The Primetime Emmys showed substantial progress this year in recognizing African-American thesps, who received 18 nominations across all acting categories — easily eclipsing last year’s record high of 11 noms.
The best actress, drama category set a first-time record with two African-American nominees: Viola Davis from ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder and Taraji P. Henson from Fox’s Empire. In the best supporting actress, limited series/movie slot, three African American actresses were recognized: Angela Basset (American Horror Story: Freak Show), Regina King (American Crime) and Mo’Nique (Bessie).
“This is absolutely a great sign,” Davis said of the recognition. “It’s the fact that television has expanded. There are different networks, therefore there are different narratives. They have to be inclusive of sheer numbers. I just feel it’s our time. We have a black president, a black first lady. Looking at the global world in a homogenized way doesn’t work any more. We now include the gay community, transgender, black and Asian. We look at the world differently now. When I was young, it was The Brady Bunch and Sanford and Son. If you were Hispanic you liked Disco. I you were white you liked Rock n’. Roll. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. It’s a case of art imitating life.”
As evidence of just how long overdue such recognition has been, 2014 marked a high point for black performers not seen in the 37 years since Roots won nine nominations (and ultimately trophies for Olivia Cole and Louis Gossett Jr). In 2013, Kerry Washington’s portrayal of Olivia Pope in ABC’s Scandal landed her a best actress drama nom — the first for a black actress since 1995, when Cicely Tyson earned an actress nod for NBC’s Sweet Justice. (Washington earned a second nom last year as well.)
This Emmy uptick also speaks to the types of roles black performers are landing.
“There are good roles out there, but we still have to fight for them,” said Queen Latifah, a newly minted nominee in the outstanding lead actress, limited series/movie category for the title role of blues legend Bessie Smith in HBO’s Bessie (which received 12 noms). “The tide has turned,” she added. “Those who are in power (in TV) are looking to be more diverse; to show an America that actually looks like America and to show the various kinds of roles and tell the stories that we’re involved in. For lead actors and actresses, this isn’t a one-shot deal, this to me, is the beginning.”
Queen Latifah mentioned that Bessie, produced by Lili Fini Zanuck and the late Richard Zanuck, sat around for 23 years. It was a project that she’d always had an eye on; her original audition tape can be viewed on the HBO site. Even though she was busy at the time with her talk show, the actress took time out of her schedule to make the passion project, which she also executive produced.
Mo’Nique, who plays Bessie’s mentor, blues great Ma Rainey in the film, concurs that the good roles are out there for African-Americans, but they still have to sift through the two-dimensional ones: “There are roles like Ma Rainey which make sense, but sometime you get sent a role and it’s like Really guys? This trend (at the Emmys) makes sense, it’s going toward a great direction. But still, we have to say 18 nominations and it’s 2015? How long have the Emmys been going on? I’ll be glad when it’s 25 or 50 if it’s fair and it just makes sense.”
For Davis, playing complex Philadelphia attorney Annalise Keating, who has dodged murder accusations on How To Get Away With Murder, is the role of a lifetime, “She is a rolling dervish, a firestorm, someone without structure. I like that she’s a woman of color who you can’t put your finger on.”
André Braugher, recognized for the second year in row in the supporting actor, comedy slot as gay police chief Captain Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, said “I started off as Kojak’s sidekick, and then Homicide: Life on the Street which was a groundbreaking piece of storytelling for African-Americans in detective roles. It was ahead of its time. I’ve found that the roles continue to get better and better.”
The 18 black actors and actresses who were honored today include Viola Davis, How To Get Away With Murder (lead actress drama); Taraji P. Henson, Empire (lead actress drama); David Oyelowo, Nightingale (lead actor limited series/movie); Queen Latifah, Bessie (lead actress limited series/movie); Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine (supporting actor comedy); Anthony Anderson, black-ish (lead actor, comedy series); Don Cheadle, House of Lies (lead actor, comedy series); Uzo Aduba, Orange Is The New Black (supporting actress, drama series); Reg. E. Cathey, House of Cards (guest actor in a drama series); Cicely Tyson, How To Get Away With Murder (guest actress, drama); Khandi Alexander, Scandal (guest actress, drama);Keegan-Michael Kay, Key & Peele (supporting actor, comedy series); Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (supporting actor, comedy series); Niecy Nash, Getting On (supporting actress, comedy series);Michael Kenneth Williams, Bessie (supporting actor, limited series/movie); Regina King, American Crime (supporting actress, limited series/movie);Angela Bassett, American Horror Story: Freak Show (supporting actress, limited series/movie); and Mo’Nique, Bessie (supporting actress, limited series/movie).