The Emmys Tackle Racism (& An Actress Starts A Twitter Feud)

Photo: Lester Cohen/WireImage.
“I done watched every damn show. And I’m white.”

Emmys host Andy Samberg set the tone when he mentioned race at the tail end of the musical number that opened the show, and he thankfully stuck with it through the historic highs and cringe-worthy lows of the night.

People have been quick to criticize the lack of diversity in award show nominees over the past few years, and with good reason. At this year’s Oscars, there were absolutely zero people of color nominated in the four main acting categories — despite the fact that groundbreaking films like Selma were absolutely deserving — and before Kerry Washington was nominated in 2013, it had been nearly two decades since an African-American actress was nominated in the leading actress category at the Emmys.

Award shows that fail to reflect both audience favorites and the cultural landscape of the world we actually live in start to feel stale and unnecessary. That’s part of the reason it was a relief to see Samberg point out the issues of race and gender upfront rather than shy away from them.

After noting that this was the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history, Samberg deftly slammed anyone too quick to pat themselves on the back. The host continued by joking that this fact wasn’t really a boon, since once upon a time, Major League Baseball probably had the same reaction to including Jackie Robinson on the roster. After this allusion to the fact that one Black player among a sea of white teammates hardly heralded the end of systemic racism, the crowd chuckled nervously when Samberg said, “Racism is over! Don’t fact-check that.”

A joke about Donald Trump began and ended with the notion that he’s racist (“Sure Donald Trump seems racist…what else?”). Samberg then commented on the demonstrated intolerance of disgraced celebrity chef Paula Deen and homophobic Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis. When he pointed out that Hollywood was still “crappy” on the issues of both the age and wage gap between men and women, it was clear that this year’s vibe was much more self-aware.

The bold choice to counter past criticism by admitting that things are still messed up was heightened by the fact that, for the first time in ages, there was diversity among the winners. When Jill Soloway won Best Director for Transparent, she used her time to acknowledge the housing discrimination issues that the transgender community still faces. “We don’t have a trans tipping point yet, we have a trans civil rights problem,” she said. Jeffrey Tambor, who took home his first Emmy for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for the same show, said he “acted because people’s lives depend on it,” and thanked the transgender community for their patience, courage, stories, and “letting us be part of the change.”

Actress and nominee Taraji P. Henson gave the whole show a fun, sisterly vibe with her unbridled enthusiasm for some of the winners. When she presented Regina King with her award for Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her role on American Crime, Henson screamed “Yeeeessssss!” and clapped to get the audience going as King made her way to the microphone. Though they were nominated in the same category, Henson tightly hugged Viola Davis and was the first one to start the standing ovation when Davis became the first Black woman ever to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama. Davis gave a historic speech to go along with her historic win, saying, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Her loss notwithstanding, Henson was definitely seen having the most fun of anyone all night, in the Apple Music commercial with Kerry Washington and Mary J. Blige, which finds all three stars dancing around to Diddy and DMX. The spot’s director, Ava DuVernay, captured the fun, carefree vibe of how it feels to just hang out with your girls — while casually giving a nod to three Black women at the top of their game.

Photo: Variety /REX USA.

Though the Emmys felt more fun and inclusive than they have in ages, there were still some uncomfortable moments that showcased just how far we have yet to go. When Uzo Aduba won Best Supporting Actress in a Drama, presenter Jamie Lee Curtis said it “went to the girl who I asked how to pronounce her name.” Though Aduba has famously commented on the advice her mother gave her about teaching people to pronounce her name, the comment from Curtis was cringe-inducing, particularly when you consider that Aduba’s name is not difficult to pronounce — it’s just five phonetic syllables. Aduba’s gracious and emotional acceptance speech helped wipe away some of the grossness, but Curtis’ display of white guilt was discomfiting.

The weirdest part of the night didn’t even happen on the show. After Davis’ win, General Hospital actress Nancy Lee Grahn went on Twitter to complain about the fact that Davis’ victory “doesn’t fix racial injustice,” and that the How to Get Away With Murder star had “never been discriminated against.” Her most offensive tweet (which looks like it’s been deleted, but is captured in the screenshot below) basically takes an “All Actresses Matter” approach to her argument.

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Photo: Via Twitter.


People almost broke their own fingers responding to Grahn, who, to her credit, not only apologized but also stayed up most of the night talking and apologizing to anyone she offended.

The Grahn situation didn’t detract from the fun of such a groundbreaking night, but it did exemplify a larger, more persistent issue: When people advocate for an all-encompassing equality, it excuses them from fighting for the programs, people, and policies that would encourage immediate change for people who need it most. It’s easier to say "everything should be better” than it is to examine your own role in why nothing ever actually changes. Why does Matt Damon think that equality will eventually work itself out while he’s actively talking over the only Black women in the room? What does it mean when Stephen Colbert puts on a Black Lives Matter bracelet but still has an all-white writing staff?

The Emmys are starting to reward some of the people responsible for making television more diverse. When is the rest of Hollywood going to follow suit?

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