The Emmy Awards and The Black Battle for Excellence and Acceptance

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Viola Davis Regina King Uzo Aduba - Emmy Awards 2015

While still high off the euphoria of the Emmy Awards wins on Sunday night, I started to read comments from my people as to why the epic wins by Viola Davis, Regina King and Uzo Aduba should even be celebrated.

The powerful trio
©Gilbert Flores: Broadimage|©Wenn|©Reuters The powerful trio

Some people had a problem with the fact that it was even celebrated. Some people said it was a token gesture. Some said we are begging for acceptance and ought to make our own awards show instead.

This shocked me! I was wondering if this was a general consensus and so I threw it open to my social media platforms. Whooooaaaah, I wasn’t ready! So many comments.

©Reuters|Viola Davis Emmy Awards 2015
©Reuters|Viola Davis Emmy Awards 2015

Anyway, I have some answers to some of the comments and I’d love to hear if you agree or not:


 

“Why be the 1st Black woman to win something in an industry which struggles to accept you when you can be 1st in our own African industry? I think it’s time the African Americans grew up and stopped chasing after acceptance. It’s so very yesterday”

I disagree with this with every fibre of my being. The saying goes that in the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king. Why would you just want to be the best amongst your skin type? The whole point of worldwide competitions is to be acknowledged as the best in your field. I understand this sentiment, but the solution falls short to my mind.

“Competitions like World Cup and Olympics are for everyone! These competitions were not created for us! Oscars, Grammys and so on are all built to favour the whites just the same way we have the MOBOs. If they put black people on an equal footing, we should have had many more wins than this!”

You will go veeeeeery far before you find a competition that was built to accommodate black people. The reason why we feel included in sports is because we DOMINATE in so many fields. But our prowess would not even have been recognised if one athlete hadn’t broken the barrier first. And look what we have today – get an Olympic 100m dash, and you will have maybe one or two token white runners. If we cared about dressage or skiing, we’d be kicking ass in them fields too. You need to have the door open first.

Olympics 2012 Mens Finals
©APC/Getty Images. You see what I’m saying, son?

Olympics 2012 Womens Finals

You cannot deny excellence forever. Grammys are not made for black people; that may be so. When Lena Horne was singing, she was a mega-star…who had to enter the grand venues she sang in through the Trades Door. She couldn’t sit with the white audience who paid heftily to come and hear her sing. Today, Quincy Jones has 27, Jay-Z and Kanye have 21 each, Beyonce has 20, Aretha has 17, and Ella Fitzgerald has 13. But you need to have the door open first.

“We are the best anyway! Why don’t they (African-American actors) use that talent and expertise to create an African-American owned Hollywood and make and control their own productions which would hire and celebrate their own people then link it to ours in Africa? Then we can award ourselves and stop crying and begging for acceptance from others”

Hahahaha, this makes me laugh because either this person is truly not black or doesn’t understand how the black mind works. A ‘Black’ Hollywood? This from the people who use terms such as Red Bone, mulatto, and light skin? Africa? We still can’t get Ife and Modakeke to agree they’re one and there was a recent spate of xenophobia in South Africa, but we are clamouring for a pan-Black awards? Okay o.

Halle Berry winning her Oscars
Halle Berry winning her Oscars

“The racism is inherent in the description. Why must the award be labelled? I don’t ever hear the first White Woman, first Asian Woman, first Hispanic Woman. You will hear so so person is the winner . Why must they describe a Black person with that Black? Is it a case of “We and every other people” or what?”

Firstly, I don’t think it is the Emmys that’s labelling these ladies, I think the media are, and the ladies themselves made their speeches to reflect this momentous occasion. If something is record breaking, it gets labelled: First woman to finish the 100m under 10 seconds; first British woman to climb Everest; first French man to explore the Mississippi river; hottest day in August.

When I saw the description, it made my heart swell, cos all I could think of was “Knock, knock; guess who, bitches? We’re here too!” But that was my take. I guess one can see something racial in anything if one tries.

“We are in the PC age and whites in media are scrambling to add diversity to everything which means more blacks and women in stuff. It’s good I suppose but it’s becoming a bit too obvious”

I asked for clarification on this because for a moment, it seemed like these ladies only won because they were black and female – a PR objective.

Certainly the women, especially Viola who is an exceptional actress (can’t wait to see her in Suicide Squad) but I can’t help shaking the feeling that they are throwing it at us now to keep us from whining”

Again I repeat that one can find something racial or sinister in every act if one really put their mind to it. Quite apart from the insult to these actresses (and yes, suggesting that the Emmys threw them a bone IS an insult to their acting chops), how then do you square away every other minority that didn’t win? Where are their ticked boxes? Where is the Inuit award? Or the Pakistani actress in her flowing gown? Where is China or Japan’s award?

