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Emmy diversity: Improved but still complicated and controversial

Viola Davis poses in the press room with

Viola Davis poses in the press room with the award for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for How to Get Away With Murder at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Invision/AP / Jordan Strauss

Robert Guillaume, star of ABC’s ’80s sitcom “Benson” and two-time Emmy winner, is surprised to learn there’s a reporter on the phone. Hasn’t talked to one of them in years. What could he possibly want?

Oh, the Emmys and diversity? Yes, I have an opinion, he says of diversity in Hollywood, the raging controversy of the moment.

“I’ve never looked at these awards as indicative of much,” he said. Did they change his life . . . his career . . . the business of television itself?

“I don’t think so.”

At 88, Guillaume belongs to a club with just one member — himself. He’s the only African-American to have won two Emmys in the major acting categories — for “Soap,” in 1978, in the best supporting-comedy category; and again for Benson DuBois, as best actor in a comedy, “Benson,” in 1985, after four consecutive nominations. He’s also the only black actor to have ever won the top comedy award (Isabel Sanford of “The Jeffersons” is the only woman).

In drama, the club’s a bit bigger — three wins for Bill Cosby in the ’60s for “I Spy,” then James Earl Jones (“Gabriel’s Fire,” 1991) and Andre Braugher (“Homicide,” 1998). But a black actress didn’t win in that category until just last September — Viola Davis for “How to Get Away With Murder.”

The ranks of African-American winners may be thin at the top, but as the controversy engulfs the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — which nominated no black actor in any of the major categories for the second consecutive year — there may still be a discernible there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sense of relief at its sister TV awards body. The reason is that until recently there have been many years since 1952 when not a single black actor was nominated.

Then came last year’s 67th awards, the most diverse in Emmy history, with 18 black nominees in the various categories, and two black winners — Davis and Uzo Aduba for “Orange Is the New Black” for outstanding supporting actress in a drama. Add to that Regina King’s win for “American Crime” (outstanding supporting actress/limited series or movie) and not only was Emmy history made, but records shattered.

Signaling a sea change for black actors on TV in Hollywood?

“This is the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history,” host Andy Samberg joked. “So congratulations, Hollywood, you did it! Racism is over! Don’t fact-check that.”

But fact-checking does reveal a more complicated, and fraught, picture.

Last month, Wendell Pierce — promoting his new memoir (“The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play and the City That Could Not Be Broken”) on “The Brian Lehrer Show” — was asked about the Oscars controversy and whether the lot of black actors has improved in Hollywood. He was blunt: Hollywood is filled with “an insidious” form of racism, he said, where studios continue to “feign ignorance” about where to find black talent, when all they have to do was attend a half-dozen festivals where that talent congregates. “All you have to do is look at the platforms that people have created in lieu of being able to get into the studio door.”

Pierce was on “The Wire” for six seasons during which he never got so much as an Emmy nod for his portrayal of Bunk Moreland, and certainly should have. But then neither did any of the other actors, black or white. “The Wire” — with mostly a black cast — got just two wins over six great seasons, for writing.

Over the years, the Emmys have had no shortage of critics. Too many of the same nominees, too many repeat winners. Less discussed, but an open secret nonetheless: The huge diversity shortfall. Among just over 500 winners in the major acting categories since 1952 — best actor and actress in a drama or comedy, and best supporting actor and actress in both — 12 have been black, and most in the supporting categories. (The supporting actress in a drama category has been a relative bonanza for African-Americans: five wins, going back to Gail Fisher for “Mannix.”) For best actor/actress in a comedy or drama, just six, including Davis.

Of course, Emmys have a history of snubs — black and white. Jerry Seinfeld never got a best-actor win and neither did Steve Carell nor Hugh Laurie . . . nor Katey Sagal, Ed O’Neill, Michael Landon, Angela Lansbury, Ron Howard, Desi Arnaz. This list goes on.

Nevertheless, the Emmys often have celebrated true excellence over the years.

What’s troubling is when they don’t. The dearth of black winners at the very top is the most troubling shortfall of all.

Indeed, there have been a total of 57 black winners over the years in all 24 acting, hosting and voice-over categories. But there have been more than a thousand winners in all these categories over the same span of time.

What gives?

