“Ugly Betty” star America Ferrera has a chance to make Emmy history this year. No Latina actress has ever been nominated — let alone won — a lead comedy actress trophy. In fact, 23-year-old Ferrera hadn’t even born yet when the last Hispanic actress won an acting Emmy: Rita Moreno for a guest spot on “The Rockford Files” in 1978.
“Wow, that’s incredible. I do think about what a milestone this is for the Latin community to have a show that stars Latino actors,” says Ferrera. “And it’s not just our show. … There is a wide variety of working Latino actors in a huge variation of representations. You turn on ‘Desperate Housewives’ and Eva Longoria couldn’t be more different from Ugly Betty.”
Ferrera is far from the only minority Emmy hopeful. “Grey’s Anatomy” docs Sandra Oh and Chandra Wilson, “Heroes'” Masi Oka, “Lost” survivors Naveen Andrews and Daniel Dae Kim, “The Unit” boss Dennis Hasybert, “Battlestar Galactica” admiral Edward James Olmos, “The Wire” addict Michael K. Williams and “30 Rock” comic Tracy Morgan are all among the contenders of color.
The chance that many of those actors besides Ferrera will net an Emmy nod isn’t likely, however, considering the past 20 years of Emmy trends.
Since 1986, nonwhite actors have received only 51 nominations out of 840 possible slots in the top four acting categories for drama and comedy. They’ve won only seven times: Andre Braugher in 1998 for “Homicide,” Hector Elizondo in 1997 for “Chicago Hope,” Mary Alice in 1993 for “I’ll Fly Away,” James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair in 1991 for “Gabriel’s Fire,” Jimmy Smits in 1990 for “L.A. Law” and Jackee Harry in 1987 for “227.”
“Other than a few standouts here or there, Emmy doesn’t pay attention to black people,” says Eric Deggans, TV critic and columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. “If Andre does a guest spot on ‘Law & Order,’ he’ll get a nomination, but if another actor of color does incredible work, Emmy won’t even notice it.”
Deggans says the fact that “The Wire” cast, most of which is African American, has not gotten Emmy recognition is proof the award system is broken: “We have to get to the point when actors of color who are not the chosen few excel, that they get recognized.”
Alfre Woodard, the most-nominated African-American actress in Emmy history with 14 nods and four wins, says it’s not about being among the “select” black actors: “I don’t feel we were chosen. I think we brought the goods, and we could not be denied. We had the tenacity to figure out a way to make our presence known.”
Even with her award-winning background in television, Woodard points out that the majority of her nominations were not for regular work on a series: They were for roles in made-for-TV movies. “If you’re hiring somebody for ‘Miss Evars’ Boys,’ you’ve gotta hire a black woman,” she notes.
Despite the Emmy snubs of years past, there have been noticeable gains in minorities appearing in top-20 primetime shows, especially those involving large multicultural ensembles.
But the momentum behind the scenes is bleak. As the WGA West’s 2007 Hollywood Writers Report reveals, only 9% of TV writers are minorities, an underrepresentation that has actually gotten 1 percentage point worse since the last report issued in 2005.
“It’s marvelous that the casting has been opened up in the past couple of seasons,” says the org’s newly appointed director of diversity, Kimberly Myers. “But there is a wealth of different kinds of stories that we aren’t even beginning to see on television because the writers from different kinds of backgrounds aren’t there on staff.”
National Hispanic Media Coalition director Alex Nogales stresses that until there are more people of color coming up with the stories, the situation will not get significantly better. “Forty percent of all the shows on primetime do not have one single writer of color,” he says. “We must be the showrunners of tomorrow.
“Everyone talks about America, Eva Longoria, George Lopez, but they’re seeing a mirage,” Nogales adds. “The hard reality is that if you get the number of shows that portray people of color, the number doesn’t come even close to equaling the 32% of the national population that is not white.”
Woodard agrees that the popularity of ensemble casts could mislead audiences into thinking TV is diverse. “Sometimes if you see any color, it strikes you and satisfies that thirst for a reflection of reality,” she says. “But if you pull back and look at what’s going on, the representation really is quite skimpy.”
Although the statistics are, as Nogales claims, “woefully inadequate,” the past few TV seasons have provided a boost for the Asian-American community. “To have Asian-Americans on shows like ‘Lost,’ ‘Heroes’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ tells all of America that we’re like everyone else and can have successful careers in front of the camera,” says Teddy Zee, executive producer of the Asian Excellence Awards.
Behind the camera, Myers hails “Law & Order: SVU’s” Neal Baer as one of the few exec producers who “gets it right.” Baer hired a Native American writer when actor Adam Beach joined the popular procedural. And just seeing Beach as a regular on a primetime program is a huge step for an otherwise absent community. “We’re nowhere to be seen. Adam is our baseline,” says Mark Reed, co-director of American Indians in Film & Television.
For African-Americans, who constitute the majority of TV’s actors and writers of color, the focus is on getting more senior-level producers, like “Grey’s” creator Shonda Rhimes. Vic Bulluck, executive director of the NAACP’s Hollywood bureau, says one easy step would be to program another African-American family sitcom.
“Almost as far back as I can remember, there were one if not two African-American comedy shows based around families, and there’s not one on the major networks right now,” Bulluck says.
Only the CW, he explains, features shows such as “Everybody Hates Chris” and “All of Us,” which the net just canceled. “Gone are the ‘Cosby’ shows, ‘Fresh Princes,’ even Bernie Mac is gone. What happened?”
So how will people of color know they’ve arrived in the television industry?
“When talented actors who are black and white and brown can be in something and it fails and they still get another shot and another and another, like cute Caucasian guys, then you’ll know something’s changed,” Woodard says.