By Char Adams
Ralph, a Hollywood legend with a career spanning more than 40 years, took home her first Emmy on Monday. At 32, Brunson made history by being the youngest Black woman nominated for an award in the comedy acting category. She’s also the second Black woman in the Emmys’ 74-year history to win the award for outstanding writing for a comedy series.
Meanwhile, Grammy award winner Lizzo took home the award for outstanding competition program, and Zendaya snagged her second Emmy for best actress in a drama series. Adrien Sebro, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says the wins aren’t just noteworthy for Black people in entertainment; they’re pivotal for progress in the field.
“With the success of these shows, it opens the reality to networks that Black women and Blackness is marketable,” Serbo said. “This will lead the way to more Black writers, more Black actresses on writers, sitcoms, reality series and competition series, as well. This leads to more spaces of Black creative possibility.”
Only 36 Black women have won prime-time Emmy awards, according to Essence. The precarious situation wasn’t lost on Ralph as she delivered her acceptance speech — partly through a powerful rendition of Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species.”
“To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true,” said Ralph, 65, “I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like. This is what striving looks like. And don’t you ever, ever give up on you.”
Ralph won for her portrayal of Barbara Howard in Brunson’s hit sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” She’s the second Black woman to win the award, snagging it 35 years after Jackée Harry won for her role on “227.” Harry acknowledged the gap in a tweet: “Winning my Emmy was a career highlight, but it was also a lonely experience. For 35 years I’ve been the only black woman to win Outstanding Supporting Actresses in a Comedy Series. But that all changes tonight… and it’s come full circle!”
Edward Elliott O’Byrn, a professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said the Emmy wins are made only more impressive because there was so much collaboration among the Black women who were honored.
“These women showed a level of solidarity with other writers, actresses and entertainers that must be celebrated. It helps underscore how Black achievement is not a zero-sum game,” he said. “Rather, what we see is Black women lifting up a better representation of Black people and bringing Black talent with them. This is clearly the case with Quinta Brunson and Sheryl Lee Ralph, as well as Lizzo.”
Brunson, who also stars in “Abbott Elementary,” as teacher Janine Teagues, is the first Black woman to earn three nominations in the comedy categories in the same year. Fans on Twitter have continually praised Brunson, the show’s creator, and highlighted her beginnings as a viral internet sensation. To some, Brunson may seem like an overnight success. But the hit ABC show follows years of hard work by Brunson, a Philadelphia native who has developed two other comedy shows — “Broke” and “Up for Adoption” — for streaming platforms.
Like any rising star, she’s had her fair share of successes, setbacks and doubts. Ahead of Monday’s Emmys, Brunson admitted to Bazaar.com that she wasn’t expecting “Abbott Elementary” to have such quick success.
“I was expecting maybe the show finishes its first season and then people will realize we have this great show, because that’s how it goes with sitcoms a lot,” she said. “To have only had a few episodes and just for it to be an abundance of support, love, conversation and just enjoyment of the show is just so, like, I don’t know. I am just so happy, so overwhelmed.”
Brunson got a standing ovation for her win, but some social media users have said her moment was almost overshadowed by late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who lay at her feet during her speech as part of a joke. Kimmel presented the award for outstanding writing for a comedy series with Will Arnett, who dragged Kimmel on stage, joking that Kimmel “got into the skinny margaritas” backstage. He remained sprawled out in front of the microphone during Brunson’s speech.
Brunson appeared unfazed, quipping: “Wake up, Jimmy! I won!” But Twitter users called Kimmel’s stunt “unfunny and rude” and accused him of “trying to take attention away” from Brunson’s win. Brunson addressed the joke backstage, saying: “I felt like the bit didn’t bother me that much. …Tomorrow maybe I’ll be mad at him. I’m going to be on his show on Wednesday, so I might punch him in the face.”
On a night that provided a lot of firsts, Zendaya made history with her second Emmy win. At 26, she is the youngest two-time Emmy winner in her category, outstanding lead actress in a drama series — she became the youngest person to win the same award in 2020 for her role in “Euphoria.” She’s the first Black woman to win the award twice. In her acceptance speech, Zendaya spoke about the significance of her character, Rue. “My greatest wish for ‘Euphoria’ was that it could help heal people, and I just want to say thank you to everyone who has shared their story with me,” she said. “I want you to know that anyone who has loved a Rue or feels like they are Rue, I want you to know that I’m so grateful for your stories and I carry them with me and I carry them with her.”
The number of Black female TV showrunners has risen in recent years, according to the Women’s Media Center. And a report last year from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that the representation of Black women on television has improved, with Black women and girls being cast more and more as smart leaders. However, the report found that colorism is a persistent problem, with dark-skinned Black women rarely cast in leading or major roles and “virtually all prominent roles for Black women feature Black women with lighter skin.”
Sebro said that while we celebrate the progress, we must acknowledge that there is still a long way to go working toward diversity and inclusion on the small screen and recognition at award shows.
“We need to hold accountable the way … all these award shows were built and who they were built for,” Sebro said. “They weren’t built for Black people and definitely not for Black women. Acknowledge the fact that although Sheryl Lee Ralph won, she’s been in the game 40 years and this is her first time being nominated. We need to acknowledge that. Think of the many women who have missed this chance and weren’t acknowledged for their artistry.”
As for Lizzo, she said the win for her reality competition show, “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls,” highlighted the importance of showing diverse bodies on television. The Amazon Prime Video show, which earned six Emmy nominations this year, follows 13 plus-size women as they compete to become Lizzo’s backup dancers at the 2021 Bonnaroo music festival.
“When I was a little girl, all I wanted to see was me in the media,” she said in her acceptance speech. “Someone fat like me. Black like me. Beautiful like me. And if I could go back and tell little Lizzo something, I would be like ‘you gonna see that person, but … it’s gonna have to be you.’”