Emmys 2015: Will African American women dominate actress in a drama competition?

Emmys 2015: Will African American women dominate actress in a drama competition?
Taraji P. Henson of "Empire" is among several women of color likely to get Emmy nominations in 2015. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Led by the success of shows including Fox's smash hit "Empire" and ABC's "How to Get Away With Murder," "black-ish" and "Fresh Off the Boat," the 2014-15 television season already has been a watershed year for diversity on the small screen.

Even more history could be made Thursday morning, when three African American women could very well earn a slot in one of Emmy's most intensely competitive categories, lead actress in a drama series.


Nearly every awards prognosticator, including our own Glenn Whipp, considers Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson a lock in the field. 

Davis has earned raves for her performance as ruthless law professor Annalise Keating in "How to Get Away With Murder," a fast-paced whodunit from executive producer Shonda Rhimes and one of this season's most successful new series. It's a fairly safe bet she'll add an Emmy nomination to a résumé that includes two Oscar nods, three SAG wins and two Tonys. 

With a scene-stealing turn as Cookie Lyon, the flashy, eminently quotable matriarch in the hip-hop soap "Empire," Oscar-nominee Henson also seems like a given.

Should either woman be overlooked Thursday, expect the Internet to erupt with rage.

A nod for "Scandal" star Kerry Washington is less of a guarantee, but also would not come as an enormous surprise — after all, she's already been nominated twice for her turn as Washington, D.C., fixer Olivia Pope. It's a testament to the abundance of powerful dramatic roles for women in television that Washington — not to mention many other talented actresses — might not make the cut.

Having two or three African American nominees in this category would be noteworthy, given how historically it has lagged in diversity: An African American has never won the lead drama actress Emmy, and it wasn't until 1982 that a black woman ("Fame's" Debbie Allen) even made the shortlist. Between Cicely Tyson's nomination for "Sweet Justice" in 1995 and Washington's first nod in 2013, there was an 18-year drought.

While many expected Washington to make history with an Emmy win in 2013 or 2014, she was edged out by Claire Danes and Julianna Margulies, respectively.

On the comedy side, the statistics for non-white actresses are also pretty grim. In 1981, Isabel Sanford became the first — and so far only — black woman to take home the Emmy for lead actress in a comedy series for "The Jeffersons." And it's been 29 long years since an African American, Phylicia Rashad of "The Cosby Show," was even honored with a nomination in the category.

Other performers including Terrence Howard ("Empire"), Tracee Ellis Ross ("black-ish"), Gina Rodriguez ("Jane the Virgin"), Constance Wu ("Fresh Off the Boat"), Queen Latifah ("Bessie") and virtually the entire cast of "Orange is the New Black" are strong contenders in their respective categories, meaning this year's crop of Emmy contenders is bound to contrast with an Oscars field so lacking in diversity it spawned a hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite.

Still, despite this year's likely-to-be-strong showing by African American, Latino and Asian American actors — especially women — the Emmys still have a long way to go.

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