“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Viola Davis’ stirring remarks at last year’s Emmy ceremony are resonating again as the industry prepares to hand out this year’s trophies.
The 2016 nominees rep the most diverse field of above-the-line talent assembled in the 68-year history of the kudos, and the smiling faces on ABC’s live telecast will look more like America than ever before. Davis broke ground last year as the first African-American actress to win for lead actress in a drama series, for her tour de force work on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.”
Among the milestones this year are “Black-ish’s” Kenya Barris becoming the first solo African-American series creator to be nominated for comedy series (Bill Cosby won as co-creator of “The Cosby Show” with Ed. Weinberger and Michael Leeson in 1985), as well as Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang of Netflix’s “Master of None” becoming the first Indian-American and Asian-American series creators to land a comedy series nom. John Singleton, a director of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” became the first black helmer to be nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy.
There is no doubt that awareness of the importance of diversity has been heightened among the entertainment industry establishment in recent years. But what’s really opened doors is the growth of opportunity. Even in the 12 months since Davis collected her Emmy, the number of TV scripted series on the air has grown by double digits and is projected to top 500 next year.
The peak TV boom has expanded the industry’s appetite for storytelling in many forms. It’s no surprise that African-American, Latino, Asian-American, female-driven, and non-heterosexual stories would resonate with buyers looking for shows that feel fresh and distinctive, as well as audiences. Those voices haven’t been heard as often in an industry serving a nation historically dominated by white men.
The lesson from the past few years is that well-crafted shows from highly specific racial or ethnic points of view can have universal appeal. That’s why “Black-ish” is a family comedy success story for ABC, why “Master of None” made a host of top 10 lists last year, why Fox’s “Empire” is the hottest soap in primetime, why millions swooned with “Jane the Virgin” when the baby arrived, and cheered when Cam and Mitch got hitched on “Modern Family.” The human experience comes in many colors, shapes, and sizes. In 21st-century America, a viewer doesn’t have to be an exact demographic match to laugh or cry or otherwise engage with a good story well told.
The business imperative behind diversifying the entertainment landscape amounts to simple math. As the nation becomes more culturally diverse, the images in TV’s mirror have to evolve. Nicole Bernard, exec VP of Fox’s Audience Strategy unit, has been particularly articulate on the importance of diversity as an economic issue for television. “Diversity to us is a strategy, not an ideal,” Bernard told Variety in 2014. “It’s about the practice of accepting and understanding how the country is changing in order to grow your business. The goal for us is more viewers. I don’t care what they look like, I just want more.”
The annual Emmy Awards fete is designed to serve as a marker for excellence in the television industry. At this moment in the life of this nation — when the fight for equality in so many arenas is playing out in polarizing terms — the Emmys are inevitably a benchmark of progress on diversity.
The same goes for the Oscars, and the film biz has been reeling from the fallout from two consecutive years of all-white acting nominees. The Emmys, thanks to the breadth of offerings, looks better by comparison. But many stats are still shocking.
“Black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross is the first African-American to be nommed for lead comedy actress in 30 years — since Phylicia Rashad was up for “The Cosby Show” in 1986. The only winner to date has been Isabel Sanford, for “The Jeffersons,” in 1981.
Ross’ co-star, Anthony Anderson, nabbed his second consecutive lead comedy actor nom. A victory would also make Anderson only the second black actor to prevail in the category, following Robert Guillaume for “Benson” in 1985.
Where were all the non-white nominees in these and other Emmy categories all these years? As Davis so eloquently observed, much of the blame can be placed on the lack of opportunity.
The forward movement demonstrated by this year’s nominees is worth a standing ovation at the Microsoft Theater, no matter who winds up taking home the trophies.