Film & Television

Television’s Women of Color, Then and Now

Late last week, the legendary entertainer Diahann Carroll passed away due to complications from breast cancer. She was 84 years old.

Carroll began singing in her Harlem church choir at the age of six; attended New York’s prestigious High School of Music and Art; worked as a model; entered and won televised talent competitions; had a small role in the Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte film Carmen Jones, and was featured on Broadway by the time she was 19.

Richard Rogers was enthralled and wrote the 1962 musical No Strings specifically with her in mind, and she became the first black woman to win a Best Actress Tony. Twelve years later, she earned an Academy Award nomination for her role in the movie Claudine. Decades of film and television roles followed, including four seasons as Dominique Deveraux on the 80s primetime soap Dynasty, a genre and series sorely in need of diversity. Originally meant to be the glamorous nemesis of the show’s evil Alexis, she eventually became a beloved member of the Carrington family.

Carroll was an outspoken advocate of civil rights, testifying before a congressional hearing on Hollywood’s racial bias and participating in the 1963 “March on Washington” alongside Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Marlon Brando, and other performers. She wrote two books, was the first black actress to play Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Sunset Boulevard, and had one child and four husbands.

However, she will always be remembered for one pioneering role, Julia Baker, the professional single mother at the heart of NBC’s 1968 sitcom Julia. In addition to making television history as the first series to star an African-American woman (until then roles for black women were scarce and invariably comprised stereotypes like maids and mammies), it made Carroll a household name.

Today, television offers more opportunities for women of color, especially in larger ensemble casts, like Blackish and This is Us. But, diversity in leading roles is still the exception, not the rule. In fact, considering recent and current broadcast seasons, there are only a handful of examples to speak of.

ABC’s political drama Scandal, which wrapped up its seven seasons last spring, starred Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a D.C. “fixer.” Olivia is smart, stylish, powerful, and complicated. When the show first aired in 2012, Washington told The New York Times, “I wanted ‘Scandal’ to be a success because I wanted networks and studios to believe that people of color and that women can be the driving force — both separately and when you happen to have both. I feel proud that we live in a world where Scandal can succeed. It wasn’t up to me. The variable was the audience: Was the audience going to be ready?” The answer was a resounding “Yes.”

Scandal’s showrunner, Shonda Rhimes, is also responsible for the hit series Grey’s Anatomy now in its 16th season. Although Meredith Grey is portrayed by white actress Ellen Pompeo, Rhimes and her team have created an ensemble of diverse characters, including Miranda Bailey, Chief of Surgery at Seattle Grace Hospital. Bailey is portrayed by African-American actress Chandra Wilson. Although not the show’s lead, per se, Wilson is notable for playing an accomplished physician and authority figure. Nicknamed “the Nazi,” she introduced herself to a new batch of interns in the first season by warning them, “Don’t bother sucking up, ’cause I already hate you and that’s not going to change.” Over time, she has become a more dimensional and even sympathetic character. The role has crossed over into two other Rhimes series: Private Practice and Station 19.

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