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Why The Emmys Has a Black Problem

Award season is underway with the upcoming Emmy Awards, which is hard to believe when you consider that the Oscars don’t seem like that long ago. Back in the day, when it came to the glittery affair of crowded red carpets and keeping score of winners and losers, my investment lasted from beginning to end.

But these days I’m more inclined to depend on the advantages that this era of technology delivers when you can indulge in posted clips that capture the areas of interests, as opposed to sitting through hours of bad jokes, and the parade of faces that just don’t ring a bell.

There’s also the accumulated resentment that has built up from all those years of exclusivity, that rendered Black creatives to the background, unless you were willing to be a Black showrunner who agrees to launch a burgeoning career with the promise that your first-ever TV series will be dominated by a primarily White cast.

Yes, the nineties and early aughts did feature the gems that we all nostalgically rely on for continued nourishment, but Black shows were still regulated to “urban” networks, so that the more prominent venues could reap the uninterrupted profits that can be amassed when you give White viewers the bonus of relatable characters located in an all-White New York City.

Luckily, cable networks like HBO and Showtime, were willing to be a little adventurous with programming, which led to the installment of Soul Food, the drama series that was birthed from the 1997 hit film of the same title, and enjoyed four seasons on Showtime.

The TV adaptation was masterminded by veteran screenwriter and television producer, Felicia Henderson, who is best known for her work on Moesha, Sister, Sister, and Fringe. And it goes without saying that the stellar performances by the cast, combined with an incredibly talented writing staff helped to keep the series consistently fresh and addictively good.

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But the engaging exploits of romantic entanglements, featuring the Joseph Sisters, played by Vanessa Williams, Nicole Ari Parker, and Malinda Williams, supported by the secondary cast of hubbies, offspring and acquaintances didn’t prove to be an attention grabber for Emmy voters, and so the only solid recognition that was paid came from the NAACP Awards.

HBO’s The Wire fared somewhat better at the Emmys with two nominations in 2005 and 2008 for “outstanding writing,” but interestingly enough there are no acting nominations on record, despite the phenomenal performances from a diverse cast of seasoned and up and coming talents. It’s possible that the gritty and violent crime drama created by TV writer and producer David Simon, about the complexly volatile relationship between law enforcement and the battered community of Baltimore proved to be way too controversial and uncomfortably potent for the privileged Emmy voters.

But lets’s go all the way back and recall the exceptional delivery from esteemed actress Phylicia Rashad, who played the charmingly eloquent Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show alongside disgraced comedian, scholar and media mogul extraordinaire, Bill Cosby, who was once hailed as “America’s Favorite Dad.”

We can’t pretend that era of excellence in television didn’t occur, even if the unsightly stain of the once beloved creator of the iconic sitcom that shaped our childhoods is tragically permanent. And at the height of the eighties, when a popular show on a major network reserved for White people featured Black characters that were written with whimsical coherency, it’s really hard to believe that none of the main cast members managed to snag an Emmy award, despite the show being active for almost a decade.

Phylicia Rashad was nominated twice and never won which is a travesty when you realize how much she elevated her career-making role, and the fact that if anyone in that cast deserved at least a couple of those golden statutes for a job well done it had to be her.

The next exercise is to imagine that the cast of these highlighted shows are mostly White with castmates of color sporadically popping in and out.

It’s hard to imagine that most of the Emmy nominations and wins would be regulated to the writing team, which was a predictable move based on the inclusion of White writers. The Cosby Show did win the Emmy for “outstanding comedy series” in 1985, but that was the only award bestowed on the ensemble cast.

You also can’t deny that the Emmys has a Black problem when you find out that White America’s pop culture phenomenon known as Friends, that brought ratings gold for NBC for over a decade was nominated for a total of 62 Emmys during it’s run, and both Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow were the only cast members to win in the acting category.

And for drama series, The West Wing was the Emmy favorite for at least eight consecutive years if not more, starting in 2001. And while it’s quite obvious to loyal viewers why the engrossing political drama by famed screenwriter and TV producer Aaron Sorkin was the darling of the award circuit, it’s quite challenging to figure out how and why Friends was just as palatable to voters.

Aside from the bitterness over the truth behind the conniving formation of a wildly appealing White sitcom that stole from the Black neighborhood that housed a similar concept with the title of Living Single, there’s also the blandness of the cast of characters against the offensive backdrop of a historic city that willfully misrepresented the authenticity that network executives are now scrambling to replicate, thanks to the rally cry of #OscarsSoWhite.

Cast of “Living Single”

The Black problem that Emmy voters have seems to be embedded in the inability to be exploratory and unbiased when it comes to the creative valves of Black talents. Those reservations don’t seem to hamper the reception of White counterparts, who are able to spread their wings and fly on projects that feature an array of characters of every hue, navigating themes that run the gamut.

The Black shows that appeal to Emmy voters have to be buzz-worthy in ways that showcase the investment from the White population. It has to be the comfortable option that will serve as evidence of fair and square with the falsehood of how the mandated code of “diversity” has finally exacted an even playing field.

