Emmys 2020: Issa Rae, Kerry Washington And More Talk Historic Nods For Black Creators
Photo illustration by Imani Nuñez

When the Emmy Award nominations were announced last month, Issa Rae tried to craft a Tweet highlighting all the talented Black creators who had been honored for their epic work as actors, directors, writers, producers and more. But she couldn’t.

“I had to delete it,” Rae told ESSENCE. “I left out too many people. You can’t even fit everyone.”

Rae wasn’t the only one “rooting for everybody Black” — so was the Emmys.

This year, Black culture was seen in a big way by the Television Academy as Black artists scored multiple nominations for the many roles they play and hats they wear in front of the camera and behind it.

Issa Rae
Issa Rae

Kerry Washington is the leading nominee with a whopping four nominations — doubling her career total to eight. She picked up bids for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie for Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere and three nods as an executive producer of Little Fires Everywhere, Netflix’s American Son and ABC’s Live In Front of a Studio Audience: All In the Family and Good Times.

Rae scored three nominations; one for acting and two for producing HBO’s Insecure and A Black Lady Sketch Show. Maya Rudolph, up for three honors, did the unthinkable and earned two nominations for best guest actress in a comedy series, including one for playing now-Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. And Wanda Sykes received nominations for her voice-over work, playing Moms Mabley on Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and for executive producing Tiffany Haddish: Black Mitzvah on Netflix.

“I try not to get too caught up in the ego of what awards nominations mean. I try to not let it be the determining factor of how I feel about myself and my work, [but] there is something really special about the fact that we’re telling so many stories about Black folks and Black women in particular. We’re centering the stories on Black women and the stories are being acknowledged,” Washington told ESSENCE.

Kerry Washington and Lexi Underwood in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, which secured three Emmy nominations, including best limited series.

“They are admitting that they are seeing Black women and that Black women are mattering in their cultural landscape — that makes me feel really proud and excited about the work that we’re doing because we know how powerful and important Black women are. It’s important that we create space for Black women to matter in our larger systems that govern us and sort of direct culture.”

Rae echoed Washington’s words.

“We’ve been making culture for a very long time. We’ve been influencing this country for a very long time. I think the acknowledgement of it is the first step,” Rae said. “We have a long way to go but it feels good at least in this moment, with everything that we’re going through this year, to be able to celebrate alongside other Black people.”

While Rae came on the scene as the creator and producer of her own series, Washington took on the role of producer as her career continued to rise. She received her first big producer credit on 2016’s Confirmation the Emmy-nominated HBO TV movie where she portrayed Anita Hill. And she eventually earned the producer title on the ABC hit series Scandal, which wrapped in 2018.

“We’ve stopped waiting for permission to tell our stories,” Washington said. “I think the more authorship and agency and currency that (Black people) have behind-the-scenes, the more that we can tell our stories from an empowered place.”

Rae said on Emmys nominations day as soon she sent out flowers to her fellow Black nominees, flowers immediately arrived to her from Zendaya, nominated for Euphoria on HBO, as well as Ava DuVernay, who won two Emmys in 2017 and was nominated last year for producing, writing and directing  When They See Us on Netflix.

For Rae, the eight nominations for Insecure are significant because in the past the show has only been nominated for Rae’s role and cinematography. This year, Yvonne Orji scored a supporting comedy actress nod while Natasha Rothwell, Prentice Penny, Melina Matsoukas and others earned nominations as producers for best comedy series.

Issa Rae, Melina Matsoukas and Yvonne Orji
Issa Rae, Melina Matsoukas, and Yvonne Orji attend the 2020 13th Annual ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon on February 06, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. | Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for ESSENCE

“That means everything,” Rae said. “To have the show be recognized and acknowledged is really honoring the people that make this show happen … The cast has always been extremely supportive when it was me, but this is ours.”

Rae and Robin Thede’s A Black Lady Sketch Show scored three nominations, earning Thede her first-ever Emmy nod and making double nominees out of the icon Angela Bassett, also competing for outstanding narrator, and director and co-executive producer Dime Davis, who made history as the first Black woman nominated for outstanding directing for a variety series. And if Davis wins, she would become the first Black woman to win an Emmy for directing for the TV format, whether it’s a drama, comedy, miniseries, TV movie or variety special. 

“Issa is doing her own thing, but she is also giving other people opportunities. That is what comes with that executive producer status. I’m excited to be moving in that direction, too. I get to continue to work on my own stuff, which I will forever love, but I also get to bring up the next people,” said Davis, who also has credits on  Showtime’s The Chi and Boomerang on BET — shows both executive produced by Emmy winner Lena Waithe.

Robin Thede and Dime Davis of A Black Lady Sketch Show speak during the HBO segment of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association Press Tour. Thede’s series is nominated for three Emmy awards. | Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

“We always talk about the firsts, but we never really talk about the second or third or fourth. That to me is the importance of being the first. Now I get to not only step through a door and open it, but I get to look behind me and go, ‘OK sis, let’s go,’” Davis continued. “That’s the beauty of it, too.”

Washington said Black artists coming together is part of the reason they are all winning in a big way: “We really are collaborating. Issa and I have projects together and I directed on Insecure this year. One of their editing nominations is an episode that I directed. I have a project with Octavia that I’m really excited about. …A lot of us are starting to join forces and not only create work for ourselves, but for each other.”  

Like Washington and Davis, a long list of Black creators also earned multiple Emmy nominations this year for being multifaceted artists. Trevor Noah and RuPaul both scored three nominations apiece as producers and hosts, while Sterling K. Brown and Giancarlo Esposito are competing in two separate acting categories for their respected roles in This Is Us, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Better Call Saul and The Mandalorian.

Ramy Youssef is a double nominee for producing and directing Ramy, while Mahershala Ali is nominated for his appearance in the Hulu comedy and as a producer in the outstanding children’s program category — a nomination he shares with his actress-wife Amatus Karim Ali. Dave Chappelle is nominated for writing and producing his comedy special Sticks & Stones; Rickey Minor is nominated twice for outstanding music direction; Cord Jefferson has been recognized for his work as a writer on Watchmen; and Nadia Hallgren is up for outstanding direction and outstanding cinematography for her work on the Michelle Obama documentary Becoming.

Stefani Robinson of What We Do in the Shadows; she’s nominated for two Emmy awards for her work as a writer and executive producer on the series. | Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

“It’s pretty overwhelming and I mean that in a good way,” said Stefani Robinson, a double Emmy nominee this year for her work as a writer and executive producer of the FX comedy series What We Do In the Shadows.

“I just remember being in school and watching the Emmys and not feeling represented,” continued Robinson, also a writer and producer on Atlanta. “(Now) it’s us behind the scenes producing, writing and wearing multiple hats at the same time. I feel like I wish that was happening when I was a kid. In that way, it makes me happy that it is happening because I just think of all the kids that are young that get to watch this program now and get to see themselves. That’s where the word overwhelming comes from.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Emmys will be held virtually on September 20. Rae said she’s bummed she won’t be able to get “those in-person hugs, those ‘I see you sis,’ the dances, the handclaps.”

But that doesn’t mean she won’t find a way to mark the occasion.  

“I am determined to do some kind of celebration of us,” Rae said. “This has just been such a shitty year. Nothing would bring me more joy than to see people and celebrate with them safely.”

Mesfin Fekadu (@MusicMesfin) is an award-winning entertainment writer and editor.

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