- The 2020 Emmy nominations were a historic milestone for Black actors who scored 35 of the 102 nomination spots, setting a new record.
- FX’s “Pose,” a story about Black and brown gay and transgender New Yorkers, scored a total of five nominations, including outstanding lead actor in a drama series and outstanding period and/or character makeup (nonprosthetic).
- For the second year in a row, “Pose” lead Billy Porter was recognized in an individual acting category, while all four of his Black trans and nonbinary costars were snubbed.
- Through the 2020 Emmys nominations, Hollywood illustrated how differently — and unequally — it still views the work of trans and cis actors.
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In the final moments of the season one finale of “Pose,” House of Evangelista’s mother, Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), is hoisted into the air after being named “Mother of the Year.”
Under the glittering lights of a disco ball and soft cascade of petals, her glossy, pink-lipped smile is infectious. After facing compounding and violent discrimination and inequality, at times from her fellow trans and gay community members, Blanca built a haven for herself and other Black and brown LGBTQ people.
Mother Evangelista proved that she and her community could do more than merely survive in a society that rarely cared if they did or not.
The scene unfolds like a whimsical, fairytale. But for the Black trans and queer viewers of “Pose,” a Black HIV-positive trans woman in the ’80s being celebrated on-screen was also gutwrenchingly revolutionary.
And it happens to be one among many moments of awing dramatic brilliance from the likes of Rodriguez and her Black trans costars Angelica Ross, Indya Moore, and Dominique Jackson throughout seasons one and two.
Before debuting in 2018, TV had never really shown Black and brown trans Americans how “Pose” had; centered in and leading their own story where their identities are respected, and their characterizations carefully crafted to illustrate their vulnerability, grace, and depth. Never had the crushing conditions of racism, colorism, transphobia, and classism been illustrated quite so equally alongside the joy and resilience of Black LGBTQ identity, history, and culture.
So when Television Academy CEO Frank Scherma acknowledged 2020 as “a year, unlike any other in recent memory” during the Emmy nominations ceremony, it felt like it was finally time for the trans talent of “Pose.”
Amid a global health crisis and a historical fight for social justice, Scherma swore that “It is our duty to use this medium [for] change,” and “the responsibility of television to… amplify the voices that must be heard and tell the stories that must be told.” Shortly after, a record number of Black actors were nominated for the most prestigious TV awards of the year.
Among them was talent from “Pose,” which chronicles the lives of Black and brown gay and trans New Yorkers, the ball scene, and the AIDS epidemic over several decades. Frustratingly, it didn’t include Rodriguez or her Black and brown costars Jackson, Moore, Ross, and Hailie Sahar.
The FX show received five nominations, with the series’ only individual acting honor going to star Billy Porter for lead actor in a drama series
It’s a category he made history in last year as its first openly gay winner. Yet, for all the full-bodied dramatic prowess the Tony and Grammy honoree brings to the story of Pray Tell, his gay cis male character is one sliver of the predominantly Black “Pose” ensemble.
It’s a large cast that hasn’t just bucked industry precedent by featuring a single trans actor in a one-off or even recurring role. It’s earned its groundbreaking label because of the five Black and brown trans actresses and nonbinary actors occupying leading and supporting roles.
Some may argue that their lack of recognition stems from commendable but ultimately not award-worthy performances. Yet the worth of their work and an acknowledgment of its caliber is built into the show’s present and past nominations.
Porter may have been the only single on-screen talent nominated by the Emmys, but the show itself received a best drama nomination in 2019. Other mainstream awarding bodies, such as the Golden Globes, AFI Awards, Critics Choice Awards, Peabody Awards, and more have bestowed similar series honors on the FX show.
Like the award-nominated and winning work that has come before it, the cable program does not stand independently from its actors’ efforts. And by ignoring their individual accomplishments, Hollywood reinforces that it’s only interested in celebrating the fruits of trans and nonbinary labor, not the people who bear it.
Their leading and supporting performances as Blanca, Elektra, Angel, Candy, and Lulu mark the largest number of transgender actors on a scripted show in series regular roles in the history of television. In short, the show’s trans and nonbinary talent don’t just appear on the show. They are the show.
The cast members are honor-worthy, not because they are trans people playing trans women, but because they are trans actors who have dedicated themselves to delivering humanized and nuanced depictions
From these cast members comes an intimate knowledge of and participation in the trans community and ball scene on which the show is based. They also come with acting credits on award-winning film, TV, and web series productions like “Queen & Slim,” “American Gods,” “Transparent,” “Mr. Robot,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Luke Cage,” and “Her Story.”
They deliver performances not just from a place of inherent cultural understanding, but of skill and intentionality.
Any shared experience with their characters doesn’t explain their talent. It elevates it, allowing them to showcase the diversity, complexity, and relatability many Black and brown cis, trans and queer people are rarely afforded on screen.
But the issues with the series’ Emmy snubs don’t end there. The show was also nominated for outstanding period costumes, outstanding period and/or character hairstyling, and outstanding prosthetic makeup for a limited series, movie or special. Every member of the “Pose” production team does incredible work breathing life into the show’s visual storytelling.
But to celebrate its creative production elements, and not the actresses and nonbinary actors who pull that into a compelling performance, feels like more than “a snub.”
Coupled with Porter being the only actor nominated, and Hollywood’s history of awarding cis actors who play trans characters, the lack of nominations reinforces a dangerous and dehumanizing cultural perception
That is that trans people and their creative and cultural labor is only palatable as performance. It is not yet accepted and respected, though it should be, as a legitimate lived experience from which “Pose” has dramatically drawn.
In such a historic year for Black artists at the Emmys, we must acknowledge Hollywood has long shirked any shows and actors centering Black people and their experiences. Yet, that meager number is still a mountain next to the molehill of Black trans talent and narratives.
It was only in 2017 that Laverne Cox made history with her outstanding guest actress in a drama series nomination for her role on “Orange Is the New Black.” In addition to being honored in the same category again, 2020 marked the second time a trans performer has ever been nominated for a Primetime Emmy in an acting category. That historical honor went to Rain Valdez, creator and star of the web series “Razor Tongue,” who was nominated for outstanding actress in a short-form comedy or drama series.
These are absolutely the kinds of milestones that make shows like “Pose” possible. But to acknowledge the work of those trans actresses does not shield the Emmys and other awarding bodies from their failure to recognize the performances of other trans women.
Despite a historically tokenistic award culture, there is no cap or quota on the number of nominations that can be handed to trans actors.
The trans and nonbinary talent of “Pose” powerfully brings to life some of the most vulnerable people in a community that, as our current moment illustrates, is dangerously under attack.
So in a year where the Emmys — and America — finally seem ready to acknowledge Black people’s work and humanity, why are those who “amplify the voices that must be heard,” not being equally recognized for their work?
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