And while it’s pleasant to notice props being given to standard fare like How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish, and newcomer Pose, for Emmys 2019, we can’t deny the nagging scarcity of quality dramas and dramedys in the main categories that should showcase the rewardable output from Black talents.

For some reason both Atlanta and Insecure are missing from this year’s lineup nominees, and while it may have something to do with timing for the former and the fact that Issa Rae’s charismatic vehicle is starting to lose steam, the blatantly missing contenders definitely exaggerate the absence of worthier competitors.

Why are the Emmy’s allergic to the supremeness of OWN’s Queen Sugar, the succulent drama series created by Ava DuVernay, that follows the lives of three siblings from New Orleans. The production value has been consistently above average since the series made its debut in 2016, and there’s also high marks for being the first and only television series to employ female directors for every episode.

The series is also revered for it’s path of progression when it comes to presenting jarring narratives that effectively depict the real life struggles of race and class with references to the hostile climate that places Black lives in imminent danger while navigating the daily requirements of basic functionality.

The fact that Queen Sugar hasn’t received any Emmy nods since its ambitious premiere almost three years ago is unforgivable. The hardworking and passionate cast and crew never fail to keep ardent fans gratifyingly entertained with each passing season, and that has everything to do with the impeccable production that’s celebrated with the heart-tugging performances of what can only be described as “an award-winning” cast.

Another future cult TV offering that practically makes mince meat out of former Emmy favorite, Empire, is the crime drama series that literally keeps its network, Starz, alive and well — Power.

The runaway hit show created by Courtney Kemp and rapper, actor and producer Curtis Jackson (50 Cent), is set in the cold-blooded and ruthless world of drug-dealers, overseen by crime lords who are loyal to the game that anoints their undefeated status. It centers around the wins and losses of James St. Patrick a.k.a. “Ghost,” who is trying to leave the deadliness of a corrupt existence for the legitimate lane of running his successful nightclub.

The main character is the formidable presence of the concrete jungle with the blaring soundtrack that matches the dramatics of thrilling sequences that leave breathless fans at the edge of their seats.

There’s no doubt that Power possesses the edginess and unapologetic graphicness that recall the glory days of its comparable predecessor, The Wire, and maybe that’s why Emmy voters have refused to acknowledge the greatness on display, even after six years of being on the air.

Perhaps it was easier to give the love to Empire because of the network that hosts the show, and the immense embrace from White viewers with the star-studded guest appearances that verify why voters can’t afford to look the other way. It also helps that Lee Daniels co-created the musical soap opera with a White guy and frequent collaborator, Danny Strong, who famously wrote the screenplay for The Butler, which explains why White audiences were so enchanted.

Another amazing contender from Starz that remained under the radar until its final season was Survivor’s Remorse. It lasted for about four seasons, and featured a terrific roster of Black talents, including the newly-minted Marvel Black superhero, Teyonah Parris, the amazing and underrated Tichina Arnold, who should’ve received an acting Emmy nomination, comedian Mike Epps, and the tremendously gifted Erica Ash.

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Cast of “Survivor’s Remorse”

Survivor’s Remorse centered around a young Black athlete, Cam Calloway, played by Jessie T Usher, who relocates with his family to Atlanta after signing a lucrative contract that tosses him in the major leagues of prob-basketball.

The dramedy was bursting with a vibrant cast of characters that gave each episode the delightfully layered storylines that would seem more aligned with the specific palette of Emmy voters. But alas, the show never scored a nomination, and sadly even the other dignified options that recognize Black talents like the NACCP Awards also retained blinders when it came to the brilliance of the now-defunct show.

All this to say that the Emmy Awards, like most high-profile Hollywood events is just another political scheme that never plays fair.

For some reason, White creatives are able to maximize the full benefits of their elaborate ventures, but for Black talents, in front of the camera and behind the scenes, the path to being the preferred darling of the industry for the seamless inclusion on the list of feted nominees is drastically more cumbersome.

The Black shows that make the cut have to be seasoned with the spices that create the dish that can be generously devoured by the demographic that proves why it doesn’t have to be mainly about the checked boxes in the key areas of overall production.

Voters are clearly motivated by certain attributes when it comes to offerings that illustrate Black narratives, and if the presentation doesn’t sugarcoat reality for the viewing pleasure of those who don’t apply, that automatically translates into the unceremonious banishment from the illustrious list of nominees.

This Black problem can only be solved by the demonstration of the mantra “For us, by Us,” that’s currently having an epic run, thanks to geniuses like Mara Brock Akil, Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, and many more to follow.

At the end of the day, award shows are just another blessed excuse for the rich and famous to publicly indulge in their privilege, and while we can’t fault the need to exalt the best of the best, when it comes to the enormous responsibility of due diligence in a rapidly evolving genre — there’s something woefully lacking when it comes to the healthy infusion of Black creatives who’ve more than earned their spots.

And that’s a huge problem.

Written by

Juggling Wordsmith. I have a lot to say!

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