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.
Ms. Kerry Goes to Washington: The First Lady of Scandal Speaks
JULY 31, 2013 8:00 PM
Kerry Washington says she’s not Olivia Pope, the powerful fixer—and presidential mistress—she plays on ABC’s hit drama Scandal. But whether it’s her political activism, the way she inspires her colleagues, or the strategic savvy that made the show a Twitter sensation, Washington flashes more than a little Pope in her offscreen persona. David Kamp explores the mind (and style) of the woman behind television’s complicated new heroine.
In real life, the hair is more tousled and less workplace-professional, with ribbony streaks of punkish orange mixed in with the natural black. The speaking voice is more singsong and girlish, half an octave up in register. The face, freer to smile, unburdened by crises personal or constitutional, is more beautiful still.
Than? Given that it’s Kerry Washington being described, and that it’s the middle of 2013, we’re clearly not talking about any of the characters she has played in major motion pictures over the last decade: Django’s wife in Django Unchained, say, or Idi Amin’s wife in The Last King of Scotland, or Ray Charles’s wife in Ray. We’re talking, obviously, about Olivia Pope.
For the uninitiated, Olivia Pope is the central figure in ABC’s Thursday-night drama Scandal: the most powerful fixer in Washington, D.C., a woman whose firm, Olivia Pope and Associates, runs interference for high-profile clients in tight spots, be it a wifeless G.O.P. gubernatorial candidate with gay-rumor issues or a female C.E.O. whose long-ago affair with a current Supreme Court nominee is driving the news cycle. That’s the procedural part of the show, anyway. There is also the matter of Olivia’s being the on-again, off-again extramarital lover of the president of the United States, for whom she used to work. This circumstance, combined with the fact that she is privy to and complicit in some whopping state secrets—for instance, that ballot fixing played a role in getting the president, Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), elected—gives the show its long arc and its hummingbird pulse.
But c’mon: this is a smart, formidable woman. Like Law & Order before it, which introduced new scenes with a gavel-like ch-CHUNK, Scandal announces scene shifts with a trademark sound effect—in this case, a digitized camera-shutter whir (K-ssss! F-t-t-t, k-ssss, k-ssss!). At times, listening to Washington speak is like hearing that sound—synapses firing urgently, thoughts being thoroughly microprocessed. It is not every TV star who will carefully parse the semiotic significance of her character’s overcoats, down to the “feminine peplums,” or will enumerate, in PowerPoint detail, the three pillars of Scandal’s social-media strategy. Kerry Washington may not be Olivia Pope, but Olivia Pope has more than a little Kerry Washington in her DNA.
“Gladiators in Suits”
Washington is a native New Yorker, born in 1977 to two Bronx-based professionals, Earl Washington, a real-estate agent, and Valerie Washington, a professor of early elementary education at Lehman College. Hers was a socially conscious upbringing. At 13, Kerry, an only child, was taken to Yankee Stadium to see the newly freed Nelson Mandela speak, and upon turning 18, she recalled, “my becoming a voting citizen was celebrated the way other people would celebrate a Sweet 16. My parents took me out to dinner, and we talked about who I was going to vote for.”
From her pre-teen years through 12th grade, Washington attended the Spence School, an elite all-girls academy on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. One of her best friends then was Allison Peters, like Washington an African-American girl who commuted to school from the Bronx. Peters, now a digital-strategy consultant who advises clients (Washington among them) on how to harness the power of social media, recalls a “Cosby-like atmosphere” prevailing in the Washington household—“a sense,” Peters told me, “of really caring about education, but with warmth and a family environment rather than pressure.”
Still, Kerry was a rather driven youngster, the kind of girl who took up swimming because her parents told her it was the one sport in which proficiency might mean the ability to save a life. And, being a teen at the height of the red-ribbon era of AIDS awareness, she became a safe-sex advocate, participating, via Mount Sinai Hospital’s Adolescent Health Center, in an educational troupe that performed self-written sex-ed sketches in schools and community centers. In one sketch, she played a girl who helped her brother come to terms with the fact that their father, infected with H.I.V., was gay. In another, she advised a pal, pre-prom, on how to put on a condom, using a banana as a prop.
“It was some of the best actor training I’ve ever had,” Washington said. “We would stay in character after the show, and the audience would interact with us. It taught me the importance of really understanding everything about who you’re playing, because you never knew what question was going to come.” Though she harbored thoughts of becoming a teacher or a psychologist, Washington continued to act through high school and college, and, at the age of 23, landed her first significant film role: as the teen-mom confidante of Julia Stiles’s character in Save the Last Dance, a tale of urban inter-racial romance whose hard lessons were not unlike those enacted in her troupe’s safe-sex sketches. Washington has not lacked for work since and has also established herself as a progressive political activist, serving on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and delivering a speech in support of the president at last year’s Democratic National Convention.
