Last night could’ve been historic for African-American television viewers—and Hollywood as a whole. Instead, not so much. Sunday night’s worldwide telecast of the 65th annual Emmy Awards, which celebrated “the best of television,” didn’t net any award wins for three of the most sought after and well-respected Black actors of the crop: Kerry Washington, Don Cheadle and Alfre Woodard.
To some, this will be seen as business as usual. The last Black person to win what most consider the most prestigious television industry honor was Loretta Devine in 2011 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series (in the Shonda Rhimes hit series Grey’s Anatomy).
To the chagrin of many television hopefuls, Rhimes’s black magic couldn’t get Kerry Washington—star of the producer’s latest hit vehicle, Scandal—to take home the golden statuette. Washington, who plays Olivia Pope on the ABC series, lost out to Claire Danes of Showtime’s Homeland for Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The former My So Called Life actress previously won the same award last year for the same role.
With Scandal, Washington became the first Black actress to headline a primetime network drama series in over 30 years. (Though many media outlets credit Diahann Carroll as the only actress to front a primetime series with the 1968 NBC sitcom Julia, actress Teresa Graves was actually the first Black female star of a television drama on 1974-1975’s Get Christie Love!) For her work as the flawed and fabulous political spin doctor and crisis management expert, Washington has been celebrated by Hollywood before—even landing the cover of Vanity Fair, which has had only a few and far in between Black faces on its front page over the decades. (Diana Ross, Beyoncé, Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Tina Turner have graced the covers, solo, throughout the years.)
When Washington—who’s put in over a decade of memorable film work in movies like Ray, The Human Stain, The Last King of Scotland and Django Unchained—was recognized by this year’s Emmys, she became the first Black actress nominated in the category in nearly 20 years. (The last before her was Cicely Tyson in 1995, for the NBC series Sweet Justice. For four consecutive years in the early 1980s, Debbie Allen was nominated for her role in the hit series Fame.)
Upon learning of her nomination in July, the Bronx native told The New York Times: “I’m honored to share this history with some of the actresses I admire most, people like Debbie Allen, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson and Regina Taylor. To be in that community of actresses is tremendous to me, personally. I’m really excited that a show that is as inclusive and diverse as our show, with regard to not just race, but ethnicity and sexual orientation and age and gender, is able to succeed in the United States and now abroad as well.”
All of those things may have worked for the show, but not for the Emmy Awards. At least not this year.
Don Cheadle, who’s performed masterful work on TV and beyond since first making viewers take notice of his talents with his role as D.A. John Littleton in Picket Fences back in 1992, was up for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his role in Showtime’s House of Lies. It was his second consecutive time nominated in the category for his role as shifty management consultant Martin “Marty” Kaan. He lost last night to Jim Parson of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, who won the award twice before as obsessive compulsive physicist Sheldon Cooper. Also a respected film actor, Cheadle was the first Black actor nominated for the award since Bernie Mac back in 2003. Earlier this year, he won a Golden Globe Award for his work in House of Lies.
Alfre Woodard holds the distinction of being the Black actor with the most nominations (17) and the most wins (4) to date. The Tulsa, Oklahoma native’s illustrious TV career spans four decades, starting with her Emmy-winning turn on Hill Street Blues way back in 1984. This year, Woodard was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Movie or Miniseries for her work in Lifetime’s all-Black Steel Magnolias remake. Ellen Burstyn ultimately won instead for the USA miniseries Political Animals.
In a special past-meets-present moment, Ms. Carroll shared the stage with Ms. Washington to present an award for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. The Scandal star said she was proud to share the stage with Carroll, the first African-American, male or female, ever nominated for an Emmy. (Bill Cosby actually won Emmys for three consecutive years in the late ’60s for I Spy.) In retrospect, Carroll’s adoration and premature congratulations for Washington (and her subsequent warning that “she better get this award”) proved to be awkward since she, indeed, did not.
According to a recent Nielsen study released last week, “Resilient, Receptive and Relevant: The African-American Consumer 2013 Report,” Blacks watch more TV than the general population—37 percent more. This data, juxtaposed with the dearth of Black people winning awards, should make the television industry pause about how things are being done.
But that could be wishful thinking for many.
Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in The Daily Beast, CNN.com, Philadelphia Weekly, Essence, Billboard and Uptown. His website is karudaniels.com.