Watch­ing in black and white

Only one Asian-Amer­i­can and not one Latino among nom­i­nees for top act­ing prizes

Times Colonist - - Arts - LYNN ELBER

LOS AN­GE­LES — When cam­eras pan across the faces of Emmy Award nom­i­nees at to­day’s cer­e­mony, TV view­ers will see a record 12 African-Amer­i­cans vy­ing for com­edy and drama se­ries act­ing hon­ours. But it’s a lop-sided out­come in the strug­gle for di­ver­sity.

Mas­ter of None star Aziz An­sari, who is of In­dian her­itage, is the sole Asian-Amer­i­can to be nom­i­nated for a con­tin­u­ing se­ries lead or sup­port­ing role. Not a sin­gle Latino is in­cluded in the mar­quee act­ing cat­e­gories.

An Emmy ver­sion of the 2015-16 Os­carsSoWhite protests would miss the point. Wor­thy films and per­for­mances from peo­ple of colour were snubbed by movie academy vot­ers, while in­sid­ers say the scant Emmy love for non-black mi­nori­ties largely re­flects closed TV in­dus­try doors.

“There are a lot of us, but be­cause we haven’t got­ten the op­por­tu­nity to shine, you don’t know we’re around,” said Ren Hanami, an Asian-Amer­i­can ac­tor who has worked steadily on TV in smaller roles but found sub­stan­tive, award-wor­thy parts elu­sive.

The hard-won progress made by the African-Amer­i­can stars and mak­ers of Emmy-nom­i­nated shows in­clud­ing black-ish and At­lanta has brought them cre­ative in­flu­ence, vis­i­bil­ity and, this year, nearly a quar­ter (23.5 per cent) of se­ries cast nom­i­na­tions.

While that suc­cess is cheered by other eth­nic groups, they say it il­lu­mi­nates how nar­rowly the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try views di­ver­sity, de­spite the fact that Lati­nos and Asian-Amer­i­cans are Amer­ica’s first and third largest eth­nic groups, re­spec­tively.

But it also stands as proof that change is pos­si­ble with a com­bi­na­tion of ac­tivism, ed­u­ca­tion and busi­ness savvy, ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try mem­bers and out­siders seek­ing change.

“TV has never been brown­ish,” said ac­tor-co­me­dian Paul Ro­driguez, riff­ing on the ti­tle of the hit African-Amer­i­can fam­ily com­edy. He starred in the 1984 sit­com a.k.a. Pablo, one of the hand­ful of Latino-cen­tred se­ries, and wrote The Pitch, or How to Pitch a Latino Sit­com that Will Never Air, a 2015 stage show he reprised this month in Los An­ge­les be­cause, he said, His­pan­ics haven’t gained ground.

“They don’t put us on tele­vi­sion enough for them to even know if it’s not work­ing,” Ro­driguez said. “They just as­sume it won’t work. And it goes on year af­ter year. Our pop­u­la­tion keeps grow­ing, and so does our frus­tra­tion.”

It’s reached crit­i­cal mass, said Alex No­gales, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional His­panic Me­dia Coali­tion. In 1999, the coali­tion joined with the NAACP and others to de­mand ac­tion from broad­cast net­works in the wake of an all­white slate of new shows.

“I’m tired of be­ing the nice Mex­i­can. It hasn’t taken us any­where,” No­gales said. His new plan is to make sure net­works and in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar dig­i­tal plat­forms such as Net­flix know when Lati­nos — nearly 18 per cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion and with an es­ti­mated buy­ing power of about $1.5 tril­lion US and grow­ing — are un­happy with their pro­gram­ming.

“Net­works have brands that have been around for a very long time. We can dam­age that brand, we can do it by march­ing in front of their of­fices and em­bar­rass­ing them. We can do it through so­cial me­dia,” No­gales said, in­clud­ing putting pres­sure on TV ad­ver­tis­ers.

The fi­nan­cial bot­tom line is key, agreed Gary Mayeda, pres­i­dent of the Ja­panese Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens League, which fo­cuses on civil rights is­sues af­fect­ing Asianand Pa­cific Is­lan­der-Amer­i­cans. “Di­ver­sity is prof­itable,” he said. “Cul­tural di­ver­sity takes noth­ing nor steals from any other group.”

He called for more and bet­ter mar­ket re­search on con­sumers, a point Ro­driguez drives home in his play Pitch. In one scene, a net­work ex­ec­u­tive char­ac­ter uses a pie chart that pur­ports to show why Lati­nos are a loser for TV — com­pared with blacks, they don’t watch enough TV.

But a dif­fer­ent pic­ture emerges in the Nielsen re­search the in­dus­try uses. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent report, the num­ber of His­pan­ics that TV reached monthly in the first quar­ter of 2017 ex­ceeded African-Amer­i­cans (50.7 mil­lion com­pared with 39.3 mil­lion). Blacks still spend more view­ing time weekly than other eth­nic groups (43 hours vs. 23 hours for Lati­nos and 14 hours for Asian-Amer­i­cans), but with smart­phones and other view­ing de­vices favoured by young peo­ple the gap nar­rows or dis­ap­pears.

Dis­pelling stereo­types and tired as­sump­tions is fa­mil­iar to Tif­fany Smith-Anoa’i, CBS’s ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent for en­ter­tain­ment di­ver­sity, a depart­ment she cre­ated in 2009.

“I’m al­ways say­ing di­ver­sity doesn’t mean black, it means so much more,” Smith-Anoa’i said. She’s used to en­coun­ter­ing the in­dus­try at­ti­tude of “we have a black woman, or we have a black guy, we’re done for the day.”

“’Have your eyes look a lit­tle fur­ther,”’ she tells pro­duc­ers.

“It might take three phone calls to find an ac­tor, writer or di­rec­tor in­stead of the two that you’re used to.

“But it def­i­nitely is worth it when you’re look­ing for real au­then­tic­ity and fresh voices, and you get it.”


Aziz An­sari in a scene from Mas­ter of None. An­sari is nom­i­nated for an Emmy Award for out­stand­ing lead ac­tor in a com­edy se­ries, the sole Asian-Amer­i­can act­ing nom­i­nee.

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