Scandal’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, and her producing partner, Betsy Beers, cast a wide net in seeking out their Olivia Pope, auditioning a large number of African-American actresses in 2011. (Olivia was conceived as a black woman because her inspiration, Judy Smith, is black.) Washington knew she was one of many in competition for the role—the actress Gabrielle Union has said in interviews that she, too, read for the part—and recalled that, in her initial meeting with Rhimes and Beers, “there was a feeling like a Western combined with a first date: sort of checking each other out from across the main street. We didn’t know each other.” Within a few minutes, though, said Washington, “that all went out the window.” Rhimes and Washington proved eminently simpatico (sharing, for example, a proclivity for mainlining popcorn, a trait they would impute to Olivia), and Scandal had its star.
Scandal, in a sense, upholds Washington’s tradition of righteousness through theater, though it has a funny way of doing so. It seems to be set slightly in the future, in a wondrous time when it is unremarkable that the White House chief of staff is an openly gay man, the vice president is a woman, the white Republican president is in love with an African-American woman, and this woman happens to run a crackerjack consulting firm with a racially mixed, gender-balanced staff. The hitch is the show’s characters don’t inhabit a Utopian peace-and-harmony futureworld like the one in the original Star Trek TV series, where diversity was an indicator of how enlightened civilization had become. Rather, Scandal is rife with slimeballs, cover-ups, and double, triple, and quadruple crosses. Its measure of equality is that everyone is empowered to be ruthless and cynical.
Viola Davis on Her Groundbreaking Emmy Win: ‘I Felt Like I Fulfilled a Purpose’
SEPTEMBER 23, 2015 | 09:30AM PT
Executive Editor, TV
COVER STORY: Fellow nominee Taraji P. Henson stood and applauded. Kerry Washington cried. But of all those moved by Viola Davis’ historic win at the Sept. 20 Emmy Awards, perhaps the most appreciative was a former 6-year-old girl who once lost the Miss Center Falls Recreation title.
“I keep expecting to be that little girl who loses the contest,” Davis tells Variety, after just four hours’ sleep at an early morning photo shoot at The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles. “It’s a mixture of disbelief and joy and acceptance. It’s just beautiful.”
Davis has earned a spot in the Emmy record books — as the first black woman to win for lead actress in a drama — sparking an outpouring of support on social media. The win, along with those of Regina King (supporting actress in a limited series for “American Crime”) and Uzo Aduba (supporting actress in a drama for “Orange Is the New Black”), was a resounding statement on diversity, especially in a year when the Academy Awards faced criticism for the lack thereof.
But, Davis says, the award also struck a far more personal chord.
Davis grew up impoverished; she didn’t even meet her sister, Diane, until she was 5 and Diane was 9, because their parents couldn’t afford to raise them together. When Diane was finally brought to Rhode Island, recalls Davis, she looked at the rundown apartment the family was living in and told her sister, “If this is not what you want in your life, what do you want to do?”
“I remember not having an answer,” recalls Davis. “And for years, I searched.”
At the ceremony, she says, she finally found her golden ticket, a la “Willy Wonka.” “What it meant for me to win the Emmy is I found it,” she says, choking up. “It’s not just the award. It’s what it’s going to mean to young girls — young brown girls, especially. When they saw a physical manifestation of a dream, I felt like I had fulfilled a purpose.”
• • • • •
Davis will be the first one to tell you her success did not happen overnight. Driven by her passion for acting, she eventually found her way from poverty to Juilliard. Now 50, she’s got a long list of credits — from film to theater to television.
Backstage at the Emmys, she talked openly about her longevity in the business — as well as her struggles with unemployment. “You guys have to realize, I’ve been in this business 35 years, and 27 years professionally,” she told reporters. “I’m the journeyman actor that you saw in one scene here, two scenes there. I’ve been eking out a living doing theater — Broadway, Off Broadway — film supporting roles, that I’m just excited to be a part of the conversation.”
There’s no resting on her laurels for the newly minted Emmy winner: As soon as the photo shoot wrapped, the star of ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” was already back at work on her hit show, where she was greeted with whoops and hollers by her castmates.
The third building block in ABC’s ratings powerhouse TGIT lineup, “Murder” follows the tumultuous personal and professional life of Davis’ Annalise Keating, a defense lawyer and law professor who dangerously finds herself just as consumed in the lives of her students as she is in her clients’ complex cases.
“I’m an O.G.,” she says, announcing her “original gangsta” cred to the well-wishers who complimented her on her eloquent acceptance speech. “I’ve been doing this for 27 years.”
That speech quoted Underground Railroad founder Harriet Tubman: “In my mind, I see a line,” Davis said. “And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”
Along with her husband, Julius Tennon, Davis is working on a project about Tubman for HBO — and says when she found that quote, she thought it was progressive and apropos for what proved to be a historic occasion. “We talk about women constantly in 2015,” she says. “It’s that barrier we’re trying to reach and cross. We dream of it. It seeps into your body: See me for who I am. Accept me for who I am. You see the finish line. And you just always seem to fall short.”
Not any more. The win underscores a watershed moment for diversity in television. “Empire,” “Black-ish” and “Scandal” dominate broadcast ratings, and although Davis was competing against “Empire” star Henson for the trophy, the two women make it clear there is no rivalry between them. “We just whispered to each other, ‘Whoever gets it, it’s great, it’s wonderful, and I love you,’ ” Davis told reporters backstage.