People Of Color Made History At The Emmys, And It Wasn't By Telling The Stories Of White People
Usually, watching the Emmys is an exercise in patience. As a TV viewer, you care, but as a black person, you can pretty much say "I bet a white person wins" and be right about almost every category. In recent years, the nominees and winners have gotten more diverse, but people of color made history at the 2017 Emmys in a way they usually don't. No, not only when Donald Glover became the first black director to win for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series. And, no, not just when Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. No, not even when Riz Ahmed became the first Asian man to win an acting Emmy. The truly amazing thing was that people of color were winning for projects that centered their stories.
Glover's directing win was for his work on Atlanta, a show that is, simplistically, about two cousins with polar opposite views on how to come up in the Atlanta rap community. The show features a predominantly black cast and an entirely black writer's room, and Glover beat out numerous white people to take home the award on Sunday.
Lena Waithe's writing win was for "Thanksgiving," an episode of Master of None that she co-wrote with Aziz Ansari. The episode was a poignant look on what it means to be queer in a family of color, taking the viewer through Denise's (played by Waithe) past family Thanksgiving dinners and struggles with her sexuality. And, despite being a co-writer, Ansari rightfully let her take the microphone and give a tearful speech about being a black queer woman and rallying her fellow queer or black people to never give up.
Riz Ahmed's acting win was for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Limited Series Or Movie for his work in The Night Of, a show which dives into a New York City murder case and the political and cultural influences and bigotry that effect the subsequent trial. Like Waithe, the British-Pakistani and Muslim actor made an impassioned speech in which he took comfort in the fact that the show might highlight "some of the prejudices in our society, Islamophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system."
The fact that these three made history for producing work that was by and about people who looked at them, that covered issues that people who looked like them were concerned about, is the part of the night that we need to talk about more. Because the fact that it took 68 years of Emmys ceremonies for this glass ceiling to be shattered is a bitter pill to swallow, but that black, Muslim, and queer people are being acknowledged for black, Muslim, and queer stories is worth being celebrated. Especially since it's not always that way.
To be fair, this was Ansari's second Emmys win for writing, as Master of None episode "Parents" won in the same category in 2016. Last year, the show, which follows the personal and professional life of Dev and his POC friends as they try to make it as actors in New York, beat out several other predominantly white shows to take the win. This year, it was up against two Atlanta episodes, as well as two Veep episodes and a Silicon Valley episode. But, for the most part, when people of color take home Emmys, it's not always for shows that reflect their experience.
At the 2016 Emmys, Rami Malek took home an award for Mr. Robot, an amazing show that, nonetheless, isn't exactly about the Egyptian American experience. Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, and Regina King took home awards for their work on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and American Crime respectively, which are arguably open to the same criticism of Mr. Robot. But black-ish, Empire, and — at least in the Outstanding Comedy Series category — Master of None lost out to predominantly white projects or to projects that didn't explore the unique plight of people of color in depth. A similar story played out at the 2015 Emmys, where Dee Rees' Bessie, Empire, and Orange Is The New Black went unacknowledged — though Uzo Aduba did thankfully take home a well-deserved win for Supporting Actress in a Drama.
But at the 2017 Emmys, people of color got to take the stage to be acknowledged for their excellence in telling their stories. When Donald Glover won for directing, when Lena Waithe won for writing, and when Riz Amed won for acting in The Night Of, these victories not only said that they as people matter but that their stories matter. And that really is the most historic thing at all, because too often the victories of people of color are either an outlier in an otherwise white show or a nice nod for a project that nonetheless isn't about "niche" minority issues.
TV wants our niche minority issues, for what feels like the first time ever, and the voters will reward us for telling us. That's a powerful message that a simple victory for any other kind of project wouldn't tell anywhere near as well.
Editor's Note: This article incorrectly stated that Regina King won an Emmy in 2016 for The People v. OJ. It has been updated to reflect that her win was for American Crime.