Is 2017 the year of black queer storytelling?
After Lena Waithe’s historic Emmy win Sunday night — for writing, with Aziz Ansari, the “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None,” based on her own coming-out story — the week’s headlines and think pieces will surely make it seem so. Especially since that jaw-dropping triumph for “Moonlight” at the Oscars is still on everyone’s minds as we head into another film awards season.
But do not be fooled. Hollywood isn’t as progressive as we think, and the industry isn’t yet as diverse as it should be. These two landmark victories, however, reveal a key to true inclusion: Men with access, even men of color, must continue to make way for people who don’t traditionally have seats at the table to tell our stories.
By now, you’ve heard the tale of “Moonlight.” Based on an unproduced autobiographical play titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film follows a black kid as he grows into manhood and his sexuality against the backdrop of the Miami projects. “Medicine for Melancholy” filmmaker Barry Jenkins adapted the play, intertwining bits from his own life. The film went on to secure eight Oscar nominations and three wins, one of which was for adapted screenplay.
McCraney, who had been credited for the story, took the stage with Jenkins to accept. After Jenkins gave the obligatory thanks to family, managers and publicists, McCraney stepped up to the mike.
“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming who don’t see themselves,” he said in part. “We’re trying to show you you, and us. So thank you. Thank you. This is for you.”
That night would end with the entire “Moonlight” cast and crew onstage, stunned that their little black, queer movie had taken home the industry’s top prize.
Similarly, Waithe’s story, and her “Master of None” episode, have been fodder for diversity enthusiasts over the last few months. After all, she was only the second woman of color to be nominated in the comedy writing category (after Mindy Kaling). On Sunday night, she became the first black woman to win the award.
“My LGBQTIA family, I see each and every one of you,” she said from the stage. “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day, when you walk out the door, 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.”
While both wins are undoubtedly representative of some of the best black queer storytelling to date, what’s most instructive about these accomplishments is the role straight men of color played. Both Jenkins and Ansari created space for McCraney’s and Waithe’s stories and brought them along with as much credit as possible.
Though much ado is made about the role white men who run Tinseltown must take in making inclusion a reality — as it should be — diversity is truly every privileged person’s responsibility. And yes, because of the heterosexist, patriarchal world we live in, straight men of color, by virtue of their straight-ness and male-ness, fall into that category.
It’s long been said that we need more folks of varied backgrounds at the table, with the pens, with the microphones, with greenlighting power. And I’ve written at length about the utility in finally seeing myself — as a black, queer person — on television and in film and in this industry. But, as Waithe said Sunday at the Netflix Emmy after-party, “This is bigger than me.”
She elaborated in an L.A. Times interview before the Emmys.
“There are queer people of color all over the world and all over the country that think it's not OK. People think that there's something wrong with them. There are young people who think their lives aren't valid. To see a person in the public eye who is like you, living a very healthy, happy, joyful life could actually save a life,” she said.
“I make it my business to be my most authentic self so that somebody can see that and go, ‘Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel.’”
Because, to reinterpret scholar and activist Anna Julia Cooper’s 1892 words, only when and where those of us most othered enter, “in the quiet undisputed dignity” of our otherness, “without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there” all of humanity enters with us.
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.