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The 2016 Emmy nominations prove that TV is much better than film at reflecting America

The Emmys nominated 21 actors of color. The Oscars nominated zero.

68th Emmy Awards Nominations Announcement
The Lead Actress in a Drama category features Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson as nominees of color.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Among the 16 acting categories that span the Emmys’ comedy, drama, and limited series/made-for-TV movie classifications, there are 97 different actors nominated for the 2016 awards. (Fifteen categories feature six nominees, and one features seven, due to a tie.)

In 2016, by my count, 21 of those 97 are actors of color. That’s a little better than one in five, or 20 percent. Every single lead acting category contains at least one nonwhite nominee, and several of the acting categories are split 50-50 between white actors and actors of color.

What’s more, many of the nominees of color defied expectations in securing their respective nods. While some were considered sure bets based on previous Emmy success, like How to Get Away With Murder’s Viola Davis, plenty were considered long shots but still managed to squeeze in, like Fargo’s Bokeem Woodbine.

And there are several others who could have been nominated but weren’t, like Constance Wu and Randall Park of Fresh Off the Boat, or Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin. These numbers reflect a TV industry that’s much healthier than it once was in terms of diversity.

Of course, they also aren’t super fantastic or anything like that. Both the industry and the television academy can still do more to better represent our increasingly diverse country.

But compared to the film industry, with its two consecutive years of actors of color going 0 for 20 at the Oscars? Yeah, TV is kicking ass.

Why TV has more readily embraced diversity

To a degree, the recent increase in diversity is built into the way TV operates.

The medium has always had a shorter production window, so it has always been easier for it to adapt to and incorporate changes in the country it’s produced in. Even when it comes to these changes very slowly, it can turn rapidly to reflect them.

There are some cautions here. TV has embraced diversity in the past, too, only to back away from it, as we saw in the 1980s — when many of the top shows on TV featured majority black casts and boasted both white and black viewers — and the 1990s, which were much less diverse. (Perhaps tellingly, Tracee Ellis Ross’s 2016 Lead Actress in a Comedy nod for Black-ish marks the first time in 30 years that a black actress has been nominated in the category. The last time it happened was in 1986, when Phylicia Rashad was nominated for The Cosby Show.)

But at least TV appears to be trying. Its current stars are as likely to be non-white as they are white, like Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek, who is of Egyptian descent. And TV has also proved that it’s welcoming to performers of color who’ve struggled to find rewarding film work, like Davis and Empire’s Taraji P. Henson.

You may not like all of the performances by this year’s 21 nominees of color. You may not even like half of them. There are a couple I wouldn’t have nominated. But the point is that when viewers look for a medium that tries to accurately depict what the American population looks like today, TV is where it’s at, and film feels more and more behind.

These sorts of things may not seem to matter on a case-by-case basis, but in the aggregate, they do. Representation matters, and so do the vibrant new storytelling approaches brought by shows like Master of None and Black-ish and The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

Is TV perfect? No. But if you want to tell a story about this country, the medium is your best bet. The movies keep falling further and further behind.

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