At least this wouldn’t be the year of #EmmysSoWhite. (Memo to Oscars: The pressure is on.)
This year’s slate of Emmy nominees offered up diversity across the acting categories. But that’s not to say TV has achieved anything close to parity. Far from it.
Witness the lead actress in a comedy race, which is shockingly pale. Whither Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”), and Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”)? At least in the supporting race, Niecy Nash (“Getting On”) made the cut in a lineup that stretched to eight nominees.
Only one black actress has ever won for comedy: Isabel Sanford took home the trophy in 1981 for “The Jeffersons.” There’s been a shutout for actresses of color in that race since Phylicia Rashad in 1986 for “The Cosby Show.” That’s 29 looooong years. There’s nothing funny about that.
Meanwhile, on the drama side, a record needs to be broken: That no black woman has won the Emmy for a leading role seems unthinkable.
It took until 1982 for “Fame’s” Debbie Allen to even earn a nom. For comparison’s sake: Bill Cosby won his trophy in 1966 (and again in 1967 and 1968) for “I, Spy” — the first time a black actor was nominated and won any Emmy.
An 18-year drought then set in between 1995 and 2013, when black actresses couldn’t even get nominated. Kerry Washington was nominated twice for “Scandal,” but lost to Claire Danes (“Homeland”) and Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”).
Now two women stand poised to make their mark on the history books: “How to Get Away With Murder’s” Viola Davis and “Empire’s” Taraji P. Henson are vying for the prize, alongside Danes, Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”), Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”), and Robin Wright (“House of Cards”).
With Davis and Henson, it’s a matchup of acting powerhouses — and notably, both from broadcast shows in their freshman seasons.
Both have earned kudos from critics as well as fans, and both bring the awards cred that voters love: Davis has two Oscar noms, for “The Help” in 2011 and “Doubt” in 2009, along with three Globe noms, including for “Murder.” Henson earned an Oscar nom for 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and a previous Emmy nom for the 2011 TV movie “Taken From Me.”
In recent interviews with Variety, the actresses said they were drawn to working in TV because of these challenging roles:
“I felt that a role that had the adjective sexual, messy, mysterious, smart — they’re never given to a woman like me. Of my size. Of my hue. Of my age,” Davis told Variety. “I felt like it was an opportunity to put a human face on women who look like me.”
“I picked up the script, and it scared the hell out of me,” Henson said. “That’s why I had to do it, and I’ve been shaking ever since.”
There will be a temptation to set this race up as a battle between the two women; instead, it should be a battle against history. It’s time to set the record (books) straight. In a year of bravura performances across all of our screens, what better message to send to the movie industry?
Bring us your best. Television has meaty, messy, complicated roles for women. Take your wig off. Snap those crackling one-liners. Cry ugly. Rollerskate through the halls, then strut into your new office, cigarette dangling from your lips.
That said, there’s a spoiler waiting in the wings, waiting to make her own mark on the record books: Should Elisabeth Moss triumph, she’d notch the first win for an actress for “Mad Men” — let alone any performer, male or female. Nostalgia for “Mad Men’s” finale just might sweep her along.
Here’s to history being made on Sept. 20.