The Emmy's Rocky Race Relations
The blatant snub of "Treme" (and "The Wire" before it) reveals a troubling truth about the academy's obliviousness to actors of color.
When the Emmy nominations were announced July 14, there were two important reasons to keep an eye on the fortunes of the HBO series Treme.
Snubbed in its freshman season, Treme had a creatively excellent sophomore season. But if Emmy voters were to overlook it for outstanding drama, then a case could be made that David Simon, who created The Wire before Treme, is either a pariah or completely snakebit when it comes to awards.
Second, there was the issue of its multi-ethnic cast: Were Treme to get the recognition it deserves as a series, there might be rewards for the many exceptional actors involved in the show, particularly Khandi Alexander and Wendell Pierce.
But Treme was neglected entirely. Not one nomination. So maybe Simon is a pariah (fodder for another column), but worse, the ranks of the major categories looked awfully white when all the announcements were done.
All six nominees for lead actor in a comedy series are white. All six nominees for lead actor in a drama series are white. All six nominees for lead actress in a comedy series are white. All six nominees for lead actress in a drama series are white.
You're sensing the trend here, yes?
You can toss in six more supporting white actors for comedy and another five supporting white actresses for comedy (Sofia Vergara broke the streak with her second consecutive nomination for Modern Family).
If you're keeping score at home, that's 35 white actors, one minority. It's not until the supporting actor in a drama categories that two other people of color earn nominations: Andre Braugher for TNT's Men of a Certain Age and Archie Panjabi for CBS' The Good Wife. Of course, the other five nominees in each of those categories are white, which brings the acting totals in the major Emmy categories to 45 white actors, three minorities.
If you're looking for a bright spot, Panjabi was nominated -- and won -- last year. Braugher was nominated last year as well but lost. But hey, he's a two-time Emmy winner. Then again, Men of a Certain Age just got canceled, so who knows what the numbers will look like next season.
This is an issue the Emmys and all of television -- networks and cable channels -- need to address. Unfortunately, it's an issue so prevalent that even writing these kinds of stories seems cliché.
In 2010, Variety reported that since 1986, nonwhite actors had received only 53 of the roughly 1,000 nominations in the four major acting categories, with only eight winning (the number increased to nine with Panjabi's win last year). The website Black Voices noted that by 2010, only 36 black actors had won an Emmy in the 62-year history of the awards; seven of those had won multiple times, but the total still fell below 50.
It's not a good pattern. In comparison to the past decade of Oscars, Emmy ballots have played out like veritable blizzards of whiteness.
The shame is, turning the discussion into a numbers game takes the spotlight off so many actors of color who deserve a shot at the Emmy not because of their skin tone but because they turned in stellar performances. Maybe that's why the academy has never broken out data about minority nominations or wins.
Yes, it was inexcusable for Wire, arguably the greatest drama in the history of television, to go five seasons without representation in the major categories. And it's hard to ignore a similarly minority-heavy drama, Treme, getting the same kind of snub. Not because of the potentially high number of minority candidates to choose from to fill some unspoken quota, but because so many of the performances in both of those series have been critically acclaimed and spectacular.
This year, it's particularly troubling to see Emmy voters overlook Alexander's work. Same for Pierce. Regina King on TNT's Southland was also amazing throughout the season.
For years, it was galling that CCH Pounder never got noticed on FX's The Shield. Or, on the comedy side, Tichina Arnold and Terry Crews for their hilarious, overlooked work on the CW's Everybody Hates Chris. That Michael Kenneth Williams never got nominated for his iconic portrayal of Omar on Wire will go down as one of the legendary Emmy snubs, though it might be too early to say if his work on HBO's Boardwalk Empire will be similarly shunted aside.
In one of those little bits of justice that sometimes appear over time, it was good to see Idris Elba -- whose work as Stringer Bell on Wire should have brought him a handful of nominations, if not wins -- get nominated twice this year. He's up for lead actor in a miniseries or movie for BBC America's Luther, plus a guest-starring stint on Showtime's The Big C.
And for the record, lead actor in a miniseries or movie produced three minority actors this year -- Elba, Laurence Fishburne in HBO's Thurgood and Edgar Ramirez in Sundance Channel's Carlos -- among a field of six. Taraji P. Henson is also nominated as lead actress, so there's hope.
Or is there? The Emmys could certainly help themselves by looking a little harder -- or should that be less blindly -- at the available pool. None of the supporting actors or actresses for miniseries or movie -- another 10 nominations -- is a minority. In the guest actor categories -- where it could be argued that the Emmy folks go looking for pretty much every big name to nominate (there are seven in the guest drama actress category, for example) -- only three of the 25 nominees are actors of color.
So, what's to be done? How can Emmy voters expand their horizons? It might be harder than it seems. The TV Academy doesn't provide the racial composition of its voters (or, for that matter, the median age of its voters). And while Emmy voters are supposed to watch everything, it doesn't mean they really do (still the best explanation for the Wire snub). As scripted television explodes, the task of keeping up gets ever harder. But even that's not a very good excuse. Back when the broadcast networks had more viewers than the cable channels, even wildly popular shows that everyone supposedly watched got ignored by academy voters -- like The Cosby Show, which, despite its No. 1 status for many years, never garnered an Emmy for Bill Cosby (he won three for I Spy).
So being ever present, front-and-center -- something Treme certainly is not -- doesn't necessarily help.
Some of the onus falls on the networks and cable channels as well. Actors must be cast to be nominated, and the ranks of Hispanic and Asian actors in high-profile roles throughout television are pretty slim.
But this is the Emmys, and thus a problem for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. There were any number of superb performances last season that just happened to be delivered by minority actors. Hell, Treme alone could have swelled the ranks in the lead and supporting categories.
So, what's the problem, Emmy voters? You've got a color television set, right?