While the Academy Awards struggles to fix its diversity problem, the 2016 Primetime Emmy Awards proved to be one of the most diverse yet, recognizing Master of None co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, actors Regina King, Sterling K. Brown and Rami Malek, among others during Sunday’s telecast. While host Jimmy Kimmel and the Television Academy may have been quick to congratulate themselves on that achievement, as many of the winners pointed out during their acceptance speeches and backstage, there’s still progress to be made.
"There's 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there's 17 million Italian Americans," Yang said while accepting the Emmy for comedy writing. “They have The Godfather,’ Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong, so we’ve got a long way to go. But I know we can get there. . . . Asian parents out there, if you could just do me a favor, if just a couple of you get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll be all good."
Yang’s comments came just a few months after several Asian American actors -- Constance Wu, John Cho, Ansari and others -- spoke out against whitewashing onscreen. The discussion of diversity and Asian representation, in particular, became a hot topic in the wake of the 2016 Oscars, which featured a misguided joke about Asian Americans.
Both Ansari and Yang tackled the issue head-on with the episode “Indians on TV,” which not only addressed the lack of more than one person of color in a lead role on the same series, but also the tokenism that results from just casting a person of color to check a box.
Their win was later followed by a showcase of racially diverse talent, as The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story actors Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance, American Crime's Regina King, and Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek all took home major acting prizes.
Following his win, Malek urged Hollywood to continue taking progressive strides. “For me to stand here as not the typical leading man, and to have come home with this I think speaks a lot about where we’re headed,” he told reporters backstage, “and I think we can just keep going further in that direction -- obviously not just limited to entertainment, but socially and politically to continue and strive to be as progressive as possible.”
Key & Peele creators Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele also won for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, adding representation to Ansari and Yang’s win behind the camera. Their award was presented by four-time Emmy nominee Damon Wayans -- a moment not lost on either winner. “The fact that one of our heroes -- a person we saw on television, a person of color that we could go, ‘Oh, you can do that’ -- Damon is the person that helped us know that we can dream,” Key told ET backstage. “So for him to present the award tonight was really, really sublime.”
Meanwhile, women -- Jill Soloway and Susanne Bier -- took home two of the Emmys’ three major directing prizes. Both were the only woman nominated in their respective categories, for limited series and comedy, while Miguel Sapochnik won his first Emmy in the drama category for Game of Thrones. “Topple the patriarchy,” the Transparent creator said during her acceptance speech, unknowingly foreshadowing Bier’s win for The Night Manager.
During her acceptance speech, Soloway also recognized the power of diversity in front of and behind the camera. “When you take women, people of color, trans people, queer people, and you put them at the center of the story, the subjects instead of the objects, you change the world, we found out,” she said.
The inclusive group of winners wasn’t limited to race, as the awards also recognized the LGBT community. Soloway, American Crime Story producers Ryan Murphy and Nina Jacobson, a tearful Kate McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, who professed her love for partner Holland Taylor, were among the night’s openly gay or queer winners.
Jeffrey Tambor, who plays a transgender woman on Transparent, made a plea to Hollywood for more inclusive casting. “I’m not going to say this beautifully: To you people out there … please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story,” he said while accepting his second consecutive Emmy for best lead actor in a comedy.
“I would be happy if I were the last cisgender male to play a transgender female,” Tambor added.
While not directly addressing it, Tambor’s comments followed the controversy surrounding Matt Bomer’s casting as a transgender sex worker in the upcoming film Anything. Jen Richards, a transgender producer and actor who was nominated in the short form category this year for Her Story, said on Twitter, “it denies actual trans women opportunities, jobs, resources, which hurts [an] entire community.” Richards has since been cast on Nashville in the show’s first transgender role.
Later, when Laverne Cox, who is the only transgender actor to be nominated for an acting Emmy and will become the first transgender series regular on TV when Doubt premieres on CBS, took the stage on Sunday, she echoed Tambor’s sentiment. “Give trans talent a shot,” she said, perhaps representing the future of the Television Academy. “I would not be here tonight if I was not given that chance.”