Monday night’s Emmy Awards celebrated some fantastic wins for diverse talent in the entertainment industry, with female, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Emmy nominees and winners including:
- Her Story, a web series starring two transgender actresses and created by a trans writer and film-maker, nabbed an Emmy nomination
- Actor Jeffrey Tambor used his Emmy acceptance speech (for his role as a transgender woman in popular television show Transparent) to urge Hollywood to hire more trans actors: “I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female. Give transgender talent a chance – give them their story.”
- A total of 18 non-white actors were nominated for an Emmy, including first-time nominee Tracee Ellis Ross making history as the first African American nominee for lead actress in a comedy series in 30 years
- Out of the BAME nominees, actors Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown and Regina King topped the list of 2016 Emmy winners for lead acting in individual categories – a far cry from the absence of a single non-white Oscar nominee out of 20 actors that sparked the #OscarsSoWhite outrage on Twitter earlier this year.
However, whilst the above achievements suggest that actors of ethnic minority background are achieving greater visibility and recognition for their work, and the media and public alike are celebrating with the hashtag #EmmysSoDiverse, the Emmys have also presented some worrying signs that suggest progress in achieving racial equality has stalled – and in many ways is rapidly worsening.
One immediately noticeable trend involving the BAME winners and nominees is that the majority of the actors were nominated and/or won for their role in The People vs OJ Simpson: a television show focused on the criminal trial of a black man suspected of brutally murdering a white woman. This is problematic in itself but also points to wider issues in the entertainment industry.
The People vs OJ Simpson has received a wealth of critical praise and in terms of racial diversity is leaps and bounds ahead of the American television industry on average, with a fantastic opportunity to showcase non-white talent that resulted in a brilliant diverse cast. However, the show is based on real-life events and all characters are based on real people, of whom a large proportion are black or have an ethnic minority background: from the very beginning the show necessitated, and executives specifically sought and cast, non-white actors.
The disappointing element of the increase in racial diversity is that, although inclusion of BAME actors is always a welcome step towards greater diversity, it was not achieved in this instance because of a proactive attempt by businesses to tell original stories of three-dimensional BAME characters or to open up opportunities for diverse actors. OJ Simpson has more black cast members than other shows only because the story could not have been told without black actors. This then begs the pivotal question: Is diversity still progressive – and beneficial – when lacking in diverse intentions?
The seeming progression of increased BAME representation also stands in stark contrast to the struggles for racial equality throughout the rest of America. The real-life OJ Simpson trial in the early 1990s shone a spotlight on institutionalised racism, and provided a powerful platform for previously unheard voices to raise awareness of criminal justice bias and police violence against the black community. But more than two decades on, what has really changed?
Though people with ethnic minority backgrounds have won increased legal rights and protections, BAME people across the US, UK and the world still face discrimination every day. Activist groups such as Black Lives Matter argue that police violence against the black community has actually worsened – in America, unarmed black people are five times more likely than unarmed white people to be shot and killed by police.
Whilst entertainment businesses are taking positive steps towards diversity and inclusion, there is a still a long road ahead for greater racial diversity across industries: in the UK, just 4% of CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are BAME. The opportunities available to actors of ethnic minority and the worrying representation of BAME people in the media reinforce the need for visible role models and increased awareness of the importance of diversity. By championing diverse role models from all backgrounds and career paths and by celebrating our differences, we are on the way to making our world a better and more inclusive place for everyone.