Actress Kerry Washington is generating a great deal of excitement with her latest role as the star of ABC’s newest show, Scandal. The hour-long drama is a vehicle of producer Shonda Rhimes, of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice fame, and is the first to be centered around a black woman, Washington’s crisis manager, Judy Smith.
With black women filling the roles of executive producer (Rhimes), producer (Smith) and lead actress (Washington), Scandal, even before its premiere last night, has brought a whiff of optimism to African-American women in entertainment.
“I think it’s a really special time to be a woman of color in this business. The landscape of who has the power is changing,” she told Essence in a recent interview, “We are in more influential positions and are able to have a say in the stories that are told.”
Following an awards season that shone a spotlight on talents like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer from the hit film, The Help, and with news that Gabrielle Union will be the lead of a Mara Brock Akil show that’s set to air on BET, Washington has good reason to be optimistic. Washington herself will be seen alongside Eddie Murphy, Diahann Carroll and Jamie Foxx in three separate movies over the next year. She tells Essence, “I feel very lucky to be in this business now.”
But is one actress’ good fortune applicable to the rest of black women working in Hollywood? There’s little doubt that Scandal will deliver the drama and draw a fan base, seeing as how its creator, Shonda Rhimes, is the mastermind behind ABC cash cows Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy.
Call it the “Shonda Effect,” if you will — the almost-solid guarantee that anything Rhimes touches will bring in the viewers and the dollars. Outside of Rhimes, though, it’s still difficult to tell whether shows led by black women will draw the support they need to not only survive, but thrive.
Take the cop drama, Southland, led by Regina King. Though the show has a loyal fan base, it was cancelled after airing just seven episodes of its first season on NBC. TNT eventually picked up the show and just concluded its fourth season. Yet, despite critical acclaim, Southland again may be on the verge of cancellation. And last year, TNT canned Jada Pinkett Smith’s HawthoRNe after three seasons.
While The Help showed that the film industry may be getting better at recognizing great black lead actresses (albeit in controversial roles), the small screen has yet show that it’s as friendly.
So it’s hard to jump up and down and celebrate a new dawn for black women on TV just yet, even if Kerry Washington is leading a drama that’s expected to be a hit. The final verdict won’t be in until the ratings are, or until the show continually draws good reviews and is picked up beyond a first season.
It will be easier to have more faith in Hollywood’s relationship with black actresses once Hollywood shows it’s committed to that relationship. It will be easier when black actresses become more visible in roles across the spectrum, (think fantasy hits like Harry Potter, or romantic dramas like The Notebook) and not just ones that call for an African-American female.
It would be nice, too, to see more unknown black ingenues suddenly become household names thanks to a hit show or film, much like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Kristin Stewart in Twilight or Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Surely there is a young brown face out there who can draw America’s fascination in the same way, given the right script and a good PR push. It wouldn’t hurt either to see a brown face included in Vanity Fair’s annual (and consistently overwhelmingly white) Hollywood cover.
It may be an exciting time to try new things as a black actress in Hollywood, but it’s still Hollywood. And there’s still a ways to go. Nothing is more telling than Kerry Washington’s recounting of a luncheon where she rubbed elbows with scores of other black actresses, many of whom had auditioned for Scandal. Upon seeing Washington, they told her, “You have to bring it. For all of us.”
Veronica Miller can be found on Twitter at @veronicamarche.