As I’m sure you’ve all heard by now (even if you didn’t watch last night’s live broadcast), Viola Davis made history, becoming the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Incredible when you consider that this was the 67th edition of the aging institution. Some would say, better late than never; for others, it’s about damn time!
This comes after just 5 previous nominations for black actresses in that specific category – Debbie Allen, Alfre Woodard, Regina Taylor, Cicely Tyson, and Kerry Washington for “Fame,” “St. Elsewhere,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Sweet Justice,” and “Scandal” respectively, between 1982 and 2014 – a long 32-year span, which works out to about 1 black actress nominee every 6.5 years since the first.
But as Ms Davis said in her succinct yet impactful acceptance speech, “You cannot win Emmys for roles that are simply not there.” Maybe we’re finally on the cusp of real change. Maybe…
I say “maybe” because I recall when Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 2001 – the first black woman to do so, making history, just as Davis did last night; the talk of the town was how that historic occurrence augured a monumental change in the recognition of the talents of black actresses, and the roles that would become available to them, especially in studio pictures. And we all know how well all those predictions turned out to be true. Almost 15 years later, annual diversity reports (although one doesn’t really need them to be aware) tell us just how very little has changed. In that 15-year span, performances by black actresses have been nominated for Oscars in that category just 3 times. In fact, after Halle’s win, it would take another long 8 years before another black actress was nominated – Gabourey Sidibe for “Precious.” She didn’t win of course; so 15 years after Halle’s seemingly auspicious win for black actresses in Hollywood, there hasn’t been another win in that category. And given this year’s slate of Oscar contending performances, as well as what names are at the top of every analyst’s list, another year will go by without a black actress nominee/win in the Best Actress category.
All that to say… a GREAT win for Viola Davis, whose talents I believe we all respect and appreciate, and an actress we are all rooting for. But let’s not jinx anything by repeating what happened after Halle made history 15 years ago. In 5 years or so, we’ll look back and discuss how much will have changed (hopefully) since Viola’s historic win.
Reiterating what she said in her acceptance speech, “You cannot win Emmys for roles that are simply not there.” Hence, more roles please – especially lead roles… for both black actresses and actors. As I noted on Twitter last night during the broadcast, there have been zero black nominees in the Lead Actor (male) in a Drama Series category in the last 14 years; the addition of Morris Chestnut in Fox’s new medical crime drama series “Rosewood,” is the only new entry this season, and likely the only potential nominee in that category next year (assuming the series finds an audience, and isn’t canceled by Fox before the season is over; Tough times for new TV shows in recent years, with studio executives ready and willing to scrap them if they aren’t instant hits). I would add Idris Elba in “Luther,” but the upcoming new “season” of the hit Brit series comprises of only 2 episodes, and is actually more of a special than an actual series. So if it were indeed to be nominated, it would likely be in the Miniseries or Movie category, not Drama Series.
The last time a black actor (male) was nominated in the Lead Actor (male) in a Drama Series category? 2001 – Andre Braugher for “Gideon’s Crossing.” And the last time a black actor (male) won in the Lead Actor in a Drama Series category? 1998 – also Andre Braugher for “Homicide.”
There’s still much work to be done for black performers on both TV and in film. The “drought” is real, as someone said to me on Twitter last night.
I should note that this year is also the first time two black actresses have been simultaneously nominated in the Lead Actress in a Drama Series category – Taraji P. Henson being the other.
Other key wins of the night:
– Outstanding Made for Television Movie went to “Bessie,” only the second win for a “black telepic.” The first and last was in 1997, when “Miss Evers’ Boys” won, which Laurence Fishburne produced.
– In what I think was a bit of a *shocker* for most, Regina King won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, for her performance in John Ridley’s “American Crime.” I say that because I don’t think most predicted or expected that she would win. Even she herself seemed quite surprised when her name was called. But it’s a much-deserved win for an actress who’s been toiling away for a good 30 years in this business! She’s been nominated for, and won, several BET and NAACP Image Awards, but this was her first (nomination and win) on TV’s grandest stage of all. This is a category (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie) that black actresses have actually been recognized in more-so than others. King’s nomination is the 21st, and her win is the 5th.
– Uzo Aduba won the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series Emmy, for her performance in “Orange Is the New Black.” With this win, she becomes the first actress (non-race-specific) to win for the same role in both Comedy and Drama categories. The series was nominated in the Outstanding Comedy Series category last year, and was changed to the Outstanding Drama Series category this year, which I think is actually more suitable.
– Finally, Reg E. Cathey won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, for his contributions to Netflix’s “House Of Cards.” It’s also a category in which black actors have been rewarded well (relatively anyway). Cathey’s win this year is the 6th time that a black actor has won in this category.
As for disappointments, I would’ve liked to see “Key & Peele” win something, especially as the series is now no more (the season that just ended was its last, as both gentlemen move on to work on individual projects). They were nominated in 5 categories: Writing for a Variety or Music Program, Writing for Variety Special, Variety Sketch Series, Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program, and Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. And they won none of them, mostly stumped by that behemoth known as “The Daily Show” as it makes its transition from old host, Jon Stewart, to the incoming Trevor Noah, as he begins his reign in about a week.
Also, I actually thought that David Oyelowo in “Nightingale” was a *lock* for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie, given the singular performance he gave in the film, carrying the entire picture entirely by himself, and pulling it off. I thought he’d be rewarded for the challenge. But the steamroller known as “Olive Kitteridge” cleaned up in just about every category in which it was nominated, with the most major wins (6). Richard Jenkins (who co-starred in “Kitteridge”) won in Oyelowo’s category.
Looking ahead to the 2016 Primetime Emmys, it’s way too early to make any predictions. Looking at each network’s lineup for the 2015/2016 TV season, there are a few newbies after a record 75+ pilots were ordered in the spring, featuring black actors in starring, leading and supporting roles. Of course, the majority of them didn’t make it to series, as was expected. But key entries this year include: Meagan Good in “Minority Report” on Fox in a starring role; Aunjanue Ellis in a supporting role in ABC’s FBI drama-thriller “Quantico;” Wesley Snipes in NBC’s “The Player,” although he’s not the star, but it does appear he plays a significant co-starring role, so I’m not sure how the Emmys would classify him (supporting or starring?); S. Epatha Merkerson and Yaya DaCosta are co-stars in an ensemble cast in NBC’s medical drama “Chicago Med,” a spin-off in the mold of the network’s successful “Chicago Fire;” the aforementioned Morris Chestnut in “Rosewood” on Fox; there’s also Amazon’s new series “Hand of God,” which was released earlier this month, although to rather weak ratings (Andre Royo and Emayatzy Corinealdi each play supporting roles); and there are a few others.
Again, it all depends on whether these new series survive the season and aren’t canceled.
To close, as of this year’s Primetime Emmys, at least one black actor/actress has won in every single acting category, EXCEPT Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. There have been 15 actors nominated in that category, from the first, Greg Morris in “Mission: Impossible” (1969), to the last, Giancarlo Esposito in “Breaking Bad” (2012). None of the 16 has won.
Your thoughts and reactions to last night’s event?
Watch key acceptance speeches below: