The Emmy Awards: Important Steps, but a Long Road Ahead

September 20, 2017 Michael Paul Jackson Alan Jenkins

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

As always, the Emmy Awards, which aired Sunday night, were a moment of pomp and circumstance and spectacle, a time for celebrities to cheer their work and their craft in front of their peers.

But this time, things were a little different.

Photo of Donald Glover and Riz Ahmed and Lena Waithe holding their 2017 Emmy Awards
Photo courtesy of Riz Ahmed

The 2017 Emmy Awards were broadcast in the middle of the first year of the Trump Administration, a time when that divisive administration has rolled back civil rights, assailed immigrant families and espoused a hateful ideology that violates many of our values as Americans.

And so we’re heartened to see so many writers and performers of color winning awards on Sunday.

Donald Glover and Lena Waithe, made history with Emmy wins. Glover was the first African American to win Best Director for a Comedy Series, for “Atlanta,” while Waithe was the first African-American woman to win Best Writer for a Comedy Series for the hit show “Master of None” – an award she shared with Aziz Ansari, the co-creator and writer of that series. Riz Ahmed became the first actor of Asian and Muslim descent to take home an acting Emmy, for his role in HBO’s ‘The Night Of.”

As Waithe said in her acceptance speech, while thanking her “LGBTQIA family,” the “things that make us different, those are our superpowers."

After the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign begun by April Reign highlighted the stunning exclusion of people of color from Motion Picture Academy awards, it was refreshing Sunday to see more than one television writer and creator of color being recognized for their groundbreaking storytelling. But the work to expand Hollywood’s storytellers and stories to reflect our nation’s rich diversity is not over. Not by a long shot.

Not only do creators from a range of backgrounds and experiences deserve greater opportunity and recognition, but the depictions and representations in TV programming warrant critical attention. As The Opportunity Agenda detailed in our recently-released report, “The Power of Pop,” identifiable immigrant characters are woefully underrepresented in popular television shows, while white European immigrants are overrepresented in television shows. In addition, many television storylines featuring immigrant character centered unlawful activities by or surrounding those characters.

Celebrating the work of more writers and performers of color once a year on television is a good first step. But the work is not yet done.

As the report points out, “these storylines depicted immigrant characters directly participating in unlawful activities or being questioned by police, often as a direct result of their status as an immigrant.”

Indeed, Riz Ahmed echoed in his acceptance speech some of the problems still endemic in many television shows regarding immigrants: “I don’t know if any one person’s win of an award or one person snagging one role or one person doing very well changes something that’s a systemic issue of inclusion,” he said. “I think that’s something that happens slowly over time.”

Ahmed, who won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series, played a Pakistani cab driver who was accused of murdering a white woman. The show was created and co-written by Richard Price, a white novelist who has often written crime fiction depicting people of color as involved in crime.

The “Power of Pop” report offers recommendations to advocates for how they can help reverse these negative stereotypes, including: Holding television networks and executives accountable for their stories and celebrating them for diverse and nuanced depictions; introducing show runners, writers and producers to real life-stories of real-life immigrants; and using social media to respond to negative portrayals quickly and effectively.

As the report says, “prolonged and recurring representations of immigrants typically result in more authentic and positive representation. As such, advocates should also pressure entertainment executives to provide more varied and quality representations of immigrant characters.”

Celebrating the work of more writers and performers of color once a year on television is a good first step. But the work is not yet done.