Even before the final-round voting ballots have been sent out, the 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards have made history.
The nominees include the most Black performers ever nominated in a single year (with more than 30% of all male and female performers across drama, comedy and limited series/TV movie being Black). Not only is the sheer number a record, but 2020’s nominee class includes some notable firsts: Nicole Byer is the first Black woman to be nominated in the reality host category for Netflix’s “Nailed It”; Maya Rudolph became the first Black performer — man or woman — to be nominated against herself, scoring two noms in the guest comedy actress race for NBC’s “The Good Place” and “Saturday Night Live.” And Dime Davis is the first Black woman to be nominated in the variety series directing category for her work on HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”
And while history may be made again come ceremony night on Sept. 20 — for example, if Davis wins, she will be the first Black woman to win not only in her directing category but across all of them at the Primetime Emmys — nothing is a sure bet just yet.
Many categories, such as supporting comedy actor and supporting limited series/TV movie actor, feature a significant number of performers of color to be nominated overall against each other on the same ballot: While one of them may win, only one of them can win.
“The fact of the matter is that you can’t win an acting Emmy unless you’re cast,” says awards consultant Richard Licata of Licata & Co. “And from a historical perspective, until recently you’ll discover that the people from these groups that won Emmys were few and far between.”
While it is a time worth celebrating in some respects, there is still a long way to go in others, specifically in the representation for Latinx, Asian and LGBTQIA+ communities, as well as across the board representation behind the scenes.
For example, there are no Black directors nominated in the drama or comedy categories. Furthermore, Stefani Robinson (FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows”) is the only person of color nominated in either the comedy or drama writing categories this year; Sandra Oh, nominated for the third year in a row in the lead drama actress race “Killing Eve,” remains the only woman of Asian descent to be nominated in the category. No person of color has ever won an Emmy for drama writing.
If Zendaya wins the lead drama actress statue for “Euphoria,” she would be just the second Black actress to win the award after the 2015 win by “How to Get Away With Murder’s” Viola Davis, who was shut out of a nom this year. Isabel Sanford of “The Jeffersons” won lead comedy actress in 1981, and was the only person of color to win that award until America Ferrera in 2007 for “Ugly Betty.” This year, both Issa Rae of “Insecure” and Tracee Ellis Ross of “Black-ish” are vying for that prize.
Five out of the eight supporting comedy nominees are Black (Sterling K. Brown, William Jackson Harper, Kenan Thompson, Mahershala Ali and Andre Braugher). If one of them wins, it will be the first time that a Black actor took the prize since Robert Guillaume won for “Soap” in 1979.
“These victories are met with a combination of awe and wonder and headlines like something unusual had occurred,” Licata says. “And it shouldn’t be like that. Now, the good news is that there is more of an emphasis on diverse casting and inclusion, and it’s changed the landscape of parts for actors and ultimately the nominations.”
And it’s not just in the area of inclusion that the Television Academy has the chance to make history this September: If the voting members award either “Godfather of Harlem” or “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time” even one trophy, it will mark the first time in Epix’s decade-long run that the cabler emerged victorious.