Even sef, who’s whining? Who said “Emmy, give us an award or we will tell our mummy”? So what you’re saying is – if we don’t win awards, it’s racism; if we do, it’s racism? Excellent. Great.

Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Oscar in 1963.
Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Oscar in 1963.

“It bloody well took them long enough! Yes, it IS a box-ticking, token-black exercise because it was a whole group of them all in one fell swoop. Congrats to the ladies, but my happiness was bitter-sweet”

Tiger Woods is a world champion golf player in a field where black people were only ever allowed to be caddies. As mentioned above, black singers hold some of the highest number of Grammys on their mantelpieces in an industry where we previously couldn’t even come in through the front door! There are more black people on screen today compared to a time when black roles were acted by white people in black-up. That the change is slow in coming does NOT make these ladies’ achievements a token win. I prefer to take it to mean that organisers must and will recognise that the light of our talents cannot be denied forever. If you have ever seen Uzo Aduba as ‘Crazy Eyes’ in Orange is the New Black, you will appreciate that there is nothing token about her win whatsoever.

Who can tell me who won the award for best actress in 2005, no? How about 2008? Still nothing? How about 2011? – do you remember? My point exactly. Much ado about nothing – it’s just a moment of acknowledgement – let them have their moment. It was a beautiful acknowledgement”

But this does matter.  Maybe not to the audience, but this sort of accolade affects the amount actors can command for future roles; it affects demands she can make going forward; these ladies can affect entire castings, whom they will or won’t work with, which writers they prefer…this sort of clout is important.

“Really? Go ask Cuba Gooding, Jr., Louis Gossett, Jr., Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, Monique, Octavia, Lupita…”
This is a brilliant point. An excellent point. I’m not sure why Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington are doing on the list as they have had illustrious, prolific careers to my mind, but I’ll take the point. I will say though, that we cannot operate through a small frame of reference – picking only the Black names.
There is a well-documented Hollywood myth known as the ‘Oscar Curse’ and is available for anyone to research. For every Black name you can find, may I offer you: Mira Sorvino, Marisa Tomei, Mercedes Ruehl, Marcia Gay Harden, Roberto Begigni (Life Is Beautiful), F. Murray Abraham, Geena Davis, Adrien Brody (The Pianist), Marlee Matlin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Renee Zellweger and Helen Hunt – all people who won Oscars at the peak of their careers and then faded away either into bit parts or simply the ether.
Cuba Gooding Jr was never a token win; he won fair and square and then made bad acting decision after astoundingly bad acting decision. That is not on the Oscars, that is on the individual.
denzel-washington-oscars
Denzel Washington and his Oscar
“Oh, so you’re grateful for receiving awards? Have you seen how they portray us?! Lupita was a slave, Octavia Spencer was a maid, Whoopi Goldberg was a fraudster, Halle Berry was a broken, disturbed woman, and Mo’Nique is the worst type of child abuser. Yeah, sure…they really respect us!”
I would never be one to say that we have reached the Promised Land. There is a very long way to go in achieving a balance. I will say, though, that nobody ever won an Oscars for sitting prettily in a dress and drinking tea. Off the top of my head, I know Kathy Bates was a raging maniac in Misery, Marlee Matlin was a cleaner in Children of a Lesser God, Jessica Tandy was an old, racist white lady in Driving Miss Daisy, Anthony Hopkins was a cannibalistic serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, and Charlize Theron in Monster?? That woman had many, many issues.
Uzo Aduba winning her first Emmy
Uzo Aduba winning her first Emmy

 

Finally I would say that whilst being armchair pundits pondering on the meaning and secret intentions of actors, the investors behind the programmes/films, and the awards bodies that rate them, let us remember the people that work with them on a daily basis; the people who fight and strive to break and shatter the glass (and sometimes, let’s face it, concrete) ceilings. If Viola and Uzo wanted to be there, if they felt that this nod is a worthy acknowledgement of their hard work, then who are we to say otherwise? If the acceptance speeches moved Kerry Washington and Taraji P. Henson to tears, who are we to dismiss this achievement as “box-ticking and affirmative action in practice? If all the Black people who deal with The Industry on a daily basis come out and collectively say “This thing that happened is a GOOD thing!” then I’m not sure it is our place to say otherwise. It’s easy to take pot shots; you do not fight their battles.
This piece has exhausted me and broken my heart many times over. I don’t think we are where we need to be. Maybe it took a lot of complimentary nominations, a lot of bad roles, a lot of snide actions and remarks to get here. But we’re here. And by heck, we are here to stay.

 

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