Last night, accepting her People’s Choice Award for Favorite TV Actress, Viola Davis said: “Thank you Shonda Rhimes… for thinking of a leading lady who looks like my classic beauty.” It was a kind of full circle moment, eloquently and subtly referencing the New York Times article from last year that seemed to question Davis and Rhimes’s success even as it attempted to praise it.
With the momentum of “Scandal” and the association with Shondaland, “How to Get Away With Murder” became one of last year’s most widely watched and widely talked about shows. There was, of course, the delicious melodrama of the plot, but in addition the series sparked conversations about race, gender, and representation on the small screen that had been a longtime coming.
But it wasn’t only “How to Get Away with Murder” that ushered in these conversations. Looking back over 2014, there was a gradual but perceptibly distinct shift in the television landscape, and the presence of black female performers in it. It was, after all, the year that brought an unprecedented number of black actresses in major primetime roles. Just two years before, when Kerry Washington debuted on “Scandal,” a black woman hadn’t starred in a network drama since 1974.
And yet last year, in addition to cable shows like “Being Mary Jane,” “The Walking Dead,” and “American Horror Story,” network television post-“Scandal” suddenly had several black female stars. There was Viola of course, but also Halle Berry on the sci-fi miniseries “Extant,” Nicole Beharie on “Sleepy Hollow,” Octavia Spencer on “Red Band Society,” Candice Patton on “The Flash,” and Tracee Ellis Ross on “Blackish.”
It wasn’t just the larger number of actresses that were cropping up, but also the kind of characters they were playing that was significant. These weren’t types, or even variations on the Olivia Pope tough-with-quivering-lips model. There were standout moments that included Viola Davis as Annalise Keating, all at once vulnerable, flawed, and powerful as she removed her wig and wiped off her makeup to confront a husband’s infidelity. There was also the “Sleepy Hollow” episode ‘Mama,’ that shifted focus entirely away from Nicole Beharie’s white male co-star Tom Mison to hone in on the relationship of her character, Abbie Mills, to her sister, and estranged mother – a rarity in genre programming that cemented Beharie’s status as a lead, and not a sidekick on the genre show.
Across the board, the black female characters introduced last year were far more complex and far more engaging than what’s been seen in some time. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t progress that still needs to be made, or problems that still need to be addressed. “Sorority Sisters” had its debut last year, sparking a debate about the harmfulness of so-called "ratchet" reality television and its depictions of black women.
But when we talk about the need for wider representations of black women, both on the big and small screen, there’s something to be said for messiness. Characters like Annalise, or Mary Jane, or Rainbow from “Black-ish,” are messy, but their messiness is acceptable because it comes in a package of respectability – upper middle-class, educated, etc. In the scripted, primetime television world, where are the black characters that fit the opposite end of the spectrum?
Enter “Empire,” a show that, in a lot of ways, marks the culmination of 2014’s shift. While Viola stepped on stage to accept her People’s Choice Award, Taraji P. Henson’s off-the-wall, scenery-chewing Cookie sauntered into a boardroom growling, “You messin’ with the wrong bitch.” The Lee Daniels-produced hip hop series is far, far, far from perfect. It’s cheesy and over-stylized for sure, but a survey of live-tweets during the show’s 9 pm premiere last night revealed that Henson’s performance was engaging enough to keep people watching.
In spite of, or perhaps because of its flaws, “Empire” highlights an even bigger turn in the representation of black women on the small screen. The show’s very existence is a major move – other than “Blackish,” it’s the only other black-executive produced show with a predominantly black cast on network TV. And Taraji as its star, opposite Terrence Howard, brilliantly tows the line of the so-called stereotype and the “respectable” black female lead. She’s messy, she’s complicated, she’s “ratchet” – and she’s worth worth rooting for.
Today, “Empire” joins “Black-ish” and “How to Get Away with Murder” as the highest rated new shows of the 2014-2015 television season. It’s an interesting cross-section of a shifting TV climate, and a wake-up call for execs who still believe that audiences aren’t interested in stories with black women and black people in general at the center. It’s also a reminder that the Cookies, if handled with some nuance, are just as important as the Olivia Popes.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.