#TVLessWhite – How African-American Women are Owning the Small Screen


In light of the recent Oscar nominations announcement which disappointingly saw all acting slots up for grabs go to an all-white cast for the second consecutive year, I was forced to ask myself which side of the quickly ensuing debate I was on. Could it really be possible that there were simply no black actors worthy of an award? That there were no Hispanic film stars deserving of a moment in the limelight to thank their fans and their peers?

I soon realised that I’m just not a big enough film buff to offer suggestions of those who could have perhaps been nominated this year. So I turned my thinking towards TV, which after many 4am weeknight binges and countless disruptions from Netflix asking ‘are you still there?’ I’d like to think I’m pretty clued up on. I thought about the three TV shows I’m alternating between right now, and what did I find? All of their storylines are based around African-American women in positions of power. Not only that, the actors in those roles are absolutely owning it, and are often what makes the show so enjoyable.

Suits is one of the many American legal dramas currently running on the small screen, and is set in a top of the game Manhattan law firm run by cofounder Jessica Pearson, played by Gina Torres. The main attraction of the show may be the comical father-son-like partnership of the ruthless Harvey Specter and his associate, however Jessica is the sophisticated and collected overseer of everything that happens at the firm, and what she says, goes. Although Harvey succeeds in pretty much never losing a case, this is a feat only matched by Jessica, and everything that Harvey knows he learned from Jessica. As much as I like Harvey, it’s refreshing to see a TV show where the arrogant and privileged white male lead is frequently brought down a peg or two by a black woman. Torres brings an air of deserved authority and invincibility to Jessica – you just know that she’s fought her way to the top and guards her throne wisely. Not only is Suits a thrilling watch and probably one of the reasons I’m not going to be attending my 9am’s, but in terms of race and gender representation it’s one of the most progressive shows out there.

Now, it would simply be wrong of me to celebrate successful black female actors without even mentioning Kerry Washington, who I’m constantly in awe of in her hit political series Scandal. Washington plays the powerful and determined Olivia Pope, a role that’s earned her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Olivia is the founder of her firm and works closely with the Whitehouse handling any unwanted crises that may incite disgrace or humiliation upon the American government. So in other words, the legacy and representation of the world’s most important government is in the hands of a black woman, and she does a pretty good job of cleaning up all the political corruption. Washington is the first black woman to play a lead role in an American drama in forty years, a move that the network saw as ‘taking a risk’. Well, they need to take more ‘risks’ as the show’s success will surely open up the door for many more black female actors in Hollywood.

If you have a subscription to Netflix, then you may have seen the successful How to get away with Murder floating about your suggestions. After a career in TV and film of almost twenty years, Viola Davis landed her first lead role in a network series and the question on every viewer’s mind can only be – how has it taken this long? Playing the role of Annalise Keating, the passionate and fearless defence attorney and law school professor, Davis became the first African American to win an Emmy for the award of ‘Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series’. Headstrong, uncompromising, and deserving of her success, Annalise is a character that should no doubt be an inspiration for the show’s black female audience.

Hollywood is gradually becoming easier and fairer for racial minorities to find work, but are the whitewashed, prestigious award ceremonies holding this change back? Should it matter who gets awards and who is left out? While I think positive representation and inclusion of racial minorities in film and TV is more important than the yearly award ceremonies, people of colour are not getting the fair recognition of their talent they deserve, and until that changes Hollywood will unfortunately remain an elitist and discriminatory industry.

[Mark Cunningham]

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