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September 21, 2020

Are the Emmys Still Racist?

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Setting a record, Schitt’s Creek, spelled with a dollar sign “Schitt’$” in the Netflix title art, won not one, two, three or four, but five Emmys on Sunday night. The show won every category for which it and its actors were nominated: Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Outstanding Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

Schitt’s Creek follows the economic downfall of the uber-wealthy Rose family. Similarly to Arrested Development, many of the main jokes of the show capitalize on the pomp and ridiculous culture of the elite.

The Roses must learn how to rebuild their lives in a much lower socio-economic environment, in which they are initially extremely uncomfortable. As the six seasons progress, the family learns more about what life is like for most people in the world. Catherine O’Hara, who won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, told the New York Times: “It’s like we’re aliens learning how to be humans.”

Other Emmy nominated comedy series this round included Black-ish, Insecure, Dead to Me, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, The Good Place, Ramy, The Kominsky Method and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Many Black actors and actresses in these shows were nominated for Emmys, including Mahershala Ali, Issa Rae, Anthony Anderson, Kenan Thompson, Tracee Ellis Ross, William Jackson Harper, Sterling K. Brown, Yvonne Orji and my favorite, Andre Baugher. This is a list of brilliant actors and writers.

When so many were nominated, why did no comedic Black actor or actress win an Emmy?

Since ancient times, comedies have upheld social structure. Society, and the Academy, is run by rich white folks, so of course the comedy which highlights the ruling class is most recognized. Schitt’s Creek follows the social descent of the Rose family, and one could argue that society enjoys seeing the rich fall — but the show ultimately sees the family successful again, with characters thriving, maintaining a version of their hierarchy. Schitt’s Creek is about how the ruling class should be. And regardless of its allegorical significance, Schitt’s Creek is extremely white.

Black actors in Black-ish, Insecure, The Good Place, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine were snubbed of Emmys because they are not relatable enough to the Academy. Issa Rae has been nominated once before. The Academy seems willing to nominate Black comedians, but fails to truly recognize their excellence.

One might say that the Emmys this year recognized Black talent plenty: Zendaya won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Euphoria, Uzo Aduba won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for Mrs. America, Regina King won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for Watchmen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for Watchmen.

The wins of Watchmen and Mrs. America do indicate a recognition of Black talent and history, but the recognition of only Black drama reflects a one-dimensional view of the Black experience in America. King is the detective protagonist of Watchmen who hunts down murderers and organizers of horrible hate crimes. In Mrs. America, Aduba plays Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress who ran for president in 1972. This is much better than a no-dimensional view, but recognition of Black comedy would mean that the Academy is working to further understand Black America.

This year’s Emmys suggested that the elite are more comfortable watching Black people struggle or take revenge than they are with seeing Black people just being people. Baugher in Brooklyn Nine-Nine portrays a stern yet sweet gay police captain. Jackson Harper portrays a nerdy ethicist in The Good Place. In  Insecure, Rae portrays a creative woman working for a non-profit, finding herself. These shows unearth the normalcy of Black personhood and excellence.

Additionally, Succession, yet another uber-wealthy white-dominated show, won Outstanding Drama Series. This year’s wins reflect the comfort of the Academy, who see themselves in the mostly wealthy white people represented in Schitt’s Creek and Succession. This mostly explains why the Emmys deem “Schitt’s Creek” most hilarious; this is why the Emmys deem Succession most compelling.

Cyndey Henderson, a Black writer with USAToday, wrote, “With a platform this large, the Emmys could have and should have done more. This was a time to be firm in their support instead of briefly mentioning it.”

The brief support of Black Lives Matter was that King and Aduba wore “Say Her Name” shirts, referencing the injustice of Breonna Taylor’s murder, and Anderson and Jimmy Kimmel lead a BLM chant.

Henderson continues: “The broadcast could have taken time to highlight what steps the academy is taking toward equality or the show could have allotted time for stars to speak about the Black Lives Matter movement…”

The intricacies of racism in the ruling class and in mass media matter. The media has control of the world’s perception and valuation of art. One must consciously ask oneself: Why are certain kinds of Black art celebrated over others? What do white people choose to feature, and why?

 

Emma Plowe is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at eplowe@cornellsun.com. She currently serves as arts editor on the Sun.