Black women are quietly but confidently running the show, one television series at a time.
We all know about the prowess and power of Shonda Rhimes, Mara Brock Akil and Ava DuVernay. Rhimes owns Thursday nights on ABC and Akil is enjoying a multi-year deal with Warner Brothers Television along with her husband, Salim Akil. Meanwhile, DuVernay is both an executive producer and co-showrunner on Queen Sugar. The family drama airs on OWN, the basic-cable network Oprah Winfrey co-owns. (She’s also a Queen Sugar executive producer.)
But one of the most impressive aspects of Black Girl Magic is stealth mode. For instance, of the seven Black women showrunners working in television today – the highest concurrent number in the history of the medium – four are not household names. While most people don’t know who Misha Green, Courtney Kemp, and Erica Shelton Kodish are, they have watched the shows they run: Underground, Powerand Being Mary Jane respectively.
The fourth, Gina Prince-Bythewood, is a showrunner with her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood on Shots Fired. It’s a new Fox drama that premieres in early 2017.
As for Being Mary Jane, after landing the Warner Bros. deal late last year, Akil opted to act as an executive consultant on the hit BET drama.
The boss seat doesn’t end at the showrunner level. For every Rhimes, Akil and DuVernay, there are three dozen sisters grinding as supervising producers, co-executive producers, consulting producers, story editors and directors on everything from Empire to Quantico, giving viewers authentic and relatable viewpoints that could only come from one of us.
“It’s a beautiful time in television and we’re experiencing a renaissance of sorts,” said Dayna Lynne North, the co-executive producer behind HBO’s Insecure. Co-created by Issa Rae, Insecure is only the third comedy created by and starring the same African-American woman. The first was the 2003 Fox sitcom Wanda at Large, which lasted two seasons and came from comedian Wanda Sykes, and the second was Whoopi from comedian Whoopi Goldberg. It aired on NBC for seven months until the spring of 2004.
“Voices are being tapped and there is a hunger for specific voices and stories,” said North, whose writing credits include Veronica Mars and Single Ladies, the latter of which she also co-executive produced. “The audience has had that hunger for a while, but I think that the desire for those voices is finally being recognized and honored. As these stories are being told, more African-American women are being put in the really important position of visionary.
“The glass ceiling has been in place for a while now, but there are so many shows that are breaking through in undeniable ways,” she continued.
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Just look at Insecure, which week after week since its Oct. 9 debut has shown Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) talking candidly and lovingly like only best friends can. On ABC’s How To Get Away with Murder, most viewers don’t know how to shirk homicide charges, but for Black women watching, there was something almost revolutionary about seeing Annalise Keating (Emmy-winning star Viola Davis) getting her weave sewn in with Mary J. Blige doing the honors as a guest star. But take away the weave and Annalise, who is arguably one of the most flawed but authentic characters on the small screen, was just connecting with women who look like her in the sanctum we all know as the beauty shop.
“You watch this and you realize that Black people are human,” Rae told reporters at a Television Critics Association panel regarding the universality of her show Insecure and others like it. “Black people go through the same experiences as everybody else. There’s a tendency in certain cases like media portrayals [that] we are bringing it on ourselves because we tend to be violent by nature. We are constantly approaching the police or there’s always a narrative that’s against us in a way. And I think with this show, it’s just an opportunity to take our mind off of things but also realize, at the end of the day, we are all the same.”
As far as Black women showrunners go, the ability to do the job is equally crucial, says Angela Northington, the Senior Vice President of Content Acquisitions for the Urban Movie Channel.
“The television industry as a whole, seems to be recognizing that there are a number of African-American women who are simply capable of running and delivering a show,” Northington said. “Then you add the storytelling ability and that is a winning formula and the networks are taking notice of what’s working.”
But who can we thank for all of this shot-calling progress – Winfrey, Rhimes, Michelle Obama or Yvette Lee Bowser, who brought us Living Single from 1993 to1998? (Bowser is now a consulting producer onBlack-ish.) Then again, perhaps all of them played a part.
“Absolutely all of the above,” Northington said. “Look at what Shonda’s been able to do across all of her shows. She’s creating characters and themes that are universal but still complex and layered, while employing a lot of African-American women in high-level positions.”
“Oprah has also moved in that direction with OWN,” she said. “It’s a network that provides an opportunity for more creative development, more series development and more opportunities to employ diverse talent.”
To that point, Zoanne Clack is an executive producer on Grey’s Anatomy and Erika Green Swafford (The Mentalist) is the supervising producer on How To Get Away with Murder. Over at OWN, Monica Macer (a former co-executive producer on Nashville) will become the showrunner in season two of Queen Sugar, replacing DuVernay and Melissa Carter. And Kathleen McGhee-Anderson (Lincoln Heights) is joiningGreenleaf as an executive producer in its second season. As you probably guessed, all of these women are Black.
Diversity isn’t just happening among the personnel in front of and behind the camera. It’s also taking place in the kinds of stories being told about Black people and all minority groups, said David White, the national executive director and chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA.
“The deepening of the storytelling is not just connecting to audiences,” White said. “It’s educating audiences and that creates the ability for more storylines and that’s what we’ve been asking for, to a certain extent. If you open it up, you will find a lot of people are interested in things beyond just this and that.”
Viewers of the first season of Underground, for instance, learned that the term “drapetomania” was actually created and used to describe and shun enslaved Black people’s desire to run away. On Insecure, Issa and Molly discussed the problems of dating Hotep brothers, aka militant types, and Scandal let Papa Pope (Emmy winner Joe Morton) extol the never-ending necessity for Black people to be twice as good as their White counterparts in order to do half as well. How’s that for deep storytelling? Because there are more types of Black stories being shared, the pressure has loosened for Black actors and creators.
“Now no show has to be any one thing,” said North of Insecure. “We can represent one specific POV over here and Empire can be the wild and crazy soap opera that it is over there. Empire was never supposed to represent all Black people but now that there are more Black shows to choose from, it doesn’t have to and that’s progress. That’s what they do all the time. Now it’s our time to just live and just be.”
For all the recent strides within the television industry, there still needs to be stronger pipelines to onboard more African-American women and men as showrunners and executive producers, Northington and White agreed. It would also be a step in the right direction if those same Black showrunners weren’t simply relegated to series with predominately Black casts, White said. One example is Pam Veasey, who worked as a showrunner on the mainstream dramas CSI: NY (2004-13) and CSI: Cyber (2015-16). But make no mistake; Veasey’s situation is rare.
“It’s not surprising to me that a good chunk of the shows that have diverse storylines also have diverse showrunners,” White said. “That’s still the way that it works. Progress is the growing number of African-American shows and showrunners. What is not progressive is the color of the showrunner being aligned with the product being shown. We want more diversity on both sides.”
Until that happens, North said it is more than OK to celebrate the high number of Black women making moves in television.
“The time to celebrate is now,” North said. “Nothing lasts forever and that’s why we need to acknowledge that we’re in this industry on every level and recognize how beautiful that is. We can celebrate from a grounded place because we know from whence we came.”