As white actors sweep the Emmys, critics say 'there's something structural going on'

The Emmy Award statue at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences campus in Los Angeles during a Sneak Peek behind-the scenes reveal of televisions biggest night at the Television Academy in Los Angeles.Al Seib | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Sunday's Primetime Emmy Awards may have had a record number of diverse nominees, but the lack of diversity in its acting winners has caused many say #EmmysSoWhite.

Despite performers of color comprising nearly half of all acting nominations, white actors swept all 12 lead and supporting races across the comedy, drama and limited series categories.

“It was disappointing,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African American studies at UCLA. “It becomes a numbers game after a while. When you have 44% of the nominees that are people of color and you have 0% that win, there's something structural going on.”

There are few that would say that icons like Kate Winslet, Olivia Coleman and Gillian Anderson or breakout performers like Brett Goldstein and Hannah Waddingham were not deserving of their Emmy wins. However, Sunday's snub of non-white performers is not new and has called into question Hollywood's ability to celebrate excellence equitably.

This is especially important when ceremonies like the Emmy Awards offer more to winners than just a gold trophy. An Emmy win brings prestige to both the winner and the studio they work for, which can lead to bigger paychecks and better funding for future productions, Hunt said.

Over the last decade, streaming service Netflix has gained invaluable prestige from Emmy wins for shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “The Crown,” which has enabled it to entice top talent like Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes and Guillermo del Toro.


Part of the issue with this year's Emmys is optics. While the Primetime ceremony, which aired on CBS Sunday, did not see any acting awards go to people of color, the Creative Arts Emmys, which took place the week before, did.

Courtney B. Vance was honored his guest role in HBO's “Lovecraft Country,” Dave Chappelle and Maya Rudolph each won an award for hosting “Saturday Night Live,” Sterling K. Brown garnered a win for outstanding narrator and Keke Palmer and J.B. Smoove won the awards for outstanding actress and actor in a short form comedy or drama, respectively.

The problem is that these awards were given out at a separate, less publicized event.

“In the technical categories at the Creative Arts Emmys there were a lot of wins for people of color,” said Nate Thomas, a professor of cinema and television arts and the head of the film production program at California State University. “So, I guess my point is that just because it wasn't at the televised or the primetime awards … there is still some worth in that.”

Thomas, who won a regional Emmy Award in 2014 for producing and directing a television public service ad for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, said the Television Academy has “come a long way” in recent years, “compared to eight or nine years ago, when people of color weren't winning anything.”

Still, these Creative Arts awards don't have quite the same pull in the industry as those doled out on primetime.

Jockeying for gold

While studios can rack up wins at the Creative Arts, much of the focus is on the “big awards” like lead actor or actress or outstanding comedy or drama. These are the awards that most audiences pay attention to and offer prestige for companies.

That's why traditional cable networks and streaming platforms spend tens of millions on marketing campaigns just to get nominations and even more once they get them. This marketing, as well as word of mouth from audiences, can help sway voting members.

However, not all shows get the same marketing budget.

“Did HBO do enough to promote a highly popular and creative show like 'Lovecraft Country' to Emmy voters?” Brandy Monk-Payton, a professor at Fordham University that specializes in African American media representation, asked in an email to CNBC. “Well, they had already canceled the series and so the likelihood of their energy being directed to such a program in terms of actively campaigning for its actors and the show itself were probably slim.”

Vance, who won for his role as George Freeman in “Lovecraft Country,” also posed this question during a post-Emmys chat with reporters on Monday.

“It boggles the mind sometimes that a show that is as popular and as transformational as 'Lovecraft Country' was, that there was nothing,” he said.

“Lovecraft Country,” which featured a predominantly Black cast, was nominated for 18 Emmy Awards across the Primetime and Creative Arts categories. For comparison, “Mare of Easttown,” which was also distributed by HBO and featured a mostly white cast, was nominated for 16.

Representatives for Warner Bros. were not immediately available to comment.

There are many reasons why HBO may have leaned more heavily into promoting a show like “Mare of Easttown” compared to “Lovecraft Country.” As Monk-Payton noted, “Lovecraft Country” was canceled. And a star like Winslet, who headlined “Mare of Easttown,” is a known entity in Hollywood, meaning Emmy voters might be more inclined to vote for her because of her proven track record as a performer.

“There's so much product to watch on television now that I don't know any academy member who has watched all those shows,” Thomas said. “So, some of that becomes a marketing and popularity contest.”

After all, there were 133 dramas, 68 comedies, 41 limited series and 41 television movies on the ballot just to determine who would be nominated. And that's significantly lower than last year because the pandemic halted productions and slimmed the voting pool.

A path forward

“I don't think the issue is too much content, so much as it is a pernicious inability for Emmy voters to think imaginatively and outside of the box of that which is familiar,” Monk-Payton said.

“This year has revealed the ease with which these organizational bodies revert back to the status quo after upheaval,” she added. “They 'reckon' with structural racism briefly by providing surface level solutions to deep-seated problems of exclusion and inequity. However, they do not ensure that systemic change happens and becomes permanent.”

Those critical of Sunday's results suggest the Television Academy broaden its membership to include more people of color in its ranks.

Prior to the pandemic, the academy had around 25,000 members, but that count has dipped by 5,000, according to a report by Variety. Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there's no clear breakdown of membership.

The Television Academy does seem to be putting in the effort. Sunday's telecast was filled with diverse presenters, including the cast and creator of Hulu's “Reservation Dogs,” a film featuring Indigenous actors and crew.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overhauled its membership by adding more people of color and more women to its community over the last five years. This strategy seems to be paying off as the 2021 slate of nominees and winners contained some notable firsts.

The 93rd annual Oscars marked the first time an all-Black producing team was nominated for best picture, the first time two actors of Asian descent received a nod for best actor and the first year that two women were nominated for best director. When the winners were revealed, it reflected this spirit of inclusion.

Chloe Zhao took home the best directing trophy, becoming the second woman to claim the title. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, two-thirds of the hairstyling and makeup team behind “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” were the first Black women to receive a nomination for best makeup and hairstyling and the first to win.

“Soul,” which took home the best animated feature award, is also Pixar's first film to feature a Black character in the lead. And Yuh-Jung Youn was the first Korean performer to win in one of the four acting categories.

Still there's no “silver bullet” that will immediately solve a long-standing inclusivity issue, Hunt said.

“You really need to combat it from every front,” he said, noting that more people of color need to be included in every part of the industry.

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