Last year, when Sterling K. Brown hit the podium to accept the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, he broke a 19-year dry spell for a black man claiming that title. And now that the nominees have been announced for 2018, Sandra Oh has made history as the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for the Lead Actress in a Drama Series award, for her turn in Killing Eve. She has previously been nominated five times for her supporting role on Grey’s Anatomy, but this one feels long overdue, both for the potency of all of Oh’s performances up to this point, and because it’s just really late to be having this kind of first. It’s 2018, and yet another awards show list has come out overwhelmingly white.
Oh stands out as the only non-white woman nominated in her category, in which she’s up against Claire Foy (The Crown), Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale), Keri Russell (The Americans), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) and Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld). Meanwhile, fan favorite Game of Thrones is back in the, uh, game (after its last season aired during a period of ineligibility for last year’s awards), with nominations for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Peter Dinklage, and Lena Headey. So that’s more nominated actors on that one show, this year, than female lead actors of Asian descent who’ve ever been nominated at all.
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The #OscarsSoWhite movement created by April Reign in 2015 helped bring attention to the lack of representation of marginalized people of all backgrounds in the entertainment industry—not just among awards show winners and nominees, but the lack of opportunity to play roles that could garner such nominations in the first place.
“I think, very often, people think in binary terms,” says Reign, as if to suggest “diversity” for many is a yes-or-no, black-or-white, or man-or-woman question, and it has been achieved because we have welcomed and celebrated both a black man and woman on the Oscars and Emmy’s stages. “And yet where are the Latinx actors? There are definitely not enough. Where are the open LGBT+ folks? Where are visibly disabled folks? There’s no reason they cannot be robust members of the entertainment industry.” And, certainly, “robust” is not a word one would use to describe the representation in the 2018 Emmy nominees class. Thandie Newton, for example, is the only woman of color in the Supporting Actress in a Drama Series category.
But the supporting actor comedy categories saw the recognition of fantastic work by Zazie Beetz (Atlanta), Leslie Jones (Saturday Night Live), Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) and Kenan Thompson (Saturday Night Live). This year has also marked some important progress, with safe-bet nominations—stars who’ve been nominated before, and who represent beloved and binge-watched shows—like Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, and Donald Glover in the lead actor comedy categories, and Sterling K. Brown and Jeffrey Wright for Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
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This group of nominees highlight a “great step forward” in the entertainment industry, Reign says, but they’re up against 60 white names nominated in the main acting categories. And, Sandra Oh’s groundbreaking nomination exemplifies that “we still need to have the conversation as to why were having firsts in 2018 in any category.”
While the Lead and Supporting Actor categories remain so white, the nominations in the limited series or movie and guest actor categories see a greater depth of representation from black and non-black actors of color.
The Outstanding guest actress in a drama series category showcases excellent performances by Kelly Jenrette (The Handmaid’s Tale), Samira Wiley (The Handmaid’s Tale), Viola Davis (Scandal), and Cicely Tyson (How to Get Away with Murder). Ron Cephas Jones’s work on This Is Us was rightfully recognized, as were the performances by Regina King (Seven Seconds), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Katt Williams (Atlanta), Ricky Martin (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story), John Leguizamo (WACO), and other actors of color.
Shows like Black-ish and Atlanta, which are led by showrunners of color and have diverse writers rooms, walked away with major behind-the-camera nominations. There were only four people of color nominated for directing or writing awards—three of whom for their work on the same show, Atlanta (Hiro Murai, Glover, and Stefani Robinson). The fourth is Andre Allen for directing on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. It speaks volumes that shows that manage to have ample representation on- and off-screen are being lauded for their work.
“Those of us outside of the industry are demanding more, and are speaking out with our viewership,” Reign says. “People are paying attention to shows that are reflective of myriad experiences in this country—and finally those people are getting the recognition they deserve.”
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