Emmys 2020: Black Performers See Rise in Noms but Overall the Ballot Is Far From Truly Inclusive

Insecure Pose Emmy Nominations Black Actors
Insecure: Merie W. Wallace/HBO; Pose: Michael Parmelee/FX

There’s a disparity among nominees of color on the Emmy ballot this year, which can be traced to a larger disconnect within the industry, and society at large.

The Television Academy nominated a record number of Black performers (34.3% of the 102, including double nominations for singular performers Sterling K. Brown, Giancarlo Esposito and Maya Rudolph). But other non-white performers, including Latinx and API, only made up 5.88% of nominees combined. Behind the scenes, the Television Academy only nominated 12.5% people of color in the narrative writing categories and 14.2% in the directing categories, and when it came to series nominations, only one came from a person of color in the showrunner position.

“People are voting inside of a media climate and some of the protests have made white people who are part of the nomination process think differently about how they were making decisions,” says Rashad Robinson, executive director, Color of Change. “I don’t want to discount what it means for Black performers to be recognized in ways that they should be recognized and to have opportunities for their work to be seen and appreciated and respected the way it should be. But I do think that what we have to recognize is that we can’t mistake presence for power. Power is the ability to change the rules. Presence is not bad, but when we mistake presence for power, we can sometimes think something has happened that hasn’t actually happened.”

Nothing can be Emmy-nominated without having first been greenlit by the larger television industry. While there have been some more new series that feature Black characters in the past year, from Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” to OWN’s “Cherish the Day” and BET’s “Sistas” and “Twenties,” there are still select few that come from or feature the API or Muslim perspective. With the former, ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” ended its run in spring — without being nominated even once at the Emmys; with the latter, Hulu’s “Ramy” picked up acting and directing nods this year, the first for the series.

“Our show is the first show that’s explicitly looking at an Arab Muslim family and their traditions, but Aziz [Ansari] is Muslim and had a Ramadan episode [on ‘Master of None’],” Ramy Youssef acknowledges. (“Master of None” picked up 12 Emmy noms between 2016 and 2017, including for comedy series, but the episode Youssef is referencing, “Religion,” did not score any individual attention.) “The leaning into the ‘first’ is something we’re excited about, but what I hope it does is say to the industry, ‘Hey we need seconds and thirds; this isn’t enough.’ There are so many stories that need to be told.”

But in some cases, those stories are already being told, Academy voters aren’t watching them — or they are watching but not connecting with them immediately.

“People watch what others tell them to watch, especially with shows of color — especially early on,” says “Insecure” showrunner Prentice Penny. “A lot of people who tell me they love ‘Insecure,’ the next line is, ‘I didn’t think I was going to like it.’ We self-identify immediately off what the visuals are — and if you don’t know the actor and they don’t look like you, you have to really [make an effort] to give this thing a shot that you think you may not respond to.”

HBO’s “Insecure” broke into the comedy series race this year for the first time — in its fourth season.

Series that centered Latinx points of view during the 2019-20 Emmy eligible television season but didn’t draw TV Academy attention ranged from NBC’s long-running “Superstore” to fan favorite “One Day at a Time” (now on Pop), the final season of Starz’s critical darling “Vida,” new Netflix projects “Gentefied” and “Mr. Iglesias” and the short-lived “The Baker and the Beauty” (ABC) and “Party of Five” reboot (Freeform). Showtime’s anthology “Penny Dreadful” came in with a “City of Angels” season that also heavily featured Latinx characters.

“As we think about API and Latinx communities and the dismal representation they have on television and at awards shows, I do think in so many ways it illustrates a supremacy in terms of who’s in charge, what is normal and what is additive,” Robinson says. “It’s like, ‘Oh we’re going to do something for this community this year,’ but even the act of doing something for someone else creates who is mainstream and who is [on the] margins — who is inside and who needs to be let in.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, says the organization has “never been busier” with the number of “content creators [who] want to be more inclusive.” And there were important LGBTQIA+ nods this year, such as to “Schitt’s Creek” co-creator Daniel Levy, who nabbed supporting comedy actor, writing, directing and a second consecutive comedy series one. Laverne Cox drew a fourth guest actress nom for “Orange Is the New Black” and Rain Valdez broke into the short-form performance race. But there was a notable decline for an inclusive series voters embraced in its first season — FX’s “Pose,” which only picked up one major nom this year, for lead drama actor incumbent winner Billy Porter.

“‘Pose’ is essentially a story about the trans community in New York City [but] not one trans person [on this show] was nominated for an Emmy. And it doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both,” says Ellis. “We know we can’t move culture forward and we know we’ll continue to live in a very dangerous and hostile society without that coming from Hollywood.”

The names attached to a series — from A-list actors to recognizable writers, producers and directors — have historically carried significant weight with voters, leading to many nominations.
“You’re as famous and as successful as the careers of the people who are attached to the show,” Prentice says, adding he would like to see more viewers and voters “get out of their comfort zone [and say], ‘Let me look at these shows that are on networks that I wouldn’t normally tune into to expand myself.’ It’s getting out of that bubble.”

But before voters can get out of a bubble, the larger system has to.

Youssef notes that “because there haven’t been a lot of Arabic roles that are prominent” there was also not the chance to create many Arabic stars on American television. “When you don’t create the roles, you don’t create the opportunity for people to have name recognition, and without name recognition it can be hard to greenlight something. So it’s this weird cycle.”

Breaking that cycle includes putting significant advertising and marketing dollars behind these shows and performers at the launch, as well as during awards season.

“Sometimes you see stuff that gets nominated and it’s pretty clear [why]. It’s like, ‘I saw a billboard everywhere I walked.’ Those nominations are like the results of a hostage situation. I get it,” says Youssef.

Part of GLAAD’s work these days includes buying awards ads and doing “sustained campaigns” to promote LGBTQIA+ shows, says Ellis.

“It’s unfortunate that a not-for-profit has to elevate marginalized communities and voices — that these big studios that are profiting off of them are not doing that,” she continues. But “we know the power of these awards. We know those who are elevated with awards recognition receive increased access and opportunity. And then these are the projects that go on to be studied [by] the next generation of filmmakers and prove the success of concept. The visibility matters.”