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When Presented With a Black Gaze, the Emmys Turned Away

With The Good Lord Bird, The Underground Railroad, and Small Axe, Emmy voters were asked to consider — and they largely rejected — works that investigate the white gaze by allowing a Black gaze to flourish. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Amazon Studios and Showtime

On the morning of the Emmy nominations, three limited television series that together represent a breathtaking 24 hours’ worth of imaginative storytelling and three-dimensional depictions of the effects of the Black diaspora — Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, and Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard’s The Good Lord Bird — were paid dust by the voting body. From this trio of series, no actor received a nomination, and only one show, The Underground Railroad, garnered a Best Limited Series nod (though it did earn other acknowledgments, including a Best Director nomination for Jenkins). Barring the deserved success of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, the Emmys struggled to recognize Black stories that are not couched in degradation and Black visions that both inspect and reject the white gaze that this voting body has time and again embraced.

The disappointment of nomination morning, unfortunately, isn’t novel. Think back to 2020’s cinematic output as a barometer. That year produced One Night in Miami, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Da 5 Bloods, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Only the last, Shaka King’s film detailing the life and death of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton, received a Best Picture nomination, and both Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis infamously lost to their white counterparts in the lead acting categories.

One Night in Miami, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Da 5 Bloods aren’t terribly concerned with speaking to white people. They also don’t weaponize their Black protagonists to suit a political purpose. Rather, they freely communicate Black themes of racial uplift, freedom, community, and family in politically open spaces: a hotel room, a music practice space, and a foreign country. Without dismissing the fantastic work of Judas and the Black Messiah, we could infer that the Academy ignored the films in which white people weren’t at least partially centered.

The Underground Railroad operates in a similar tenor to the aforementioned films. First, Jenkins does not affix the ten-part miniseries, adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, solely to trauma. A slave narrative concerning Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a runaway venturing from a Georgia plantation westward toward freedom, The Underground Railroad allows for the occasional pang of violence, peaking with the gruesome death of Big Anthony in the first episode. But for every spurt of brutality, there are deeper pockets of humanism: Social dances occur on both the Black-owned Valentine Farm in Indiana and at resplendent soirées among the glittering skyscrapers of South Carolina.

In both places, Cora falls in love, allowing her to be more than a woman hunted by the vicious slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his steadfast adolescent Black assistant, Homer (Chase W. Dillon). While Whitehead’s finely wrought words, Jenkins’s assured direction, composer Nicholas Britell’s acute melodies, editor Joi McMillon’s careful shaping (she was also glaringly snubbed for a nomination), and cinematographer James Laxton’s evocative compositions propel the ten-hour series, the performances are what imbue this distinctly humanist slave narrative with heart, from Mbedu’s physical presence — her hunched, forlorn shoulders later loosening toward upright freedom — to Edgerton’s menacing characterization that adds new defining contours to a familiar villain figure, to Dillon’s matured aura that adds grave import to every scene.

The decision not to honor the actors in The Underground Railroad is an especially puzzling miss given how often Jenkins puts extra emphasis on their subjectivity. Consider how he populates the series with fourth-wall-breaking portraits of Black slaves staring deeply into the lens, allowing the unflinching gaze of the Black characters to silently yet powerfully announce their humanity. It requires engaging with the acting by seeing the characters, and ultimately Black folks, on an intimate level. To reject the hand the actors had in this series is to reject its central ethos: acknowledging the depth of personhood in figures so often flattened by history and art.

Similarly, McQueen’s Small Axe derives its greatest pleasures not from elucidating the systematic dehumanization felt by West Indians in England but from illustrating how a thriving people created an equally rich community in another country by holding on to their historical culture. It’s a personal project for McQueen, who based the majority of the stories comprising this five-part anthology series on real events and further drew emotional inspiration from family members and friends who have populated his life. Four of the parts, taking place between the 1960s and the 1980s, cover the trial of the Mangrove Nine, the imprisonment of the author and activist Alex Wheatle, the charge by new recruit Leroy Logan (John Boyega) to change a racist police force from within, and the systematic prejudice employed by the British school system against young Black children. But one scene in Lovers Rock, the anthology’s sole fictional story, succinctly explicates the thesis of Small Axe: At a reggae house party in West London in 1980, the women cook goat curry and ackee and saltfish, local DJs set up shop with stacks of booming records, and young revelers arrive in their finest, most colorful suits and dresses, ready to mingle.

The party hits a sensual climax in a scene set to Janet Kay’s pining track “Silly Games.” Here, two impassioned lovers, Franklyn Cooper (Michael Ward) and Martha Trenton (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), sway to Kay’s delicate vocal harmonies until the music suddenly ceases. Organically, the cast takes over, singing the song a cappella, undulating in their respective but shared worlds to the total freedom they’re experiencing in this safe space. The impromptu sequence, nimbly captured by McQueen and DP Shabier Kirchner (the series’s only Emmy nominee), doesn’t reveal the power of representation; it elucidates how Blackness flourishes away from white eyes.

“Who cares simply for realism when you can capture the soul of a people and an experience? Who cares simply for the paltry gains of representation when you can get lost in a piece of art for how it moves aesthetically and moves you emotionally?” Angelica Jade Bastién asked in her incisive review of Lovers Rock. McQueen doesn’t ask for outside approval. He doesn’t use these Black characters as a cipher for a grander political point. He allows them to exist both bodily and spiritually, thereby rejecting the white gaze for a Black-centered focus.

The Emmys similarly shunned The Good Lord Bird, a historical slave comedy that didn’t renounce the white gaze but rather inspected it. Adapted from James McBride’s novel of the same name, the show follows Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson, who did not receive an Emmy acting nod), a Black teen who day by day works to survive slavery while dressed as a girl and is adopted by the infamous abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke). Rather than pose Brown as a white savior, as has been customary in past slave narratives, this show critiques the trope, pushing Brown to realize the error of his well-placed fervor. The character not only allows Hawke to go full tilt in a bracingly big performance (he was snubbed for a nomination too), it gives Onion a voice as he searches the South for a safe space, a place where he can be himself and no longer hide from violence as a girl. Refreshingly, when violence does occur in The Good Lord Bird, it’s usually for comedic effect, and it’s often inflicted upon the series’s white characters, as in two major gunfights led by Brown that take on a Quentin Tarantino level of giddiness in the brutality of exploding bodies.

The Underground Railroad, Small Axe, and The Good Lord Bird presented Emmy voters with works that investigate the white gaze by allowing a Black gaze to flourish. They treat Black lives, the pains experienced and the joys felt, as three-dimensional portraits, not blunt, thematic hammers. Their reward was near-total rejection by the Emmys in the aspects (the actors and the overall vision) that most illuminate their shared ethos: making aesthetically rich narratives that don’t rely on dehumanizing clichés.

One wonders if the voters watched these series at all — or, worse yet, if they watched and didn’t understand how it’s impossible to truly honor the humanity of these stories without first seeing the humans populating them. If voting bodies like those for the Emmys and the Oscars really want to change, diversifying both the nominated and the nominators by expanding the latter isn’t enough. They must also celebrate works that reject a white-focused lens, works that do not invite wallowing in Black degradation. Without doing so, they are only reinforcing systematically biased appraisals, wherein only the works that engage with a white audience first and foremost are lauded.

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When Presented With a Black Gaze, the Emmys Turned Away