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Roya Sabri headshot

Will Black Women Remain ‘Endangered Species’ in the Entertainment Industry?

By Roya Sabri
hollywood sign - are black women endangered species in entertainment

When Sheryl Lee Ralph won an Emmy this year for her role as Barbara Howard in Abbott Elementary, she lifted her voice in triumph, singing a verse from Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species.” She sang, “I am an endangered species/ But I sing no victim's song/ I am a woman; I am an artist/ And I know where my voice belongs.” During her post-win interview, she encouraged young artists, “Find your voice, and put it where it belongs.”

Anyone who watched Ralph’s win can attest that it was one of the truly inspiring moments of the show, and not only because Ralph is only the second Black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series. (Jackée Harry won two Emmys for that category in the ‘80s for her performance in NBC's 227.) Ralph was truly shocked to win — so shocked that she didn’t get out of her seat until she was helped up by those at her table.

Quinta Brunson, creator and star of Abbott Elementary, for which she also writes and directs, told Seth Meyers that Ralph had been satisfied with her nomination and didn’t expect to win. Brunson speculates that as Ralph remained in her seat, she may have even thought the win was a dream. Yet, standing on that stage, she expressed one of the most inspiring and polished speeches of the night. “I could cry right now, because it was beautiful seeing her be the most herself in that moment too,” Brunson said.

Being seen by Hollywood, 45 years later

Ralph’s ability to wow an audience at the drop of a hat is a testament to her prowess as an actress. She has played Rita in Oliver & Company, Dee Mitchell in Moesha and Deena Jones in Broadway’s Dreamgirls, for which she received a Tony nomination. In an interview with People before the Emmys, Ralph recounted how, while working alongside Robert De Niro, he recognized her talent. And he advised her that Hollywood is not looking for the Black girls, so she had better wave that red flag and let them know she’s here, because she deserves to be seen. Ralph said, 30 years later, with an Emmy nomination, she felt seen.

Even through the industry’s gatekeeping, this year's Emmy night included some notable triumphs for Black women. Lizzo won her first Emmy for best competition series. Zendaya won a second Emmy for lead actress in a drama series. And Brunson won the Emmy for best writing for a comedy series. She is only the second Black woman to win an Emmy in this category, and the first to win it without a writing partner.  

Firsts and seconds like these carry with them a shadow of disappointment, as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) expert Kim Crowder told TriplePundit in an email. The fact that other Black women have not been recognized is a failure of the system. “Sheryl Lee Ralph had her acting debut 45 years ago, and only now has been recognized by the Emmys and is only the second Black woman to win in this category,” Crowder told us. “Her moment was beautiful, and she stood in her power during her acceptance speech. Sadly, this lack of recognition from Hollywood's most prestigious award entities is not uncommon.”

The state of DEI in film and TV

A report from McKinsey & Co. dives into the entertainment industry’s troubles representing Black women, and Black creators in general. “A complex, interdependent value chain filled with dozens of hidden barriers and other pain points reinforces the racial status quo in the industry," the report reads. It identifies about 40 pain points that Black professionals face as they navigate their careers in film and television. 

Black off-screen talent has, for the most part, been responsible for creating opportunities for other Black off-screen talent. In film, those projects tend to have smaller budgets, even though they secure higher earnings per dollar of budget. McKinsey calculates a $10 billion lost revenue opportunity if film and TV don’t correct their racial inequities — a 7 percent increase to the assessed baseline. 

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the group that puts on the annual Emmy Awards, has at least taken one notable step toward inclusion. In 2021, the Academy engaged a third party to conduct a DEI-related survey of the organization. The results are staggering. While 92 percent of white male respondents said they felt positive about the academy’s diversity, only 46 percent of Black women and women of color did. The scores for “belonging and inclusion” were similar among Black women and women of color in the industry. 

The analysts were blunt in their assessment. “There appears to be a deep-seated resistance in the Academy’s culture to moving forward, changing the way things have always been done, and creating a new future for television," they wrote.  

Building checks and balances into the entertainment industry’s DEI efforts

Crowder emphasized the significance of simple actions and behaviors. Jimmy Kimmel’s joke, for example, where he was lying on stage during Brunson’s acceptance speech, crossed a line. “It demonstrated how those with privilege through race, gender and socioeconomic status miss why it is important not to center attention on themselves,” she told us.

McKinsey offers some steps of accountability for the entertainment industry. Within these recommendations are checks and balances, such as public transparency about goals, ties to executive bonuses and establishing an independent organization to promote diversity. Beyond the massive revenue boost, McKinsey notes that investing in change will help advance racial equity in broader society. If $10 billion isn’t a motivator, the potential of those externalities certainly should get the engines revving. 

Image credit: Jake Blucker/Unsplash

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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