There are moments in Hollywood award history when it’s not about a win for your favorite show or celebrity crush. Sometimes, it’s a win for the people. Sometimes it’s a break from La La Land so we can shine in the moonlight.
Sunday night, Lena Waithe didn’t just become the first black woman to win the Emmy Award for comedy writing, for her collaboration with Aziz Ansari on Netflix’s “Master of None.” She became the first black queer woman to win. This was one of those moments for the culture. For the black community, for the LGBTQIA community, for the feminists, for the allies. It was a moment for acknowledging and embracing the beauty in everyone.
The award-winning episode, “Thanksgiving,” starts with a flashback of Waithe and Ansari’s characters, Denise and Dev, as little kids. She asks her mom — played dynamically by Angela Bassett — what’s a minority.
“It’s a group of people who have to work twice as hard in life to get half as far,” she tells them. “And Denise, you’re a black woman, so you are going to work three times as hard. And you’re both going to be disenfranchised.”
We can think about this in deep contexts of racial profiling, police brutality, unfair bank practices, application discrimination and then some. But we can also look to the Emmys stage for an astonishing number of firsts for an institution that claims to be dedicated to inclusivity.
Waithe is the first black woman to win the comedy writing award in 69 years. Sixty-nine years, y’all.
Donald Glover, the man behind FX’s powerful “Atlanta,” is the first black person to win for directing a comedy and only the second to win the award for lead actor in a comedy.
Riz Ahmed is the first man of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy, for HBO’s “The Night Of.”
It’s been 19 years since a black man won best actor in a drama. Sterling K. Brown of “This Is Us” is the fourth.
And Reed Morano? She was the first woman to win for best director in a drama series in 22 years. Only the third woman ever.
I’m not counting on these wins to change the whole world because I’m sure we thought we flipped the systemically biased script when folk won the last time. (And wasn’t it a shame that in the in memoriam section, they forgot to include legendary Dick Gregory and comedic giant Charlie Murphy?)
What’s more important to me is changing stereotypical opinions about people of color, women and the LGBTQ community and the spotlight these awards shine on inclusive and layered storytelling.
If we’re not going to, as Emmy presenter Lily Tomlin said, be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot, we shouldn’t allow our stories to be told through such a lens, either.
Do you think that while growing up Waithe saw a black lesbian unapologetically living her life on television? Nah. Did any of us see anyone who looked like Ansari who wasn’t an Indian trope? Hardly. But now we get a chance to not just see their perspective but to make a connection.
When you tune into a show like Riz Ahmed’s “The Night Of,” it could crack the thick Trump wall of Islamophobia. When you watch Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” perhaps you see young black men and women as humans coming of age instead of stereotypes to fear. When you get hooked on “This Is Us” and fall for Sterling K. Brown as Randall, hopefully you see the vulnerability, the complexity and the beauty of his blackness. Maybe his interracial family helps you see past the “us vs. them” rhetoric being pushed in the political atmosphere. Perhaps a little girl somewhere saw Reed Morano win best director and now knows she can dream of making films and television shows, not just starring in them.
And when a young queer kid of color sees Waithe holding the gold? That award-winning episode was loosely inspired by Waithe’s own life story of coming out to her mama and growing comfortable in her identity. Maybe a young queer kid somewhere is feeling the love, affirmation and strength. Maybe a parent is understanding the importance of acceptance the way her character’s mama came to learn to love her daughter as she is.
Eventually in that episode, when Denise is a college student and comes out to her mama, the result is tears.
“I don’t want life to be hard for you,” her mama says. “It is hard enough being a black woman in this world. Now you want to go and add something else to that.”
The episode not only tackles the struggle of coming out and acceptance, but it touches on the overlapping layers of discrimination. Ansari understood that even though he is a minority as an Indian man and he’s filling a void in his storytelling, he’s not a black queer woman. So he looked to Waithe to tell Denise’s story.
“I guess I don’t have the gall of the, of all those white writers that write for minorities,” he told NPR.
This, my friends, is what being an ally looks like.
When Waithe, a black woman from Chicago’s South Side, stood on stage with Ansari, an Indian man from South Carolina, she thanked God, her co-writer, her girlfriend and family.
“And last, but certainly not least, my LGBTQIA family. I see each and every one of you,” she said. “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day, when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world — because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”
This, ladies, gentlemen and them, is why we need inclusive storytelling. This is why writers rooms cannot be all white. This is why everyone must be represented at the studio exec tables. Because the television is not just an idiot box. Pop culture has power. Ask your president. He used it to divide and conquer.
But it is a medium in which we can uplift and dismantle the myths about people who don’t live in our self-serving silos. We can see the divinity and the magic and the realness of the humans we are so quick to stereotype and demonize. We can be lovers of all people and masters of none.
These wins, these characters, these scripts the night of the Emmys? This is us reclaiming our narrative — on and off screen. It’s time.