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Tracee Ellis Ross' Quiet Rise to Comedic Fame

Kieran, here. The annual roster of Emmy nominees (or any awards show celebrating acting, for that matter) is always a mixed bag. There are the familiar names who always seem to be there, as if immovably embedded in the consciousness of Emmy voters regardless of quality or staleness of the vehicle. Then there are the fresher, worthier names indicative of a certain segment of the Television Academy who are really paying attention—a segment that shouldn't feel novel, but unfortunately often does. Among these breath-of-fresh-air citations this year was Tracee Ellis Ross' Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series nomination for “Black-ish”. Despite a career that spans two decades, this is the first nomination for Ross, for the series' sophomore season (“Black-ish” did quite well overall landing a coveted Outstanding Comedy Series nomination). It's quite satisfying to watch a performer who has put in years of great work that, for this reason or that, has gone largely ignored, be honored. 



A former supermodel and the daughter of Diana Ross, it may seem from the outset that Ross' path to fame had certain advantages. However, the actress, primarily working in comedy has definitely paid her dues. A little over a decade ago, yesterday's Emmy nomination seemed quite improbable...

For years, the now defunct UPN's programming lineup was made up of mostly half-hour comedies with black casts. Among these shows was the “Girlfriends,” executive produced by Kelsey Grammar and helmed by Mara Brock Akil, who also created the now popular “Being Mary Jane” starring Gabrielle Union. The series starred Ross as Joan Clayton; one of four black thirty-something friends living in Los Angeles. The show was viewed as a sort of heir-apparent to the 1990s sitcom “Living Single” (starring Queen Latifah) with a “Sex and the City” level frankness about love and sex, which was unusual for network television. Ross' work on the show was critically lauded, but her fame and accolades segmented to the black community. Despite giving what was frankly a stellar performance, Ross was never cited for Emmy or Globe consideration—a fate all too familiar to quality programming that features predominantly non-white casts.

Ross (left) and Golden Brooks on UPN's "Girlfriends"

In 2006, when “Girlfriends” was entering its seventh season, UPN merged with the WB into the CW. The idea was to combine the viewing power of the two struggling networks. What happened instead was the CW basically became the WB by another name. Within two years of the merger, all of the black programming that was on UPN prior to the merger had been cancelled, leaving the network with the teen-focused dramas with predominantly white casts that previously made up the WB's lineup.

“I thought it was rude,” remarked Ross candidly in a panel discussion after the CW cancelled “Girlfriends”. Her dismay was understandable. After years on a television show with a small, but loyal following it seemed that she was starting from square one trying to gain a career foothold. She had many credits to her name, including a brief, but very powerful role in 2007's HBO movie Life Support, which focused on the AIDS crisis and earned its star Queen Latifah many high profile awards and nominations. However, it would be years before she would star on the critically acclaimed “Black-ish”. Years in which Ross went undervalued in Hollywood.

Ross as Rainbow "Bow" Johnson on ABC's "Black-ish"Which is why it's so satisfying to see Ross among the list of Emmy nominees this year. Like Constance Zimmer (out-of-this-world amazing on “UnReal” and similarly underused for years) it feels like the accumulation of many years of hard work.

Her role in “Black-ish” taps into many truths about Ross herself. Like Ross, her character Bow is the daughter of a black mother and a white father (ingeniously played by Anna Deavere Smith and Beau Bridges in hilarious cameos), living in a relatively affluent environment where wealth and resources do not equal a post-racial experience in the slightest. While the series seems much more slanted towards the experiences of Dre (Anthony Anderson, also Emmy nominated), it is Ross who leaps through and spins gold out of less screentime and focus on her character. The Emmys will always nominate people who seem to be coasting, riding on the fumes of a once fiercely interesting role. That's why it's great cause for celebration when they look just a hair to the left and cite people who are truly deserving and have scarcely been recognized.

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Reader Comments (14)

Ross' nomination feels like Regina King's win from last year, acknowledgment of an unsung veteran of the medium. Add Niecy Nash getting nomination two for Getting On, and I couldn't be more satisfied by underdog veterans of color of the female persuasion getting their due from the TV Academy.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I really knew nothing about her career because I don't tend to watch sitcoms (allergies to laugh tracks kept me away from a ton of series). but this was a good read and I'm considering trying out Blackish because the reviews are really good. I tried Fresh Off the Boat for the same reason and really liked it though I don't watch it religiously.

Also I didn't even know she was Diana Ross's daughter! lol

July 15, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Feeling embarassed that I didn't know she was Diana's daughter..

I don't watch Blackish but I'm sold on TER based soley on her Broad City appearance!!

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBrooooke

She had such a fun guest appearance on Broad City this year that I'm glad she got nominated for something (which strangely I thought was impossible even though Anthony Anderson got a nod last year). I would love if Broad City got more love next year, they certainly had buzz worthy possible guest star nominations but SNL always zaps the category. Blackish is a fun show that will hopefully continue to get nominated in the future too.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJames

She's so much fun off screen and on, I was so so happy for her when her name was called! It's a well deserved nomination for sure.

Even if I didn't already know it, I would wonder if she was related to Diana, I mean LOOK at those eyes.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

My #1 desire was for her to get nominated so I was over the moon!
Very deserved. Even if she doesn't get nominated again, she will always be EMMY-NOMINATED. lol. Yas.

Her wonky eyes kind of unnerve me at times, but I love her.

I can't believe so many didn't know she was Diana Ross' daughter. Come on now. haha.

July 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Tracee introduced her mom at the top of her (delightful) concert at the Hollywood Bowl tonight. And she couldn't stop gushing about her Emmy nod. It was adorable.

July 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Yes, Kieran!! I adore her, so this post was a treat.

Nathaniel - I have the exact same laugh track aversion and have a hard time with sitcoms with that brand of humor even when there's no laugh track (part of why I hated "Real O'Neals") - but I LOVE "Black-ish". So yes, watch!

July 16, 2016 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

Chris -- wait so does it does it not have a laugh track?

July 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It's laugh track free for Black-ish.

July 16, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Nathaniel - no laugh track, but it is very laugh track-y humor where you can imagine a lesser show would put them in

July 16, 2016 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

I'm really considering trying out Blackish just because of her. Probably the most beautiful woman on TV right now. Fascinating.

July 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Very similar to Fresh off the Boat in its laugh-track free yet gag-filled dialogue. Ross and her mother-in-law played by Jenifer Lewis are easily the best in show.

July 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

Ross could win for Blackish. She is so wonderful in it.

July 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Rossi

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