Tue. Sep 17th, 2019

2019 Emmys: How Ava DuVernay could make Emmy history with ‘When They See Us’

Writer/director Ava DuVernay, left, and actor Jharrel Jerome on the set of Netflix’s WHEN THEY SEE US (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

In July, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, a four-part series about the Central Park 5 (now the Exonerated 5), received a massive 16 Emmy nominations. Netflix is hoping to make history this month as the first streaming service to win Best Limited Series. For DuVernay, who writes, directs and produced the series, this is a career defining moment as she could make Emmy history in a big way.

Just by receiving nominations in writing and directing DuVernay made history as only the second African-American woman to receive a nomination in either category. Before Mudbound, in 2015, Dee Rees became the first ever African-American woman to receive a writing and/or a directing nomination for Best Limited Series/TV movie for her HBO telefilm Bessie. Rees would lose both to the creative team behind Olive Kitteridge.

But DuVernay’s chances of history are not just important because of her gender. African-American directors have only received six previous nominations for Best Limited Series/TV Movie Directing. Lloyd Richards made history as the first African-American director nominated for The Piano Lesson (Hallmark Hall of Fame) in 1995. Five years later Charles S. Dutton made history as the first (and currently only) African-American winner in the category’s history for The Corner in 2000. George C. Wolfe ended another five year drought when he was feted for Lackawanna Blues in 2005. Rees showed up in 2015. And a year later both Anthony Hemingway and John Singleton received nominations for The People v. O.J. Simpson in 2016. Should DuVernay win she would be the first African-American winner in 19 years and the first woman to do so.

Again, the representation of African-American writers in the Best Limited Series/TV Movie Category has again been sparse.  August Wilson made history as the first African-American writer nominated for The Piano Lesson (Hallmark Hall of Fame) in 1995. Five years later David Mills made history as the first (and currently only) African-American winner in the category’s history for The Corner in 2000. It would take 15 years for the television academy to nominate both Rees for Bessie and John Ridley for American Crime in 2015. And a year later Joe Robert Cole received a nomination for The People v. O.J. Simpson in 2016. DuVernay (along with co-writer Michael Starrbury) best chance could be in the writing category. The Emmys have already awarded DuVernay for Best Nonfiction Program Writing for 13th in 2017—making history as the first African-American in that category to be nominated and win.

DuVernay would make history with a win either category. DuVernay could also follow Amy Sherman-Palladino’s historic double wins last year for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as the first person to win both writing and directing for the same show in a single season. This would be another great moment for women working in television.

As for DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey, who co-produced When They See Us, they both have the opportunity to become the first African-American women to win Best Limited Series. Suzanne de Passe was nominated for Lonesome Dove and Winfrey was nominated for The Women of Brewster Place in 1989 making history as the first African-American women to be nominated for at the time Best Miniseries (as the category was known as at the time). Four years later, de Passe would again be nominated for The Jacksons: An American Dream in 1993. Two years, after her second nomination, de Passe was again nominated for Buffalo Girls in 1995. de Passe once again was nominated for The Temptations in 1999. Also with a chance at history is Tracey Scott Wilson as part of the producing team for Fosse/Verdon.

Should DuVernay and Winfrey or Wilson win Best Limited Series they would only be the third African-American to do so. David Mills made history as the first to do so for The Corner in 2000. And 16 years later, Anthony Hemingway was part of the producing team of The People vs. O.J. Simpson in 2016.

Emmy History already made by Ava DuVernay:

  • Second African-American woman to win Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special for 13th (2017)
  • First African-American woman nominated for Best Nonfiction Special Directing for 13th (2017)
  • First African-American nominated and winner for Best Nonfiction Special Writing for 13th (2017)
  • Second African-American woman nominated for Best Limited Series/Movie Writing and/or Directing.

Emmy History Ava DuVernay could make with When They See Us:

  • First African-American woman, along with Oprah Winfrey, to win Best Limited Series
  • First African-American woman to win Best Limited Series/Movie Directing
  • First African-American woman to win Best Limited Series/Movie Writing

The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards will be held on September 22.

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