You can’t talk about Black Women in Television in 2015 without talking about Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington, and Viola Davis. Rhimes, through her typewriter, has brought forth many interesting characters none moreso than Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating.
Olivia and Annalise are complicated, complex Black women. Not the long suffering angels…..but, smart, beautiful, complex Black women with all sorts of flaws that make them oh-so-human.
SHONDA RHIMES ON POWER, FEMINISM, AND POLICE BRUTALITY
The mastermind behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, Shonda Rhimes is the most powerful person making TV right now. On the eve of her first book, Year of Yes—an account of the transformative year she spent saying just that (out November 10)— she sits down with ELLE Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers to talk about creating 3-D characters, TV with a point of view, and complicated endings.
BY ROBBIE MYERS
SEP 23, 2015 @ 2:12 PM
Rhimes, 45, grew up in Chicago—her father was a professor (he was the CIO at the University of Southern California); her mother earned a PhD in educational administration after raising six children. Graduating from Dartmouth (where she gave a rousing commencement address last year), Rhimes found her way to film school at USC and, eventually, to one scriptwriting success after another. Grey’s Anatomy earned her a Golden Globe for best TV drama in 2007—the same year she made Time magazine’s hot 100 list; and she recently completed a trifecta of awards from the Writers, Producers, and Directors Guilds of America.
Rhimes’s production company is one of the few left in Hollywood that can still make appointment television. It’s more monarchy than nation-state (I mean, it’s called Shondaland, after all), with Rhimes firmly in charge—her mind constantly churning not just with the details of running a corporation that employs more than 550 people (actors, writers, directors, makeup artists, camera operators…) but also with each of her characters’ stories and how they intersect with the defining issues of our time: racism, sexism, politics, war, and economic inequality among them. But Rhimes’s shows are never nakedly polemical. They’re sexy, frank, funny, touching, dramatic, talky, action-packed, and, above all, character-driven. The mere fact of Shondaland, and Rhimes’s ability to front television’s biggest shows starring complex, conflicted women, is, in the annals of the medium, downright revolutionary. She and I met at Katsuya restaurant in L.A. for an hours-long conversation that covered all manner of topics, including her upcoming show The Catch, premiering in 2016. A conversation that, at the end, felt like it was just getting started.
ROBBIE MYERS: You’ve talked about what you do with your work and the idea of “normalizing”—of getting rid of the idea of the “other.”
SHONDA RHIMES: The entire world is skewed from the white male perspective. If you’re a woman, they have to say it’s a female-driven comedy. If it’s a comedy with Latinos in it, it’s a Latino comedy. “Normal” is white male, and I find that to be shocking and ridiculous.
RM: I’m so interested in what I’ll call the Michael Brown episode of Scandal, where Marcus says to Olivia, “Your black card’s not getting validated today.” I thought, Wow, I’ve never heard that on TV. But it does bring up the idea—and people will be talking about this a lot now that we’re in an election cycle—that there’s a monolithic black community. It’s the same thing for women—”the women’s vote,” as if….
SR: That episode was very interesting for us because Zahir McGhee, whose name is on the episode, [and] I basically wrote it together. He really did a good job with it, but [we] couldn’t be from more different worlds: He wanted Marcus to have attended a black college, and I didn’t want him to—I thought it meant something different. It was just a giant battle that we waged about every detail because [McGhee] was a young black man from Baltimore, and I grew up a lot like Olivia Pope. I was trying to explain to him, There is this weird belief from people on the outside and from people in black communities that there is only one way to be black. And I say it in the writers’ room all the time: My Black Is Not Your Black. What’s terrifying is that, just the same way we’ve all accepted that normal is white, everybody seems to buy into the idea that there’s only one way to be black or one way to be Hispanic. That’s as damaging as anything else.
RM: With that episode [in which a 17-year-old black man is killed by a white cop], you responded almost in real time.
SR: That’s what was both heartbreaking and ironically, sadly, fortuitous. I woke up knowing that we were going to go write “The Lawn Chair” after Ferguson. I watched that coverage and was horrified. I woke up the next morning with this image of this man, of a lawn chair and a shotgun and a child underneath him. The episode came out of that. We shot that episode in October or November. I remember thinking, This is going to feel dated when it comes out. And then the police just kept killing black men. Literally the [day before] it aired, they released the Ferguson Report, and it was worse than the press had ever thought.
RM: The episode of Murder where Viola [Davis] takes off the wig and her makeup attracted a lot of commentary. She’s said that for her it’s about showing the messes. But I don’t think that there’s a woman who watched that show who didn’t identify with the two me’s.
SR: The woman you are in public—the two faces.
RM: Do you feel like one of those women is more authentic than the other?
SR: I don’t know. I feel like it was, to me, the most iconic feminist moment I’ve ever seen on television. She pitched it when we were trying to get her to do this series, and I thought, Wow. I feel like, for Viola, one is more real than the other. For [Annalise], it was the mask she presents to society, and the person she’s been trying to hide all this time.
RM: There was a lot written about when she took off the wig, and that there was yet another layer there for many black women.…
SR: We heard from a lot of women about that. Hair is so complex. Literally. There is an assumption about the hair that Olivia Pope had when she was lying on the beach last season, like: “Oh, why couldn’t she be as real?” I was like, She is. That’s how Kerry’s hair looks when she doesn’t blow-dry it! Every woman looks different. My black is not your black. Viola was very clear about this: I’m a dark-skinned woman with a dark-skinned woman’s hair, and that woman is never revealed on television—that kind of hair is never revealed. And I think that was a powerful moment. I’ve never seen that kind of woman get to exist on network television and get to be three-dimensional and have someone love her.
RM: People ask you, Why does Olivia only go out with white guys? She doesn’t, but she is in love with the president.
SR: She is in love with the white, Republican president. She is in love with the man her father could not be more unlike. And that is what Rowan has been railing against. If you take it to its bare bones, metaphor scrubbed away, she is in love with the thing that her black father, who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, could not be more disgusted by.
RM: That relationship is really intense and complicated.
SR: It’s very Shakespearean. I’m kind of obsessed with it. [For] their first big scene together in that airplane hangar, I wrote this draft, and everybody read it and they were like, “This is crazy! Nobody behaves this way!” I said this to the writers’ room: When Olivia’s father shows up, blackness shows up. All of the enraged black people who are watching this show, they show up with Rowan. He’s pissed off. He’s very disappointed in his daughter. He has raised her to be somebody completely different. He’s been [working for a secret spy agency], but from his perspective, he’s a very good guy doing the best he can and trying to get her on the right road. I have great love for him; I think he’s a very interesting character.
RM: I do too. And the actor.
SR: Joe Morton is amazing. That character wouldn’t be that character if he weren’t played that way by Joe Morton.