There are four Emmy awards for guest-actor appearances. On Saturday, during the first night of the Creative Arts Emmy Awards, black actors won all four slots — for the first time in Emmy history.
It started with Tiffany Haddish. The first black female stand-up comedian to ever host “Saturday Night Live” — on Nov. 11, 2017 — Haddish nabbed the award for best guest actress in a comedy series.
As the evening progressed, Katt Williams took home best guest actor in a comedy series for his appearance on FX’s “Atlanta.” Ron Cephas Jones scored best guest actor in a drama in NBC’s “This Is Us.” Samira Wiley won best guest actress in a drama for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
All four were first-time Emmy winners.
In the past 20 years, 2018 marks only the third time more than one award in the guest-actor category went to a black actor — in 2003 and 2014, two of the four awards went to people of color.
This category is particularly meaningful because it highlights the strides the television industry has made in telling more diverse stories, including those of complex black characters — once an extreme rarity.
Take Jones’s character, William Hill, on NBC’s wildly popular “This Is Us.” He plays the biological father of Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson. Hill is a drug addict who abandoned his infant son at a fire station, an incident that helps kick off the show’s premiere.
In the past, his story might have remained just that: an inciting incident and nothing more. But “This Is Us” dove far deeper, fleshing out Hill’s character as a Memphis-born man raised by a single mother after his dad died in World War II. He’s revealed to be bisexual, having relationships with men and women before his death from Stage 4 stomach cancer.
The character is complex, nuanced and compelling. That, of course, is the goal for all television characters.
During the past few years, prompted in no small part by Internet outrage surrounding representation, television networks have worked to diversify their stories and their characters. (The two generally go hand-in-hand.)
Of the batch of new shows ordered this year by CBS, for example, more than half feature actors of color, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
“We said that we were going to [improve representation],” CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl told the outlet in May. “If you look at the schedule, we did what we said we were going to do.”
One reason television viewers seek more diversity is because it makes shows more interesting.
Said critic James Poniewozik in the New York Times: “Representing more people in more ways is the right thing to do, and it has made TV better. … There are younger viewers for whom diversity — racial, religious, sexual — is their world. That audience wants authenticity; advertisers want that audience.”
Echoed fellow critic Wesley Morris: “TV is certainly less boring at the moment, and some of that energy has to do with the sudden proliferation of shows dealing with race (it’s a thing!), and on networks as varied as ABC, FX and HBO.”
For all the strides that have been made, however, television still lags behind — as shown in a recent study conducted by TV Time, which Deadline called "the world’s largest TV tracking app.”
The study analyzed 130 million votes about its users’ 100 favorite television characters from 2015 through 2017. Characters of color saw a 20 percent increase in the three-year span. That might sound like a lot until you consider 2017’s total number of those characters on the list: 18.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reported that creators of new shows in the 2017-2018 season were 91 percent white and 84 percent male, according to UCLA researchers.
“There are all kinds of missed opportunities. It’s an outgrowth of the executive suites and the fact that they are still overwhelmingly white and male and who is in a position to judge which ideas being pitched are viable … and whose pitches will be heard,” Darnell Hunt, a UCLA sociology professor and co-author of the annual Hollywood diversity report, told the newspaper. “We are seeing some sustained progress over time … but we were starting at such an abysmal location.”
Thus far, the Emmys, which continued Sunday night before the prime-time broadcast on Sept. 17, show that steps toward further diversity are being made, if only at a snail’s pace. As Deadline pointed out, this year saw a “record 36 diversity nominees in the acting Emmy categories across drama, comedy and limited series/movie this year, a number that eclipsed the previous record of 27 set last year.”