[23 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The 2009 Emmy Awards air Sunday, 20 September.
Emmy voters historically favor heavy-hitting dramatics in the Lead Actress in a Drama Series category. Among the nominees this year are Glenn Close for Damages, Sally Field for Brothers and Sisters, Mariska Hargitay for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Holly Hunter for Saving Grace and Kyra Sedgwick for The Closer. The list reads like a virtual who’s who of former Oscar darlings and film industry stalwarts now operating exclusively, even respectably, in series television. Between these five women, there is already a whopping 32 Emmy nominations accrued in various categories.
This year a major rule change in the Emmy nominations happened: they changed the number of nominees in each category from five to six and the pundits agreed that this could be the injection of adrenaline to the awards’ heart that could finally mix things up in the otherwise deadlocked competitions such as Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Still, the five past nominees that have the category in a virtual stranglehold all still made it (though Elizabeth Moss did receive an inaugural nod for Mad Men).
It could be said that these women made it in on name alone, after all this is the same organization that gave Ellen Burstyn an undeserved nomination a few years ago for a performance that lasted a whole 14 seconds. They like to have the big name Academy Award-winning/nominated movie stars showing up at the ceremony, apparently. It is probably good for ratings.
The problem with the category lays not so much in the performances of the nominated women, though it can easily be argued that a few of those performances aren’t even very good. The most troubling thing about Lead Actress in a Drama Series is the ongoing, complete lack of recognition for women of color, specifically for African American women. In fact, only one black woman has ever been nominated as Best Actress in a Drama series in the category’s history: Regina Taylor in ’92 and ’93 for I’ll Fly Away.
Taylor of course lost the award twice, to Patricia Wettig (thirtysomething and Dana Delaney (China Beach, despite giving an arguably stronger performance than both women. African American performers such as Alfre Woodard, Lynn Whitfield, Cicely Tyson, Halle Berry, and Whoopi Goldberg have taken home Emmy statuettes for performances in other categories, but it is positively shameful that there has never been an African American winner in the category of Lead Actress Drama Series and only a single black female amongst the nominees in some 40 years (Taylor counts as the single nominee while Diahann Carroll was recognized, in 1969 for Julia, in the now-defunct “Continued Performance by an Actress” category and also lost her bid).
Of course, when it comes to Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, voters seem to be able to allow for a few more African American women to join the club: one black woman has won for Comedic actress in the entire history of the awards. Isabel Sanford, first nominated in 1979 for her brilliant work on The Jeffersons, took home a deserved statue in 1981, nearly 30 years after the awards’ inception. Again, that was almost 30 years ago, and no other African American woman has won in that category since.
Only Phylicia Rashad and Nell Carter have managed nominations in the Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, for The Cosby Show and Gimme a Break! respectively, in the early ‘80s. The lead actress categories for series television after these three mentions would be devoid of even a single African American nominee other than Taylor’s back to back nods in the dramatic category in the early ‘90s.
Why is nobody talking about this?! What does an African American woman need to do to be recognized in the Lead Actress in a Drama Series category at the Emmys?
For a while, there was buzz that Jill Scott (HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), respected former Oscar nominee Angela Bassett (ER) and the underrated Regina King (Southland) were all at least on the radar for Emmy nominations this year. Instead, Emmy voters have chosen to “honor” the same white women again, as though the work being put out by women of color is not deserving of accolades or attention.
In Scott’s case, the snub is particularly distressing as she carried her show impeccably, bringing Alexander McCall Smith’s beloved character (“Precious Ramotswe”) to vivid life for director Anthony Minghella, in the show’s pilot, his final feature-length work before his death. Scott, a three-time Grammy winner known predominantly for her acclaimed career as a singer-songwriter, has been dabbling in acting for years, notably in Tyler Perry’s box office success Why Did I Get Married?.
In working with Minghella, she elevated her artistry to an entirely different level, playing an African detective with a soft, yet tough veneer and a flawless Botswana accent, hitting each dramatic and comedic note effortlessly. A woman of color, from Africa, who isn’t afraid to show her heart or her hearty appetite, who is whip-smart and solving problems using her intellect is the kind of character that is lacking in television and film as it is, so to not acknowledge that Scott was responsible for a major television first is particularly galling when someone like Sedgwick is up for a veritable caricature. In my book, Scott’s work is better than most performances, by women of any color, that I have seen this year, in theaters or on television.
The nuanced, graceful notes that Scott hits in her series should have placed her in the final six with no problem, her performance was every bit as competent as the other six nominees (if not much better), but since she does not neatly fit into the category’s preferred type (re: white, thin, middle-aged, former film stars/Oscar winners/nominees or past Emmy winners/nominees) she’ll unfortunately have to sit this one out. If she or Bassett, who actually does fit into most of the category’s “types” except one, can’t land nominations against the locked-in juggernaut that continually dominates the proceedings, than I’m not sure anyone can. I read a cynical barb somewhere online that if Bassett had just been demoted to the Supporting Actress category, she might have actually stood a chance.
It might be a long time before we see women of color recognized as Lead Actress in a Series, comedic or dramatic, simply because there are so few truly great opportunities for women of color on the small screen in comparison to their white counterparts. Scott’s strong role was one of the finest for a woman of color in recent memory, and it still didn’t impress voters enough to recognize her work.
It’s time for more change, Emmy voters. It isn’t 1950 anymore. Black women do exist on television, and not just former the few Oscar winners who can’t get decent work in film anymore. It’s time to take a closer look. The lack of African American women nominated for Emmys signifies a greater problem – there needs to be more quality shows that center around the experiences of women of color.
And if anybody important is reading this: isn’t it high time Angela Bassett was given her own show?