Monday, May 25, 2015

TV: Zooming in on actresses of color

If there's any justice in the world of entertainment, September will find Tracee Ellis Ross winning the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.  As Dr. Rainbow Johnson on Black-ish, Tracee's delivered a powerful performance and found laughs that others would have easily missed.

Bow is a full-bodied person who comes to life each Wednesday night on ABC and Tracee efforts and accomplishments argue for the Emmy.  If she were to win, she'd be first woman of color to win the award for lead role in a comedy.  As we've previously noted, Jackee Harry (227) was the first African-American actress to win the Emmy in comedy -- for supporting actress -- and the only other actress of color to win an Emmy in comedy is America Ferrera who won for playing the title role in Ugly Betty. [CORRECTION: Isabel Sanford won in 1981 for The Jeffersons.]


The history of the Emmy awards is a history of embarrassments -- especially in comedy.

Jane Wyatt did nothing comedic on Father Knows Best and certainly nothing worthy of an award. At best, she was a 'straight man' to the mild amusements around her.  Still she (wrongly) won three Emmy awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

You can quibble over other winners but the first obvious mistake after Wyatt is when the dreadful Felicity Huffman wins for the soap opera Desperate Housewives -- there was nothing comedic about her performances and all laughs she produced were unintentional.  Similarly, Cynthia Nixon never produced an honest-to-God laugh on Sex and the City and her win is an embarrassment.

Two-time winners Loretta Swift and Julie Bowen also beg the question "Why?"

So the fact that Tracee is an actress who can actually do comedy and the fact that she has pulled this off for the entire season of Black-ish argues the award is hers.

Tracee is only one of many actresses of color who scored in the 2014 - 2015 TV season.

Before the writing cratered on How To Get Away With Murder (after the winter finale), Viola Davis was a shoe-in for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama.  The quality of her work continued even after the writing faltered.

Her portrayal of Annalise Keating was ground breaking TV but she's also got to compete with the Lillian Gish effect.

Birth of a Nation is a bunch of racist crap and it's often forgotten that 'movie star' Lillian Gish starred in it.  Lillian's not a movie star.  She's not even a famous actress at this point.  Fair or not, her participation in the racist Birth of a Nation is a mark against her.  Felicity Huffman is this year's Lillian Gish.  She stars in American Crime -- ABC's low rated series which was renewed in a kind of network f.u. of Yes You Will Eat Your Broccoli.

American Crime allegedly confronts racism.  Allegedly.  It traffics in ugly racial stereotypes and glorifies Felicity's White suffering-at-the-hands-of-them-Blacks Lillian Gish character.  And if you're not getting that, yes, an African-American can end up the new DW Griffin in the 21st century, notice that all the Emmy acting talk for this (bad) show revolves around Felicity Huffman.

No Emmy talk is currently being spoken about NBC's State of Affairs but Alfre Woodard as President Constance Payton is the kind of performance that should earn her an Emmy (her fifth, in fact).

For women of color, this TV season was a bold one.

Among those in lead and significant roles that we haven't already mentioned?

Nikita's Maggie Q returned to TV co-starring in Stalker with Dylan McDermott.  She, Taraji P. Henson (Cookie on Empire), Candice Patton (Iris on The Flash), Jadyn Wong (Happy on Scorpion), Constance Wu (Jessica on Fresh Off The Boat), Natalie Martinez (Jess on Secrets & Lies), Jada Pinkett Smith (Fish on Gotham), Dichen Lachman (Jianying) and CCH Pounder (Dr. Loretta Wade on NCIS: New Orleans) joined Lucy Liu (Watson on Elementary), Rochelle Aytes and Yunjin Kim (April and Karen on Mistresses),  Nicole Beharie and Lynie Greenwood (Sleepy Hollow),  Lindsey Morgan and (again) Dichen Lachman  (Raven and Anya on The 100),  Ming-Na Wen and Ruth Negga (Melinda and Raina on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Sofia Vergara (Gloria on Modern Family) Halle Berry (as Molly on Extant -- returns to CBS on July 1st) and Grace Park (Kono on Hawaii Five-0).

And probably the best example of the line crossed by women of color this season, is Maisie Richardson-Sellers. Claire Holt, who is White, originated the role of Rebekah on The Originals and then elected to leave the show.

Rebekah is a key character on the show, one of the three main characters (along with Daniel Gillies' Eli and Joseph Morgan's Klaus).  And she's now being (successfully) portrayed by Maisie Richardson-Sellers is a very key moment in this TV season.  And while Samantha Simon (InStyle) called it "one of the show's craziest twists," we tend to agree with Ariel Kay (Bustle) who observed, "that the Rebekah we've come to know on both The Vampire Diaries and The Originals is now a black woman (along with a few of her other magical relatives), it's actually a pretty big step, even if there's a whole body-swapping loophole."

Rebekah is an important and beloved character, and Richardson-Sellers stepped into the role and made it her own.  The viewers embraced her and, because of that, she's continuing in the role.  That may say more about the possibilities this TV season presented.  Hopefully, fall 2015 will build on this and offer even more diversity.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }