Black Women Are Leading a Cultural Movement through TV

Yesterday, Shonda Rhimes was on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter’s new issue. The caption underneath her read, “This is TV’s savior.” This came just one day after Viola Davis performed one of the most important scenes in recent pop culture on “How to Get Away with Murder” (a show that Rhimes serves as executive producer of): Davis’ character, Annalise Keating, is shown removing her wig, running her hands through her natural hair, and stripping off her makeup. This is an idea Davis had herself, and pitched to the series creator, Peter Nowalk.

This weekend, the highly anticipated film “Dear White People” was released in select major cities across the country. Lena Waithe served as a producer on the film, which is already being celebrated by fans and critics alike. She has also had a number of successful new media projects—“Hello Cupid” and “Twenties”—which eventually led to her gaining a development deal with BET earlier this year. The indie film, funded in part by regular people through Kickstarter, has sparked many critical conversations about race and identity in the U.S.

Two weeks ago, Issa Rae premiered her new production venture, ColorCreative.TV, in which she co-produced three comedy pilots presented online. She recently announced a call for the next round of ColorCreative projects, which will focus on dramatic pilots. This all after gaining a huge amount of success as writer and star of “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” which led to her creating her eponymous production company and penning development deals with both ABC and HBO.

Indeed, it appears that Black women are having a “moment” in pop culture, entertainment, and media. Or rather, they have been having a moment for quite some time. In fact, I think it is fair to say Black women are leading an important movement of contemporary artists, storytellers, and culture-makers, changing the way mainstream audiences consume and respond to content about women, people of color, and those who identify as LGBTQ.

This is a welcome, necessary cultural shift.

During the first decade of the 2000’s, it seemed as though Black artists were creating work being ignored by wider audiences—especially works created by and featuring Black women. This is not to say that popular TV shows or films featuring Black women’s stories did not exist during this time. (As an example, “Girlfriends” remains of the best and well-loved sitcoms about African-American women for many.) But these few stand-alone shows do not compare to all of the Black Excellence that existed during the late 1970’s through the early 1990’s. From “The Jeffersons” to the Huxtables, from “Living Single” to “Moesha,” we saw a wide variety of representations about Black life. And we saw many diverse, complex, empowering representations of Black women. But any progress made during the last two decades of the 20th century was countered, as much of the TV and movies released in the last 15 years seemed to get whiter and whiter. Thus, the portrayals of Black women became more limited: we got to be the Sassy Sidekick, the Angry Black Woman, the Jezebel, and the Reality TV Caricature… and not much else.

But there are a number of extraordinarily talented Black women pushing back. And both behind and in front of the camera, they are insisting that Black women be seen, heard, and have our full humanity, brilliance, and individuality recognized. This 2014-2015 primetime television season alone is showcasing more Black actresses in leading or co-starring roles than ever before in history. From Octavia Spencer on “The Red Band Society,” Nicole Beharie on “Sleepy Hollow,” and Angela Basset on “American Horror Story,” Black women are giving us—and their characters—life across various networks and genres. They are putting in work as creators and executives, as well. Miss Rhimes is not the only Black woman writer, producer, and showrunner—Courtney Kemp Agboh is the creator and showrunner of the popular Starz network show “Power,” and Mara Brock Akil has had two hit shows with “The Game” and “Being Mary Jane.”

We owe so much of this to the Internet, which has given content producers the opportunity to create high quality projects, without relying on the validation, resources, and financial support of mainstream studios (often owned and run by white men). Additionally, the realm of new media has allowed for a breadth of diverse voices and perspectives to emerge. These women are proving you can talk about “controversial” issues such as race, class, gender, and sexuality while still entertaining and engaging viewers. They are proving that these characters can exist as more than the sum parts of their race or gender—none of these shows’ main plots focus explicitly on being Black women. (Though, I’m sure millions would watch and love a show that did explore this candidly.) Lastly, they are proving that audiences crave this kind of “diversity.” Yes, people want the media they watch to be reflective of the world they live in. (Shocking!)

Time will be the determining factor of how we remember this unprecedented era of Black women’s creative genius. But I think we can all agree: something magical is happening, and it feels damn good to see our sistahs shine.

Photo credit: ABC

Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, storyteller, and performer from Southern California. She is currently the editorial assistant at For Harriet. For more of her work, follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and visit her website.

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