Emmy Preview: Are minorities better off today?

Percentages remain small for those who receive kudos

A look at the minorities who’ve received an Emmy in the past 10 years.

In 1960, Harry Belafonte made history as the first African-American to win an Emmy for his performance in “Tonight With Belafonte.” Coming at a period of segregation in the United States, Belafonte’s accolade was something of a watershed for an industry that reached into millions of U.S. living rooms.

Belafonte’s 1960 victory marked a new chapter for the Emmy Awards honoring people of color. However, 41 years later, Emmy has come only so far, and much work remains to make them truly reflective of the diversity of American life. While many outstanding artists of color have won recognition from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in the last 10 years, their overall numbers are few.

A quick tour through the last decade reveals notable minorities — James Earl Jones, Halle Berry, Andre Braugher, Charles S. Dutton, John Leguizamo, Cicely Tyson, the late Raul Julia and Alfre Woodard, for example — have won the Golden Girl. Sharing the stage were gifted directors, writers, producers, choreographers, and classical musicians, including Paris Barclay, August Wilson, Chris Rock, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Debbie Allen and Yo-Yo Ma.

In spite of this impressive gathering of talent, the small percentage of awards given to minorities is an indication of the amount of minorities working in television — both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

Alex Nogales, prexy of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, asks: “Why aren’t there any Latinos winning Emmys? Because they’re not employed. If we’re not even given the opportunity to be part of a cast, how can we be winning the awards?”

Nogales is part of a coalition of leading minority advocacy organizations working to change the television industry by meeting with representatives from the major networks and drawing up memorandums and report cards covering every aspect of the creative productions.

“Children Now (a nonprofit group) just published an extensive and detailed survey,” Nogales continues. “The report confirmed that Latinos are 13% of the population, but make up 2% of the roles on primetime TV. In back of the camera, the situation is even worse, in terms of writers, directors and producers; it’s dismal.

“There are five Latinos working on primetime TV, three of whom are domestics. Tell me if that isn’t categorizing people, and giving that message to our children? We are now the largest minority group in America: 35 million people, as of the 2000 census. It doesn’t make sense that we should be frozen out. It comes down to people in power in the networks. You don’t have anyone who has contacts in the Latino community.”

As for the other groups in the coalition, which includes the NAACP, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, and Indians in Film and Television, they, too, have a hard time getting their fair shake on primetime, according to Nogales.

“In the study, they said that 13% of the population is African-American, and 17% of all primetime characters are African-American. They’re further ahead than the rest of us in representation. But who is writing the show? Who is running the show? Not an African-American. Who is controlling the product?”

One African-American in a prominent role this past season was Chi McBride, who played Principal Steven Harper on David E. Kelley’s series “Boston Public.”

McBride is quick to praise Kelley for writing a part for a powerful minority character.

“That’s something that doesn’t get talked about enough,” McBride explains. “Everyone was walking around with placards and they (NAACP) were complaining about a lack of minorities. Now, Steven Harper is one of most important black characters ever and nobody’s saying anything. It’s disappointing and disheartening not being recoginzed by those groups. For not recognizing David in the wake of all these accusations, after he stepped up to the plate when no one had done it in years, it’s disgraceful.”

Clark Johnson, an African-American actor-director known for his performance on NBC’s critically acclaimed series “Homicide: Life on the Street” and his helming of HBO original pic “Boycott,” says it’s a matter of those in power making decisions about casting and being Emmy worthy.”It’s easy to be overlooked if you don’t play the Hollywood game,” says Johnson. “On ‘Homicide,’ we were so far below the radar. Our whole riff was we never got any attention. When (creator and showrunner Tom Fontana) won (in 1993 for writing) we all went out and celebrated. We’d been completely overlooked.”

Well, almost. “Homicide” writer James Yoshimura, who received two noms, one for the riveting episode “The Subway,” says he’s one of only three Asian-American writers in the television industry, and refuses to let his work be pigeonholed.

“I’ve always said I want to be taken as a writer, pure and simple. I can write for black and white characters. I’m from Chicago. I’m an inner-city boy. That urban, gritty, broken-glass world is where I come from. Most of what’s on TV is a lie, but at least there’s a ‘Homicide’ or ‘Sopranos’ once in a while.”

Yomishura, who had a pilot based on the tale of immigrants rejected, observes, “I think television is always a reflection of what’s going on in society. It’s a big-bucks industry, and the more money’s involved, the more resistance there is to change.”

Comedy no laughing matter

Many Emmy observers aren’t laughing when it comes to examining the dearth of minorities in longstanding Emmy-nommed primetime comedies.

Actor Ving Rhames, a nominee in 1998 for his performance in “Don King: Only in America,” asks this question:

“Why are there no black “Friends” or “Frasier”? Doesn’t (Kelsey Grammer) have any black associates or colleagues? The number of black shows on television is a reflection of the society who controls television. It’s all based on culture. What we’re seeing on television is mainstream America.”

“Sitcoms,” “Boycott” director Johnson concurs, “are the most segregated place in America. Maybe the African-American sense of humor is different from Iowa. Black sitcoms are all lumped together on UPN. We have a troubled society if the land of comedy — the land of fantasy — is that segregated.”

When it comes to paring down the nominees and choosing a winner, Rhames points out voters are likely to pick what resonates with their own demographic: “What is the ethnic background and age of the people who vote?”

Karen Narasaki, head of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, says of the Emmy Awards ceremony, “It continues to reinforce the message that there are no qualified minorities out there because you don’t see them winning awards. The reason they don’t win is they don’t get a chance to work. It sends the message out of who you can aspire to be for the Asian-American community.

“On the shows where there is a minority presence, it’s often wallpaper. They don’t get any speaking lines. How can they win any awards?”

If the networks don’t begin to change their hiring policy vis a vis people of color, the worst offenders may find their shows targeted for a boycott or litigation.

Minority Report

A look back at minorities who have received Emmys in the acting, writing and directing categories over the past 10 years.




1991 Ruby Dee “Decoration Day” (NBC) Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special
Thomas Carter “Equal Justic” (ABC) Directing in a Drama Series
1993 Mary Alice “I’ll Fly Away” (NBC) Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Laurence Fishburne “Tribeca” (Fox) Guest actor, drama series
1994 Cicely Tyson “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” (CBS) Supporting Actress Miniseries or Special
1995 Raul Julia “The Burning Season” (HBO) Actor in a Miniseries or Special
Paul Winfield “Picket Fences” (CBS) Guest actor, drama series
1997 Armand Assante “Gotti” (HBO) Actor in a Minisries or Special
Alfre Woodard “Miss Evers’ Boys” (HBO) Actress in a Miniseries or a Special/ Presdient’s Award
Hector Elizondo “Chicago Hope” (CBS) Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Chris Rock “Chris Rock: Bring the Pain” (HBO) Writing in a Variety or Music Program
1998 Andre Braugher “Homicide” (NBC) Actor in a Drama Series
Paris Barclay “NYPD Blue” (ABC) Directing for a Drama Series
1999 Paris Barclay “NYPD Blue” Directing for a Drama Series
John Leguizamo “Freak” (HBO) Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program
2000 Halle Berry “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” Actress in a Miniseries or Movie
Charles S. Dutton “The Corner” Directing for a Miniseries or Movie
David Mills and David Simon “The Corner” Writing for a Miniseries or Movie
Beah Richards “The Practice” (ABC) Guest actress, drama series