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One year after ‘Watchmen,’ the Black experience is again center stage at the Emmys

One woman stands between two men, their clothing splattered with blood
Courtney B. Vance, Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors in a scene from “Lovecraft Country.”
(Joshua Ade / HBO)

2020 was a landmark year for the Emmys, as the television academy awarded top honors to HBO’s “Watchmen,” a limited series that mashed up fantastical science-fiction elements with hot-button issues, foremost among them America’s racist past — and present. The limited drama’s success at the Emmys dovetailed with the country’s furor over police brutality and the threat of white nationalist movements.

Tuesday’s announcement of the 2021 Emmy nominations continued the trend.

Since last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, the TV landscape has offered a growing array of projects centered on the Black experience. And though the nominations were led overall by “The Crown” (Netflix), “The Mandalorian” (Disney+), “WandaVision” (Disney+) and “Ted Lasso,” many of those projects led by Black creators and performers were recognized by the TV academy in the major categories.

Leading them was HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” which was often compared to “Watchmen” because of its mixture of the far-out and the realistic. Set in the 1950s, the drama about several Black characters battling racists and monsters alike scored 18 nominations in total, including for drama series, actor (Jonathan Majors), actress (Jurnee Smollett), supporting actress (Aunjanue Ellis), supporting actor (Michael K. Williams) and guest actor (Courtney B. Vance).

“The Crown” and “The Mandalorian” dominate the 2021 Emmy nominations. Here are the honorees in the major categories.

An Emmy win for “Lovecraft” in the drama category would likely been seen as a flashy consolation prize for the show’s creator Misha Green: Despite its success with critics and viewers, HBO declined to order a second season.

A win would also be a fitting farewell to FX’s nominated drama series “Pose,” about New York’s multicultural LGBTQ ballroom scene in the 1980s and 1990s: The series received nine nominations for its final season, including for leads Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez.

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Another leading nominee was “I May Destroy You,” the provocative HBO series about a young influencer and author grappling with the trauma of sexual assault. The dramedy was nominated for limited or anthology series, while three of its nine nods overall went to creator Michaela Coel, who was nominated as lead actress, writer and director.

“I May Destroy You” will face off in the limited series category with another high-profile series, Amazon’s “The Underground Railroad.” Directed by Barry Jenkins and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, the series — about a runaway slave who seeks freedom via locomotive that travels north through subterranean tunnels — earned seven nominations overall. But while the show received a marquee nomination, as well as one for Jenkin’s direction, its lauded star Thuso Mbedu was overlooked.

In the highly competitive limited series field, other acclaimed series about Black history, in both the U.S. and the U.K., failed to break through. Neither Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird,” starring Ethan Hawke as abolitionist John Brown, nor Amazon’s “Small Axe,” a collection of films about London’s West Indian community from Oscar-winning Steve McQueen, made it into the ranks of top nominees. Amazon’s “Them: Covenant,” a horror story about racist housing policies in midcentury L.A. that sparked controversy for its depiction of racist violence, was also shut out of the top categories.

Columnist and awards expert Glenn Whipp breaks down the top surprises and snubs of Tuesday’s Emmy nominations.

On the comedy front, ABC’s “black-ish” returned to the nominations list with five, earning nods for comedy series, lead actor (Anthony Anderson) and lead actress (Tracee Ellis Ross). The series and its two stars have been nominated before but have never won.

HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show” also earned five nominations, including variety sketch series — where it will have only one competitor, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” — while “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” was nominated for variety talk series, where it will face off against “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Conan.” And RuPaul earned his 14th Emmy nomination with another nod for hosting drag competition “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” as did Nicole Byer, host of the Netflix baking-disasters show “Nailed It!” Both series were also nominated in the reality competition category.

The Mahalia Jackson biopic “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia” and the Black romance “Sylvie’s Love” were nominated for television movie along with “Oslo,” “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square” and “Uncle Frank.”

Whether the success of Black storytellers and performers in the nominations will translate into Emmy statuettes in September, as they did for “Watchmen” last year, remains to be seen. Limited series once again will be the year’s most competitive format, while “The Crown” and “Ted Lasso” are early favorites in comedy and drama.


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