Sunday morning, hours before this year’s Emmys ceremony, Being Mary Jane actress Gabrielle Union tweeted: “I’ve been doing TV since 1995. This will be my 1st time going to the Emmys & I’m presenting an award! 22 yrs later. #OvernightSuccess.”
The actress’ first credited appearance was in an episode of Saved by the Bell: The New Class and while that might not be the type of show that garners you an Emmys invite, it’s surprising that in 22 years as a successful actress Union hasn’t even been at the ceremony. But then again, she’s a black woman in Hollywood, so it’s not really surprising, is it?
This moment for Union comes two years after Viola Davis gave her a shoutout in her historic win as the first black woman to win a best actress in a drama Emmy. Awarded a statue for her role in How to Get Away With Murder, Davis who traded in roles like the one in The Help where she played a maid, Davis put her community to task for its lack of inclusion. “In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line,” Davis said, quoting Harriet Tubman. She followed the quote by saying: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black. And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union: Thank you for taking us over that line. Thank you to the Television Academy. Thank you.”
Two years after the first best actress in a drama Emmy was awarded to a black woman shouldn’t be the year you pat yourself on the back. Especially not when Lena Waithe on Sunday was the first black woman to win an Emmy for best writing in a comedy. Or a night when Donald Glover was the first black male to win for comedy directing. Or a night where Riz Ahmed was the first male actor of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy. When we’re still in a business of firsts, you can keep your congratulations and you can keep your jokes about diversity, too. Sunday’s host, Stephen Colbert, followed in the footsteps of many white awards-show hosts who love making jokes about diversity to a room where there’s less black people in it than Williamsburg.
Because for an industry that loves to pretend it’s inclusive and diverse whenever awards season rolls around (like when Moonlight won an Oscar this year), it’s the bare minimum of diversity. The shows that these diverse nominees are awarded at are usually full of white people. The hosts are usually white—there hasn’t been a non-white Emmys host since Bryant Gumbel (don’t ask) in 1997. And the diversity usually extends to white women and black men. It’s true, women probably wouldn’t win any damn awards if they didn’t have separate acting categories, but the women that are nominated in these categories are usually white. When Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Laura Dern make pleas for more television starring women, it’s a lovely sentiment until you remember that the only black woman in Big Little Lies was Zoe Kravitz and there’s been three or four ensemble actress television shows starring white women since Charlie’s Angels. When Sex and the City was popular on HBO, we got a ton of knockoffs. Meanwhile, HBO has another female-led hit on its hands with Insecure, but there’ve been no influx of television series starring black women and HBO would rather greenlight bullshit like Confederate.
Meanwhile, out of all the black people who’ve won Emmys, the overwhelming majority are black men. Hollywood is a white world and it’s a man’s world. It usually benefits white men, white women, and then black men. There will plenty of more shows like Big Little Lies on the air, but will there be more like Being Mary Jane? Jane the Virgin? Fresh Off the Boat? Master of None? Asian-American actors are barely on television at all, and when they are, they usually portray terrorists in shows like 24 and Homeland.
True diversity in Hollywood means that it will have to step beyond the parameters of the usual suspects and start telling stories that look like the rest of America. I mean, it was absolutely shocking seeing some of the pairings chosen to give out awards—Gina Rodriguez and Shemar Moore, Riz Ahmed and Issa Rae, B.D. Wong and Matt Bomer (two openly gay men and one of them Asian?! You didn’t even see that on Looking)—and then realizing that you never see that kind of diversity on TV. Hell, these awards were on CBS and it was the most diverse thing you’ll ever see on this white as hell network.
Take this for instance: RuPaul and Tituss Burgess were included in two of Colbert’s comedic bits and they stole the show. Moonlight won an Oscar this year, but how long until we see a queer person of color hosting one of these damn things? No, Hollywood won’t know what real diversity is until people of color stop being bit parts or window dressing (like Superior Donuts’ Jermaine Fowler as the emcee) to make their awards shows look more “hip.”
Getting back to Gabrielle Union: Being Mary Jane has been on the air since 2013 and was created by Mara Brock Akil, a black woman and TV veteran. Union’s work has yet to be recognized by her peers. Will it ever be? Or do we only notice women of color like Viola Davis when they star in television shows on a white network like ABC, in a show written by a white man?