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SAG Award Winners Reflect TV’s Imperative to Embrace Diversity

The first 20 minutes of the 22nd annual SAG Awards reinforced television’s new world order on multiple levels. Netflix and Amazon dominated the wins throughout the night, and the level of diversity among the TV winners was impossible to miss in light of the outcry over this year’s all-white field of Oscar acting nominees.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to diverse TV,” Idris Elba quipped during the telecast. Elba was a double winner for supporting actor in a film for Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation” and for actor in a TV movie/miniseries for BBC America’s “Luther.”

Wins for Viola Davis, Queen Latifah, Uzo Aduba and Elba underscored how the depth and breadth of television programming has fostered meaty roles for actors that reflect the expanse of America. The fact that television is a medium piped into America’s living rooms and smartphones gives it an imperative to reflect the multiculturalism that is transforming popular culture.

The sheer sight of the 34 actors in the “Orange Is the New Black” troupe, which nabbed its second consecutive win for comedy series, demonstrated the how organic the casting of diverse roles has become in TV at a time when creators have the freedom to pursue ever-more specificity in storytelling. With Netflix’s “OITNB,” diversity extends beyond race and ethnicity to sexual orientation and women of that certain age, shape and size who in the past were rarely featured in prominent TV roles.

“This is what we talk about when we talk about diversity,” “OITNB” star Laura Prepon said in accepting the award. Her co-star Aduba was the first winner of the night, taking her second straight trophy for female comedy actor for her work on “OITNB.”

Aduba dedicated her win to “the actors who are not here in this room with us,” urging them to “keep trying, keep plugging, keep working, stay in line. You have the chance, it is yours.”

Latifah echoed that sentiment while collecting her win for female actor in a movie or miniseries for HBO’s Bessie Smith biopic “Bessie.” For those aspiring actors who don’t “come in the package that people say you should — build your own boxes,” Latifah said. “Knock that thing away and ‘do you.’ ”

Backstage, “OITNB” cast members marveled at how their show has thrived on an outlet that wasn’t even in the original programming business five years ago.

“Five years ago we wouldn’t have been having this conversation,” said Lea DeLaria. “The fact that we’re even having this conversation is a win for the good guys.” Marsha Stephanie Blake added: “Television has done a very good job of representing life. TV is stepping up to the plate in terms of representing stories and people (realistically).”

In her backstage remarks, Latifah stressed that the “change is inevitable” for the film business just as it has been for TV.

“I think some of it was already happening, but the public has to continue to demand that. We’re in a capitalist society so hopefully supply and demand will kick back in,” she said. “The people are asking for it… I hope we wake up and realize the old way of doing thing is the old way and it’s OK to evolve.”

In the same vein, Jeffrey Tambor collected his first SAG kudo after four career nominations, winning comedy series actor for his role as transgender woman Maura Pfefferman in Amazon’s ground-breaking “Transparent.”

The much-praised family comedy mines the kind of unconventional subject matter that would likely never have found a home but for the exponential demand for niche-targeted series. Tambor, who won the Emmy last September for his work on the show, thanked Amazon for its “guts and support” of “Transparent.” He also paid tribute to those transgender people who, unlike his affluent character, “don’t have a lot of cash for their operations, for their medicine and their freedom.”

SAG voters gave a second consecutive nod to Kevin Spacey as drama series actor for his work in Netflix’s “House of Cards,” an upset win over sentimental fave Jon Hamm for his final season on “Mad Men” and Rami Malek of red-hot newbie “Mr. Robot.”

Spacey in his remarks on stage referenced the surprise news last week that “House of Cards” steward Beau Willimon would not be returning as showrunner for the show’s fifth season next year. He called Willimon “an extraordinary collaborator” and asserted: “I’ve loved every second we’ve tussled and fought and argued” in making the show.

Sentimental SAG Awards favorite “Downton Abbey” didn’t go home empty-handed for its sixth and final season. The show has won twice before (in 2013 and 2015) for drama ensemble, but the recognition this year was no less meaningful for the troupe from across the Pond.

“We’re a British show. What the heck are we doing here?” said Lesley Nicol (aka Mrs. Patmore). “We’re up against your TV royalty.”

(Pictured: Queen Latifah)

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