When it comes to the Emmys’ lead comedy and drama actor categories, the majority of men of color nominated fall into an interesting theme: They’re involved in storytelling about different kinds of families that are historically underrepresented on television. They are Black (Anthony Anderson, ABC’s “Black-ish”), Black and blended (Sterling K. Brown, NBC’s “This Is Us”), Muslim (Ramy Youssef, Hulu’s “Ramy”) or chosen (Billy Porter, FX’s “Pose”). Their stories reflect communities that audiences are still getting used to seeing, the narratives illuminate the humanity of people trying to fit into a world that doesn’t cater to them.
“It’s meant unity, it’s meant strength, it’s meant power, it’s meant compassion,” says Anderson, lead comedy actor nominee, of being able to explore the Johnson family for six seasons so far. “Especially to those who’ve come from broken families. Sometimes we look to the arts for what’s missing in our lives and in our homes. I’m glad to be a part of something that people can aspire to.”
As patriarch Dre, an advertising exec married to a doctor (Tracee Ellis Ross), raising five kids in an upscale part of Los Angeles, Anderson mines cultural differences between his family and their white colleagues and kids’ friends. They also have important discussions about the larger history of Black Americans in the country. Anderson admits the show has hit home with his own daughter Kyra, who once asked him why he can’t be more like his character.
That reaction surprised him, he says. After explaining to her he doesn’t have a team of writers to help him in real time, Anderson says he realized people use these stories as a model.
“People are looking to this family to get them through the things they need to get through,” Anderson says. “They look at the teaching moments we have, and learn from them.”
A more non-traditional family that America has embraced is the Pearson brood in “This Is Us.” For four seasons the show has touched upon how Brown’s Randall wrestles with being a Black man raised by white parents with white siblings, as well as what it looks like for a Black man to struggle with his mental health. Early in the show’s run, there were many attempts at coping on his own, but in the fourth season, he tried therapy, something that remains taboo among Black people.
For lead drama actor nominee and previous winner in the category Brown, playing Randall has been a “godsend,” especially after the therapy storyline. “Tough love has been sort of the primary practice, culturally, within our community,” he says.
Brown found value in opening up discussions for the viewers at home. “[It’s in] the idea that we can ask for help, that we can sit down and speak to someone, to talk things out, to have a level of clarity about what it is that one has [experienced],” he says. “To see somebody [on TV] ask for it, who was not readily open to that possibility — I sincerely hope it opens the door for people who are close to walking through it. Seeing Randall do it, maybe they’ll say ‘I should do it, too’ because sometimes it’s easy to see other people’s blind spots.”
Even less visible than Black men considering therapy is a Muslim family on television, Brown says.
“How could one of the largest religions in the world never have its due on screen, in America?” Brown asks. “I don’t know if I’ve seen it on-screen … ever.” This is why he is quick to sing the praises of lead comedy actor nominee Youssef, who created his own series to showcase his experience.
To Youssef, the impact of the mere existence of the show on television has been practical: It has given reference points to the average person who doesn’t know Muslims in real life. He points to an experience his friend Margari Hill, of the MuslimARC Foundation, shared with him as an example.
“‘Ramy’ came up while she was at a dentist appointment and the dental assistant said, ‘Oh my God, you’re like Zainab from “Ramy,”’” Youssef recounts. (Zainab, played by MaameYaa Boafo, is a Black Muslim and daughter of the titular character’s Sheikh.) “It was a reference point for her because this was a Black woman in a headscarf. [She] only knew one from [seeing] Zainab on ‘Ramy.’”
Youssef adds that Hill sent him a note saying that no one had previously referred to her in terms of someone they’d seen on screen. This can mean the representation of such characters, including the one he plays, come with high value and responsibility.
“For people to see an Arab family, to hear Arabic [dialogue] around problems that everyone has, it means a lot to me,” Youssef says. “It means a lot to people who are saying [to me], ‘We’re being viewed as real people.’”
Youssef points out that the Arabic language’s primary use in American cinematic history has been around terrorism. But audiences are experiencing “a total shift in perception” by hearing Arabic “lovingly,” and in “worship” and “introspection,” he says.
Porter, who won the lead drama actor Emmy last year and is nominated again, says a similar shift in perception is happening because of his ballroom culture period piece. Through the many Black and brown, queer and trans characters for the first time truly centered in storytelling, Porter says people are beginning to understand what being cast out feels like, and how it impacts LGBTQIA+ people to be hurt by “people who, so-called, ‘love you.’”
Specifically, he notes that trans women have predominantly been “thrown away by most everyone in their lives,” but they endure, and the show depicts the found family nature of their coming together to form a support system. His character Pray Tell is instrumental in that system, becoming a mentor to many of the younger performers.
“This group of people chooses love anyway, in the face of having nothing,” Porter says. “It’s a powerful, powerful statement. We’ve never seen anything like it on mainstream television before. [But] the combination of where we are in the world and what this show represents has created a different space for our allies to understand that the work is not done.”
Angelique Jackson contributed to this report.