It began with Tiffany Haddish.
During the first night of the Creative Arts Emmy Awards on Saturday, the comedian won the award for best guest actress in a comedy series for her role hosting “Saturday Night Live” on Nov. 11, 2017. The victory was particularly sweet for Haddish — not only because it was her first Emmy award or because it further justified her crown as one of the queens of comedy — but because she was the first black female stand-up to ever host SNL.
The award signaled what was to come. The other three awards for guest-star appearances also went to black actors.
Katt Williams took home best guest actor in a comedy series for his turn on FX’s “Atlanta,” while Ron Cephas Jones and Samira Wiley won best guest actor and actress in a drama for their respective roles in NBC’s “This Is Us” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
All four were first-time Emmy winners.
This also marks the first time in Emmy history that all four awards in this category went to black actors. In fact, in the past 20 years, it’s only the third time more than one award in this 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. But when asked backstage whether such a character would have existed a few years ago, Jones told reporters, “No. Not in this incarnation. … Not that the audience wasn’t ready for it. But maybe the executives, or people that have a say in the writing, probably wouldn’t have been ready for this kind of thing. But now we are. We’re moving forward and moving ahead.”
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.”
“Diversity is another way of saying specificity,” he added, “and specificity is just more entertaining. The less homogeneous TV is, the less boring it is.”
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 continue 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.”
Still to come are best actress in a comedy, a category in which Tracee Ellis Ross of “Black-ish” and Issa Rae of “Insecure” are competing. Donald Glover’s exploration of black life in America, “Atlanta,” has 16 nominations, second behind HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Meanwhile, Brown and Jeffrey Wright of HBO’s “Westworld” will face off for best actor in a drama series.