“I accept this award on behalf of every Black and brown woman who has gone unheard, yet over-policed, like Glenda Cleveland, like Sandra Bland, like Breonna Taylor. As an artist, my job is to speak truth to power. And, baby, Imma do it ‘till the day I die,” with those words Niecy Nash-Betts went home with her first ever Emmy win after over three decades in the business. Her win was a poignant highlight of a 2023 Emmys season that brought nothing less than historic LGBT (and most often, Black queer) Emmy wins, including wins for Ayo Edebiri, RuPaul Charles, Keke Palmer and GLAAD.
Nash, who won Supporting Actress in a limited Series for Netflix’s Dahmer, was escorted on stage by her wife, Jessica Betts, who face nearly broke in two from smiling ear-to-ear. The actor wore a simply gorgeous Black velvet gown with matching elbow-length gloves, screaming with joy “Mama, I won!” to her mother in audience before exiting.
In addition to Nash, Black queer talent swept the award show across the board.
Ayo Edebiri won for Supporting Actress in a Comedy series for her work in Hulu’s Bear, becoming one half of a duo marking the first time in Emmys history that Black actresses won both the lead and supporting Comedy categories in the same year (her partner in that historic milestone, Quinta Brunson, won lead actress in a Comedy for Abbott Elementary, becoming only the second actress to win that award in the show’s 75 year history. The last to do so was Isabel Sanford for The Jeffersons in 1981).
Rupaul, once again, won both Reality Competition Program and Host of a Reality Series for RuPaul’s Drag Race. This is the fifth year the series won in the competition category, and RuPaul’s record eighth consecutive year winning as host. He is now also the most-awarded person of color in Emmys history (and if you include Drag Race’s wins on top of his individual ones, it’s not even close).
Speaking of reality TV wins, Queer Eye also won for Structured Reality Program, putting Karamo Brown among this year’s Black queer winners.
And last week, Keke Palmer made history becoming the first woman in 15 years (!!!) to win an Emmy for Game Show Host, for her work on Password.
Taken together, Niecy Nash-Betts, Ayo Edebiri, Rupaul, Karamo Brown, and Keke Palmer make the largest cohort of Black queer talent to win at the Emmys in a single year. That alone is breathtaking. It’s the kind of ceiling breaking that can feel at a loss of words. I find myself both bursting with pride at the feat, but also tinged with sadness. To paraphrase Viola Davis during her own historic 2015 Emmy win, we know that the only thing that stands between often marginalized performers and accolades like this is opportunity. It’s never been a lack of talent. It’s always been a lack of institutions willing to see that talent for what it is, when it’s plainly in front of them.
Adding in the wins for Beef (Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, for lead actor and actress in a miniseries, respectively), Abbott Elementary (Brunson), The Last of Us (Storm Reid as guest actress for playing queer role Riley Abel), and The Trevor Noah Show, this year’s Emmys ties the record for the most wins by performers of color in a single year. Last night alone, five of the 12 acting categories went to people of color.
Those wins came during an award show that also paid tribute to the casts of Good Times, Martin and Arsenio Hall’s work in The Arsenio Hall Show. Arsenio entered the stage with A Black Lady’s Sketch Show’s Robin Thede standing up and doing his signature dog pound salute from the audience, before quipping that all he ever wanted to be was a modern Johnny Carson, even though his success as the first Black late night host was often overshadowed by Jay Leno and David Letterman. The cast of Martin, dressed to the nines and sitting on their original set, made a bit out of the fact that, despite changing the trajectory of Black sitcoms for the next 25 years, they had never been invited to the award show before now. Given the historic wins for Quinta Brunson and Ayo Edebiri, it felt good for Martin’s Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold to be greeted with roaring applause (at least in my living room, I’ll admit cheering so loud that I can’t be 100% certain what happened in the auditorium itself).
Last night’s Emmys was produced by an all-Black production team, which I’m sure made a difference in allowing us to hold space for these uncomfortable truths to begin with. We can be overjoyed with long overdue wins, especially to talent that absolutely deserves them. We can also simultaneously be aware that these wins come on the backs of so many people of color who were never given their rightful day in the sun. There are many giants whose shoulders we stand on.
GLAAD won the 2023 Governor’s Award for their continued advocacy to change the ways that we tell queer and trans stories. Given the historic wins for queer talent and storytelling, the fruits borne of their labor, it felt like a crowning achievement to cap off the night. From the stage, GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis charged television creators in the audience that we urgently need more, fully developed, trans stories, noting that when polled more Americans have said they’ve known ghosts than knowing trans people and “when you don’t know people, it’s easy to demonize them. Visibility creates understanding and opens doors, it’s life-saving. Our community has achieved so much and yet, we are still being victimized and villainized with cruel and harmful lies. Sharing stories is the antidote.” Sometimes that can feel easier said than done, but we’ve also seen time and again how much that effort can make a difference.
Because this year’s Emmys ceremony, already full of Black joy (if not also Black yearning and wistfulness), aired on a Monday in January — it also happened to air on Martin Luther King Day. Emmys host Anthony Anderson closed the ceremony with a clip of his infamous “I Have a Dream,” recently voted by Academy members as one of the most impactful moments in television history. Of course, given everything we just saw, I was reminded of a different famous King quote: that the arc of the moral universe if long, even if it eventually will bend towards justice.
Feature image collage of Niecy Nash-Betts and Jessica Betts by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, Ayo Edebiri by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images, and Keke Palmer by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images