The answer is complicated but also plays directly to the storm raging around the Motion Picture Academy. There are usually two answers to this question. Critics have long accused the Emmys of having far too few voting members who are minorities — the reasoning being that a minority voter might be at least more likely to consider and vote for a worthy minority candidate. Like the Motion Picture Academy, the Emmys don’t break down the racial makeup of its members, at least publicly, but the long-held assumption is that they are overwhelmingly white. Last month, the Motion Picture Academy said that among other changes, it will double the number of women and minority members by 2020.

The other argument — essentially Pierce’s — is what’s considered a root problem, beyond the power of the Emmys or Oscars to correct: that Hollywood simply hasn’t supported enough material that reflects the African-American experience, and without quality material on the air week after week, the recognition doesn’t come, nor do the awards.

There’s a third argument, too — there are some who say the problem is persistent racism. Tracy Byrd, one of the top African-American casting agents in Hollywood, said in a recent interview, “I agree with Wendell” about the industry’s refusal to embrace diverse material. “I’m not a [TV] Academy member, but I do want to become one — it’s important. They’ve got to open that up and change it. I remember being at the Golden Globes when Idris Elba was up for an award [which he won, in 2012, for “Luther”] and everyone was looking at his table, thinking ‘Luther’? What’s that?’ We all live in our own separate bubble. [But] the Emmys have at least turned the corner because there’s a much broader base of material with the new [streaming] media. That’s changed the landscape and it’s pushing people into the future. There’s a sense [at the Emmys] that you’ve got to stay up with it or lose out.”

Do these actual awards — Emmys and Oscars — make all that much of a difference? The answer’s self-evident: They lead to greater remuneration, more roles, a wider array of roles to choose from. There’s also the less quantifiable side to them — that of a kid watching at home, who sees a role model, or may even catch a glimpse of the future.

The Emmys insist they addressed the diversity problem head-on last year. Jim Yeager, a spokesman for the Academy said (via email): “We opened up voting in program categories to all voting members — about 18,000 out of 20,000 — and did away with Blue Ribbon panels [a small group that chose winners] and we voted online in both rounds, increasing participation.”

Net result — more members could see more material and more could vote.

So that’s the end of that?

Guillaume, for one, isn’t so certain.

“I’ve never really looked at these awards as indicative of much,” he said by phone. “They’ve always been rigged in some way or another,” adding that the reason he won his best actor award is because Cosby “deliberately” withdrew his nomination: “He did not fancy the idea of two [black] actors running against one another.

“I don’t honestly see how you can say one actor is better than another. It depends on the material that’s being examined. But I do think this brouhaha over black actors being left out of the mix maybe has some merit. If [the Motion Picture Aademy] is made up of a group of older white men who are no longer all that active — and that’s one of the things they’ve talked about to remedy the situation — then they should go and try to make that adjustment. It looks very, very bad for our country to still be struggling with race.”

Looking back to his early struggles in TV, Guillaume says race did indeed play a factor and often: “I was too dumb to give up, but I was persistent, because I had been told in my earlier years that it’s like the Bible verse says — ask and it shall be given to you, knock and it shall be opened to you. . . . I believed in that possibility and to a certain degree I was lucky.

“Yeah, I was lucky.”

Those who never won

It’s not that there weren’t supremely qualified African-American Emmy candidates over the years. There were many who were never nominated for the major acting awards (and in some instances, never nominated for the minor ones either).

Their ranks include Diahann Carroll, Sidney Poitier, Charles S.Dutton, Bernie Mac, Alfre Woodard, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Lena Horne, Scatman Crothers, Redd Foxx and Don Cheadle.

And also Will Smith — who said he was boycotting the Oscars — for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Debbie Allen? Indisputably one of the greats of the business, and 19 nominations to prove it, many for “Fame,” in the early ’80s? Just three wins, for choreography.

Cicely Tyson worked decades on television, has lots of nominations and three wins, albeit for none of the top acting categories.

Isabel Sanford was the only black female winner of a comedy award for “The Jeffersons.” But Sherman Hemsley got only one nod over 11 seasons. His other co-star, Marla Gibbs, got five straight nods without a win.

But Denzel Washington, who worked 137 episodes on the Emmy-rich “St. Elsewhere,” couldn’t get even a single nod himself.

“Roots” has long been considered a watershed moment for black actors and is. The awards picture is more complicated: Only two actors won, Louis Gossett Jr. and Olivia Cole. Among those nominated but without a win: John Amos, Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, Cicely Tyson and LeVar Burton, who played the principal character, Kunta Kinte.

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