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Sandra Oh Is Poised to Make Emmy History, but There’s a Long Way to Go (Column)

Last year’s Emmy Awards opened with a number by “Saturday Night Live’s” Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson, who sang — very tongue-in-cheek — that Hollywood had “solved” its diversity problem. Early in the song, Thompson pointed out that Sandra Oh was the first Asian woman to be nominated for a lead actress Emmy ever.

“Thank you,” Oh replied. “But it’s an honor just to be Asian.” (Oh later repurposed that remark on T-shirts that were sold as a fundraiser for the East West Players, the longest-running Asian American theater company.)

Oh didn’t win last year — the trophy went to Claire Foy from “The Crown” — but the awards telecast set the “Killing Eve” star on a new path, and positioned the industry toward even more representation. That night, she also appeared as a presenter with Andy Samberg, and their interaction caught the eye of the Golden Globe producers, who hired the duo to host that show in January.

It was there that Oh made more history — not only as the first Globes host of Asian descent, but also the first to win multiple awards from the HFPA. She won this year for lead actress in a drama series, having previously collected a supporting actress trophy in 2005 for “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Oh is a frontrunner to finally win that lead drama actress Emmy this year, for Season 2 of “Killing Eve.” And it’s about time — both for Oh, and for inclusion’s sake.

After all, there’s a reason why McKinnon and Thompson’s Emmy opener was meant to be so absurd last year. While some great strides have been made in TV (and, arguably much more than in film), there’s still so much work to be done when it comes to representation. And that’s especially true for Asian Americans and others of Asian descent (like Oh, who hails from Canada).

There have only been a handful of people of Asian heritage who have won the Emmy in an acting category. “The Good Wife’s” Archie Panjabi won supporting drama actress in 2010, while “The Night Of’s” Riz Ahmed won as lead actor in a limited series in 2017. Last year, Darren Criss won in that same category, for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”

The issue, of course, is giving people of color awards-worthy roles in the first place. It was only four years ago that “How to Get Away With Murder” star Viola Davis became the first African American actress to win the drama actress Emmy.

“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” Davis said in her acceptance speech. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

It’s only recently that TV has opened the door to more major screen time for Asian actors and actresses. The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition recently announced its annual TV network report cards for the 2017-18 TV season, grading the four major broadcast networks on their progress toward full inclusion — and the results are mixed. ABC received the highest mark, a B grade, for the second year in a row. CBS earned a B- and NBC was given a C. (The coalition said Fox didn’t provide data or meet with it, and so gave it an F.)

Daniel M. Mayeda, who’s the chair of the group, tells me he’s nonetheless optimistic that the tide is turning. “The talent among Asian Americans is there,” he says. He points to the successes last year of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the Netflix film “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and Oh on “Killing Eve” for providing more visibility.

“I’m optimistic, hopeful for progress,” Mayeda adds. “Now that Hollywood and the American public have gotten a glimpse of the enormous talent within the Asian American acting ranks, our chances of having award-contending
performances will increase.”

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