Lena Waithe, Donald Glover, Riz Ahmed Make History at the Emmys

By Sameer Rao Sep 18, 2017

Television’s biggest stars gathered at Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theater last night (September 17) to celebrate what host Stephen Colbert called "the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history." The 69th Primetime Emmy Awards featured several wins by nominees of color, who earned awards for roles and programs that address race and racism in the context of modern American life. Here are some of the key moments from last night’s CBS telecast:

People reported that many presenters and attendees wore blue ribbons in support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which tweeted red carpet pictures and screenshots to draw attention to its campaign to support DREAMers.

Colbert kicked off the show with a song-and-dance number about the role TV programs play in helping audiences cope with and understand contemporary political and social strife. Chance the Rapper stopped by to contemplate how television could go even further to shift popular narratives, rapping:

I love television, it’s a pleasant distraction, but just imagine taking action: I like "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," in fact, I’m addicted, but where’s the cop show where one gets convicted? I miss the classics, I still think “M.A.S.H." rocks, but if Hawkeye can be a soldier than why not Laverne Cox?

Donald Glover earned two Emmys last night in the "Directing for a Comedy Series" and "Lead Actor for a Comedy Series" categories for his on- and off-camera work on FX’s "Atlanta." He won the directing Emmy for an episode titled "B.A.N.," which sends up Black television shows and parodies media racism via a fake talk show that includes a news profile of a Black man who identifies as White. Glover went on to thank Donald Trump—a frequent joke target throughout the night—"for making Black people number one on the most-oppressed list" in his speech for the acting award. Glover is the first Black artist to win the comedy directing Emmy, and the second Black actor (after Robert Guillaume‘s 1985 win for "Benson") to earn the comedy acting one.

Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari won the "Writing for a Comedy Series" Emmy for their work on the "Thanksgiving" episode of Netflix’s "Master of None." Waithe drew on her own experience of coming out as a lesbian to her religious family for this episode, which follows her character Denise’s evolving relationship with her mother (Angela Bassett) over the course of several Thanksgiving dinners. Waithe is the first Black woman to win a comedy writing Emmy, and she thanked her "LGBQTIA family" during her acceptance speech:

I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day, when you walk out the door, go out there, put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it. And for everybody out there that showed us so much love for this episode, thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer Black girl from the South Side of Chicago. 

Riz Ahmed earned the "Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie" for his performance in HBO’s "The Night Of." He is the second thespian of Asian descent—after another British South Asian, "The Good Wife’s" Archie Panjabi, won the 2010 "Supporting Actress in a Drama Series" award—to win an acting Emmy. Ahmed portrays a Pakistani-American college student and son of a taxi driver who faces charges for a ghastly sexual assault and murder that he says he didn’t commit. Along the way, he struggles against racist media narratives and a broken criminal justice system. Ahmed referenced both of these things in his speech: "It’s always strange reaping the awards of a story that’s based on real-world suffering, but if this show has shone a light on some of the prejudice in our society, Islamophobia, some of the injustice of our justice system, then maybe that’s something." He ended his remarks with praise for two social justice organizations that helped him prepare for the role, South Asian Youth Action and the Innocence Project

Sterling K. Brown earned his second Emmy, this time in the "Lead Actor in a Drama Series" group, for his performance on NBC’s "This Is Us." On the show, he plays the adopted son in a White family who struggles to connect with his brother and biological father. The actor used his time to thank his colleagues, including his on-screen wife Susan Kelechi Watson: "It is my pleasure to rep Black love with you, sister, let’s keep doing it like Martin and Gina!" He also thanked the last Black actor to win this award, Andre Braugher in 1998 for "Homicide: Life on the Street": "I just want to say, Mr. Braugher, whether it is at Stanford University or on this Emmy stage, it is my supreme honor to follow in your footsteps." 

Check out more winners and nominees at Emmys.com.