Why Billy Porter, Jharrel Jerome and RuPaul’s Emmy wins made for a historic night

RuPaul Charles accepts the award for competition program at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“Once again, we watch history unfold,” Emmy presenter Kerry Washington said with a huge smile as she announced that Billy Porter of FX’s “Pose” had won for lead actor in a drama series.

It capped a night of historic wins for black men at TV’s flagship awards. Besides Porter, Jharrel Jerome of Netflix’s limited series “When They See Us” and RuPaul of the reality competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race” scored major wins, sparking some of the evening’s most enthusiastic applause from the audience at the Microsoft Theater.

Porter’s win took on added significance as he became the first openly gay black man to be named lead actor in a drama series for his role as the flamboyant ballroom emcee Pray Tell. The actor triumphed over a formidable field of performers, including past winner Sterling K. Brown of “This Is Us.”


The former “Kinky Boots” star was ecstatic as he took the stage. Clad in a large flowing hat and sparkling black suit, Porter was as exuberant as his outfit.

“The category is love, y’all,” Porter exclaimed. “I am so overwhelmed and I am so overjoyed to have lived long enough to see this day. James Baldwin said, ‘It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I had been taught about myself and halfway believe before I could walk around this earth like I had the right to be here.’ I have the right, you have the right, we all have the right!”

“Pose” explores the subculture of the LGBTQ ballroom scene in late 1980s and early 1990s New York, as well as of the lives of the people in that community.

Porter added, “We as artists are the people who get to change the molecular structure of the hearts and minds of the people who live on this planet. Please don’t ever stop doing that. Please don’t ever stop telling the truth.”

Jerome received one of the most rousing receptions of the evening when he won for lead actor in a limited series for “When They See Us,” which examines the case of the Central Park Five, five black and Latino Harlem adolescents who were wrongfully convicted of raping and beating a white female jogger in 1989. The 21-year-old actor became the youngest to win in the category for his portrayal of Korey Wise, who at 16 was the oldest of those charged. Wise is now a criminal justice reform advocate.

Jerome’s win was the sole victory of the night for the Netflix series.

As he took the stage, Jerome at first seemed overwhelmed. “I feel like I should just be in the Bronx right now, chilling, waiting for my mom’s cooking or something,” he finally said. “But I’m here in front of my inspirations, in front of people I’m so motivated by. The reason I’m here is because of actors I was in the category with.”

One of his competitors in the category was his “Moonlight” costar Mahershala Ali, who was nominated for HBO’s “True Detective.” In an interview just a few hours after he learned of his nomination in July, Jerome said, “I’m so honored to be nominated with Mahershala. He was such an inspiration to me, always inspiring me to do better.”

Jerome gave thanks to “my beautiful mother, who’s with me today — I couldn’t do it without her,” and his father, before thanking Netflix and the project’s creator, Ava DuVernay: “Thank you for giving me this opportunity.”

He saved his final thanks for the true-life subjects of the series, many of whom were in the audience. “This is for the men who we know as the Exonerated Five. Thank you so much, it’s a blessing.” Many in the group raised their fists in triumph.”

Backstage, Jerome was asked about black actors often being awarded for portraying characters in pain. “You’re absolutely right, with `'Moonlight,’ ‘12 Years a Slave.’ Unfortunately, I think our strongest stories are the stories of pain, considering that’s what we go through on a daily basis.”

“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the VH1 reality show that pits drag queens against each other, won for competition series. The series also won last year for reality-competition series. RuPaul won last week at the Creative Emmys for competition series host.

There were also some significant disappointments for nominees of color, including Sandra Oh of “Killing Eve” who came up short for the second consecutive year in her quest to become the first woman of Asian descent to win lead actress in a drama. Oh lost out to her “Killing Eve” co-star Jodie Comer.

After the show, Porter addressed an awards show moment that picked up steam on Twitter — as RuPaul gave his speech after winning competition series for “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a camera pan caught Porter seemingly looking less than enthusiastic. Porter said that wasn’t his intention.

“There’s never a side eye coming from me, there’s never anything negative coming from me. You’re never going to get it from me,” he said. “RuPaul is a friend of mine, I am so proud of him. I stand on his shoulders. He paved the way for me, so there’s never a side eye about that.”

“Pose” star Billy Porter shares how he was cast for his role -- or wished it into existence.

Times staff writers Makeda Easter and Ashley Lee contributed to this report.