the overwhelming majority of nominations and wins go to shows that center white protagonists, we need to examine whose lives really matter to Emmy voters. We should absolutely cheer on and celebrate this year’s black Emmy nominees, but let’s not get complacent. We still have work to do in making the Emmys even more inclusive.