Film & Television

Television’s Women of Color, Then and Now

Another Rhimes vehicle is How to Get Away with Murder, starring Viola Davis, who has been honored with an Emmy and two SAG Awards for her portrayal of brilliant — and emotionally damaged — law professor Annalise Keating. Now in its sixth and final season, the series has been a hit with both critics and audiences. Davis, who also has two Tony Awards and an Oscar for other roles, can’t say enough about how rewarding it’s been to play the very complicated Annalise. “I’m 52 and darker than a paper bag. Women who look like me are relegated to the back of the bus, auditioning for crackheads and mammas and the person with a hand on her hip who is always described as ‘sassy’ or ‘soulful’,” she told Net-a-Porter. “I’ve had a 30-year career and I have rarely gotten roles that are fleshed out, even a little bit.”

USA Network’s Pearson is a spin-off of its successful show Suits, and stars Cuban-American actress Gina Torres. Playing arguably the toughest lawyer at her firm, Torres is excited to dig deeper into the same character’s personal side. After being disbarred (for defending fraudulent lawyer Mike Ross), Jessica Pearson returns to her hometown of Chicago and takes a job working for the city’s mayor. “In the first episode of Pearson, she is in the midst of a rebirth,” Torres enthuses, “She wants to do better, she wants to be better, but can she be different? Because she does have this skillset, and it’s seductive, and it’s expedient, and we don’t want her to lose that, but we do want her to retain her soul.”

A final example is the new CBS series All Rise. The show, which premiered last month, has had mixed reviews but earned praise for its star, African-American actress Simone Missick. Missick is best known for her recurring role as Misty Knight in three of the recent Marvel comics movies. In All Rise, she portrays newly appointed judge Lola Carmichael, who puts true justice ahead of business-as-usual courtroom politics and process. Missick recently described her character to TV Guide this way: “I think her goal is to be a disruptor and to be a change-maker. She really wants to bring humanity back to a system that she feels has lost it, has lost the feeling of needing to look at the person and not the crime that’s before them. Lola wants nothing more than to have that filter through the other judges, the other lawyers, the other prosecutors in the building. So, case-by-case, she’s looking to challenge people, to say, ‘You can do better. You can do more. You can fight harder. You can try harder for your defendant, for the client, for the accused, for the deceased.’ She’s looking to give a voice to the voiceless and the power to the disempowered. It’s a really great thing to watch her do that and to navigate a system like that.”

If there’s something all of these leading characters have in common, it’s that they are complicated and multidimensional. These are meaty roles and the actresses playing them feel particularly fortunate to do so. Every time a series like Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder becomes a cultural phenomenon, it gets easier to greenlight a Pearson or an All Rise. But, in terms of pure numbers, in terms of percentage of new shows starring women of color? The networks still have a long way to go. After all, it’s been more than 50 years since Julia first aired.

Diahann Carroll was pleased but modest about her contribution to diversity in entertainment because of that show. “I like to think I opened doors for other women,” she once said, but added, “Although that wasn’t my original intention.”

Another famous quote from Carroll might be good advice for any marginalized women challenging the status quo in Hollywood or elsewhere. “If you’re not invited to the party, throw your own.”

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