Two Muslim men, on prime-time TV, clutching shiny metal objects close to their black garments amid an unsuspecting crowd.
No, this wasn’t Homeland, and those weren’t weapons.
It was the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, where actor Riz Ahmed and actor-writer Aziz Ansari won top categories for shows that exploded stereotypes and made history in front of an audience too dazzled by all the other history-breaking moments that evening to notice.
There were so many firsts in LA’s Microsoft Theater on Sunday night that the oversight was understandable. The evening’s swag bags should have included tally sheets to keep track of the multiple barriers being broken.
Donald Glover, creator of FX’s Atlanta, became the first African American comedy director to be so honoured and Master of None’s Lena Waithe was the first black woman to win for writing on a comedy series. Streaming service Hulu broke network and cable TV’s monopoly on the top Emmy, outstanding drama series, when it won for The Handmaid’s Tale.
And it was certainly the first time a former White House press secretary appeared onstage riding a motorised lectern. Sean Spicer: trailblazer.
Indeed, the ceremony and list of nominees was the most diverse in history, said host Stephen Colbert, congratulating the Television Academy and the Emmys. The crowd applauded. “That’s impressive,” he added. “I did not know you could applaud while patting yourself on the back at the same time.”
The applause, however, wasn’t all in the service of self-congratulations. There was plenty of genuine excitement over the nominations as quantifiable proof that the industry and the academy were finally stepping into the 21st century. Perhaps the success of new shows like Insecure and This Is Us had sent a message: Viewers wanted to see more people like themselves on TV, and not all of America looks like Ryan Seacrest.
Many of this year’s nominees and winners could be seen as progressive Hollywood pushing back against the new president and his policies, which many consider hostile toward women, minorities, immigrants and the LGBTQ community.
If the wins were meant to send a message, then perhaps the most pointed, and poignant, was Ahmed and Ansari winning for shows that demystified the scary “Islamist” talked about on the Trump campaign trail.
Ahmed won lead actor in a limited series for his role as Nasir Khan on HBO’s The Night Of, making him the first Muslim, and the first Asian, to win a lead acting Emmy (before Ahmed, the only other person of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy was Archie Panjabi in 2010 for her supporting role in The Good Wife).
The cable drama followed Muslim college student Nasir through the legal system, and later prison, after he was accused of killing a well-to-do white woman in Manhattan.
Nasir, the son of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Queens, was an immediate suspect. But was he guilty? Written by Steven Zaillian, The Night Of made viewers question their own preconceptions about race, religion and the justice system while trying to get to the bottom of the case.
That Nasir and his family were presented as multi-dimensional people was a breakthrough in the portrayal of Muslims on series television, arriving before Donald Trump took office and announced his first major action: the travel ban. Targeting citizens of eight Muslim-majority countries, it was eventually halted.
Ansari shared top honours with Waithe for writing on Master of None, the Netflix series in which he also stars. When they took the stage, he ceded the mic to his writing partner, and Hollywood celebrated the breaking of a race barrier in the category.
But Ansari, who also won last year, was also a first in the category, and he’s responsible for offering up what no other TV series ever has: the casual Muslim.
Master of None chronicles the not-so-remarkable life of Dev (played by Ansari), a thirtysomething low-level actor fumbling his way into adulthood. That means devoting entire episodes to dating apps, his obsession with Italian food and the dashed expectations of his immigrant parents (if only he’d been a doctor).
Dev Shah is Muslim, but he is not angry, obsessive, regretful or oppressed. And he’s not armed with an Uzi. He’s a mostly nice, occasionally irritating guy armed with a mobile phone he checks obsessively.
Ahmed said as he accepted his award: “It’s always strange reaping the rewards of a story that’s based on real-world suffering. But if this show has shone a light on some of the prejudice in our society, [such as] Islamophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system, maybe that’s something.”
And even among all the history-making bombshells of the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, it really was.