For some African American women, the scripting of a professional African American woman being treated somewhat like Sally Hemings, the concubine and corporate property of President Thomas Jefferson, is scandalous. It headlines Kerry Washington, the first black actress to star in a network TV dramatic series in almost 40 years. This network ban on black actresses is also scandalous. So since this cool-hearted adulteress, sexual predator, conspirator to murder who cleans up the messes whites make at the highest level as TV’s Beulah once did at the lowest level in the 1950s and sleeps with the boss is so brilliantly acted, shouldn’t we just shut up and hope for better scripts?
In case you have missed the series, “Scandal” is a political thriller that follows the inner sanctum of the nasty, dirty even murderous wheeling and dealing in and around the White House. Olivia Pope, the beautiful and brainy political fixer-mistress is played by Washington, who leads a team of lawyers, hackers and evil doers. Pope is having an off and on affair with the president of the United States, Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III, played by Tony Goldwyn.
The scene that brought me personal grief was last week when the married president pushed the professional bad girl into a screening room to have too much raunchy sex for primetime audiences and then dumped her. She then returns to her job to continue cleaning up the political messes going on all around, supposedly awaiting to be used again.
I thought, “Well just in time for Black History Month here comes a storyline that drags the image of the African American women back into the shameful tradition of the past, where white men often had a black concubine on the side who was their personal property.” While some think of TV drama as just fictional entertainment, I think of it as an educational bloodline that transports culture and values throughout society for better or worse. The problem here is lack of diversity. If there were as many black women starring in dramatic roles as there are whites, one sexualized image would hardly matter.
Tynia Canada, a mother of two in Columbia, Md. working on her master’s degree in clinical psychology at Capella University, says the script worries her: “What I fear is it sends a message to women, especially black women, that no matter how smart you are, brains may help you achieve advancement, but it is sex that helps you hold onto it. Olivia could have chosen the black U.S. Senator who wanted to marry her, but she is chasing power through adultery, not a good message for our young women.”
The larger scandal, of course, is the black-out on African American actresses in dramatic TV and movie roles.
“It is a grim situation,” offers Donald Bogle, film historian and author who teaches at New York University’s Tish School of the Arts and at the University of Pennsylvania. “There are no black female stars comparable to Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson or Morgan Freeman who are sought out for highly paid dramatic roles, although actresses such as Angela Bassett and Cicely Tyson would certainly qualify.”
Often, as seemingly with “Scandal,” blacks who achieve stardom in Hollywood do so by playing roles that are amoral, indecent or demeaning. For example, despite the many powerful roles Denzel starred in, such as “Malcolm X,” it was the evil cop he portrayed in “Training Day” that awarded him an Oscar for best actor. In an interview, the writer of “Training Day” said the script was written for a white actor but he felt a black actor as evil would be more credible.
Similarly, Halle Berry’s sexually ravishing role in “Monster’s Ball” broke the color barrier that had stood for 74 years when she was awarded an Oscar for best actress in 2002. In her acceptance speech, she saw her win as a door open for every nameless, faceless woman to walk in her footsteps.
And so enter Kerry Washington and Shonda Rhimes, one of the few black women to break through the barriers of writing and producing in TV. She wrote and launched the highly successful “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” and now “Scandal”.
The success of “Scandal” may be the door opener Berry predicted, but there are nagging questions. Do all the black women on network TV have to be sexualized? Can they have families? Do they have to be naughty rather than nice?
Bogle has his doubts for now. “If you watch closely, Olivia is a black woman without the trappings of a black culture. Her home is generic; no black art or even black girlfriends. No pictures of her family. You are reminded that she is about sex and power but racial themes and cultural markings are a subtext. The black woman as a sex object is still the fantasy of some of the white men who run the industry and writers and actresses generally have to work that premise.”
Oprah Winfrey found a way to flip the script as a talk show host, when most of day time talk was overly sensational and bizarre, so I still hope “Scandal”, my favorite show, will not only be a door opener but also rescue and redeem Olivia.
Script changes could allow Olivia to trade in her adulterous affair for the black brother, Edison, played by Norm Lewis, who has offered to marry her. She could be liberated from her shady dealings and run for president and win it without rigging it, as many think President Bush did in 2004. She could go to a black church, ask for forgiveness and fall out on the altar.
Tyler Perry could pull off any of those scenes, but for mainstream TV, we just might be stuck with the black woman as anti-heroic sexual objects while we hope for better.
Reynolds is an ordained minister, a columnist for TheRootDC and the author of six books, including “Out of Hell & Living Well: Healing From the Inside Out.” She is a former editor and columnist for USA Today.
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