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Arts and Entertainment

Emmys Look Like The Country Club, Not The Country Itself

A photo of the golden Emmy award with a dark background.
The acting winners in last year's Emmy Awards were all white, and all of the top series winners were led by white actors or largely white ensembles. Monday's ceremony might deliver more diverse winners, which shouldn't be hard as it's hard to do worse than zero.
(Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images North America)
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A few things can be cheaper by the dozen. But the only thing discounted in the 12 Emmy Awards for acting was performances by people of color.

Each and every acting trophy in Sunday’s ceremony--lead and supporting actor and actress in drama, comedy and limited series--went to a white nominee, exposing (yet again) Hollywood’s failure to validate diverse work.

When this year’s Primetime Emmy nominations were revealed in July, it looked as if real change might be afoot. Some 44% of acting nominees were people of color, a record total of 49 non-white actors.

What’s more, a spectrum of shows made by and/or starring Black artists collected top selections, including “Lovecraft Country,” “I May Destroy You” and “The Underground Railroad.”

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While some of those programs won less prominent trophies, especially in earlier, non-televised awards, all of Sunday’s top four series winners were anchored by white performers or ensembles: “The Crown” for drama series, “Ted Lasso” for comedy series, “Queen’s Gambit” for limited series, and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” for variety talk series.

The ceremony’s producers assembled a diverse list of presenters: people of color, women, people with disabilities, and representatives from the LGBTQ community. The Emmy host (Cedric the Entertainer) the Emmy announcer (MC Lyte) and its DJ (Reggie Watts) were all black. Yet that made the disparity even more glaring; it felt like they were all working at a party to which they weren’t invited.

The whitewash was so complete that it took more than a dozen awards--nearly two hours into the broadcast--before any person of color won anything. And that was RuPaul, whose “Drag Race” series won for best reality/competition series. With last night’s win (the fourth straight in the category), Ru Paul now has the most Emmys ever won by a person of color.

The only other winner with a diverse cast was “Hamilton,” honored for best pre-recorded variety special. But it’s win was altogether a pandemic fluke: The Walt Disney Co. originally planned to release the musical adaptation theatrically last year (meaning Academy Award-eligible), but shifted it to its Disney Plus streaming site because movie theaters were shuttered by Covid-19.

Emmy experts predicted that several Black performers could win acting trophies, including “Pose’s” Billy Porter for lead actor in a drama series, whose show was just canceled after its third season. But Porter lost to Josh O'Connor from "The Crown.” Similarly, Michael K. Williams, who died earlier this month from suspected drug abuse, was favored by many to win for supporting actor in a drama series. Yet that prize, too, went to another actor from “The Crown”: Tobias Menzies.

In perhaps the biggest surprise of the ceremony, Ewan McGregor won best actor in a limited series for “Halston.” McGregor is a really good actor. But “Halston” was not a really good show, according to the critics, and McGregor beat two non-white actors--”Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr.--for the trophy.

Even if it was a terrible night for people of color--amplified by the fact that show host Cedric the Entertainer and no presenter or winner acknowledged what was plainly happening before their eyes--it was a very good night for streamers, especially Netflix.

Just nine years ago, no streaming show had been nominated for a Primetime Emmy. This time, Netflix won a total of 44 awards. That’s the most wins by any distributor in nearly half a century: CBS won that many trophies way back in 1974. HBO was second on Sunday, with 19 trophies, down from 30 statuettes in 2020.

Will next year’s Oscars do any better? It’s still early, but the current leading contenders for top or multiple Academy Awards are Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.”

And not a person of color anywhere to be seen in either.