Even as hard as 2020 has been, we just can’t stop, won’t stop. If TV and film have truly been our saviors this year, then Black women have most certainly been among our many heroes. Just call it the year Black women ruled film and TV to help preserve our sanity. In front and behind the screen, Black women just did that. And below is our list of the biggest and brightest moments that got us through this most unrelenting year.
Madam C.J. Walker Scored Her First Mini-Series
Even if it wasn’t necessarily all some envisioned, Self-Made was indeed a moment as a team of Black women, including Harriet director Kasi Lemmons and Claws showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois, brought the iconic Madam C. J. Walker to Netflix in the first-ever major production featuring her epic life. Octavia Spencer took the reins as the remarkable woman who built a beauty and hair empire against tremendous odds.
Lena Waithe Ruled 2020 with An Unprecedented Three TV Series
All hail the Waithe was such a fitting cry as the trailblazing Emmy winner had an unprecedented three TV shows on the air—Boomerang (S2) and Twenties (S1) on BET and The Chi (S3) on Showtime—all in one year. And, if that weren’t enough, all three prominently featured LGBTQ storylines, with Twenties even having an openly gay star in Jonica T. (Jo Jo) Gibbs playing Hattie.
“Insecure” Hit A Nerve with Issa and Molly’s Friendship Struggle
“This story, this season, hits very close to home,” Issa Rae, who starred in The Photograph, confessed about Insecure’s season four during her interview with the AAFCA (African American Film Critics Association) Virtual Roundtable (check YouTube) while promoting her other film, The Lovebirds. “My friendship breakups—the couple of them that I’ve had—have been devastating to me. I can let relationships with men go and be okay, but those female friendships that you hold so dear? Especially when you don’t see it coming? It’s painful.” And we so agree. Tissue please. No wonder they both earned Emmy nominations—a first for Yvonne Orji, who also scored her very own HBO comedy special, Yvonne Orji: Momma, I Made It!
“Love & Basketball” Turned 20 as Gina Prince-Bythewood Directed Her First Big Action Film
As hard as it is to believe, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s debut film, Love & Basketball, celebrated its 20th anniversary back in April. Watching it today is as relevant as it was back then, but what’s even better is Prince-Bythewood is still breaking new ground. Her Netflix film, The Old Guard, starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne and released in July, was her first action film with a whopping budget of $70 million and it reached over 70 million people worldwide.
“Becoming” Made Us Love Michelle Obama Even More
Our Forever First Lady Michelle Obama went beyond the pages to give further context to her life. Using the title of her bestselling memoir, Becoming, her documentary, released on Netflix in May and directed by award-winning cinematographer Nadia Hallgren, an Afro-Puerto Rican who grew up in the Bronx, followed Mrs. Obama throughout her book tour, as well as flashed back to her life, catching nothing but gems.
Michaela Coel Became the Ultimate Survivor with “I May Destroy You”
Being the successful creator and star of Chewing Gum didn’t shield U.K. treasure Michaela Coel from sexual assault. Instead of shrinking, Coel channeled her trauma into the culture-shifting, groundbreaking HBO series, I May Destroy You, which aired in both the UK and the U.S., where she confronted and exposed the reality of how sexual assault functions in both the hook-up and Me-Too era.
Beyoncé’s Motherland Flex with “Black Is King”
Whether it’s popping up on fellow Texas baddie Megan The Stallion’s “Savage” with a vicious verse or other queenly duties, Mrs. Knowles-Carter never ceases to delight. And this year Queen Bey came all the way through with the ultimate flex, Black Is King, a mesh of African-inspired goodness showcasing pure joy through music, fashion, dance, beauty and more.
Broadway Playwright Katori Hall Elevated the Strip Club with “P-Valley”
Back in 2009, Katori Hall made a splash with her Broadway play, The Mountaintop, starring Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson about a maid who dialogues with Dr. King the night before he is assassinated in Memphis. For her first television show, however, she stayed in the South but switched it all the way up with P-Valley, her The Players Club-esque drama set in the Mississippi Delta that’s given us life with the gender-bending Uncle Clifford and the fearless pole diva Mercedes.
Misha Green’s “Lovecraft Country” Gave Sci-Fi Geeks and History Buffs Their Whole Black Life
Thanks to Underground, which now has new life on OWN, we knew the power of Misha Green. But, dang it, if she didn’t exceed our every expectation with Lovecraft Country on HBO. From sundown towns to Emmett Till’s horrendous murder, Green crafted an action-packed series full of the magic expected of sci-fi drenched in Blackness, celebrating the resilience, especially that of Black women, without watering down the horrors of Jim Crow. Jonathan Majors, as Tic, with those incredible guns for arms, became new bae while Jurnee Smollett hit another one out the park as Leti.
Courtney Kemp Extended the Powerverse, Tapping In Mary J. Blige
When Power ended its sixth and final season back in January, few envisioned it surviving in spinoffs. But Courtney Kemp, the series’ mastermind, snapped back with Ghost: Power Book II, creating another dimension built around Tariq St. Patrick, previously the most hated member of the family, and made him not only likeable, but brought Mary J. Blige along for the wild ride as Monet Tejada, the wife and de facto boss of imprisoned Latino drug lord Lorenzo Tejada.
Stacey Abrams’ “All In: The Fight For Democracy” Spurred Voting
Documentaries are rarely calls to immediate action, but Stacey Abrams, the should-have-been governor of Georgia, is no ordinary leader. Spearheaded by Lisa Cortes, All In: The Fight For Democracy, which aired on Amazon before the critical presidential election November 3 made it plain why raising our voices and marshaling our power through voting was so urgent.
Maya Rudolph’s Moment as Kamala Harris, the First Woman VP-Elect
Power is perhaps the only word to describe that triumphant moment on November 7 in a fire cream suit, making it clear that a Black woman, born in this country to Indian and Jamaican immigrants, educated at Howard University backed by the “skee-wee” sisterhood of Alpha Kappa Alpha, would indeed be a very present force in President Joe Biden’s administration. Pleasantly awing was Maya Rudolph appearing in the same look during Saturday Night Live mere hours later.
Kelly Rowland, “Jingle Jangle” and More Made Black Christmas Real
Slowly, but surely television has been adding more and more of us to its Christmas offerings each year. And 2020 tipped the scale. In addition to Netflix’s instant classic Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey with Phylicia Rashad, Forest Whitaker, from husband-and-wife dynamic duo David Talbert and Lyn Sisson-Talbert, there’s Kelly Rowland and her Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding sequel on Lifetime, Holly Robinson Peete’s The Christmas Doctor, Keshia Knight Pulliam’s The Christmas Aunt, Tamera Mowry-Housley’s Christmas Comes Twice on Lifetime and Hallmark and more. Former ESSENCE editor-in-chief Angela Burt-Murray created more holiday films with Cooking Up Christmas on OWN, which added a new slate of holiday programming, and The Christmas Lottery on BET. TV One and Bounce also came through with The Christmas Dilemma, directed by Essence Atkins, and Marry Me This Christmas. Then there was Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special on Apple, the Debbie Allen Netflix doc Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker and more. Christmas was very busy and Black in 2020.
Viola Davis Embodied Ma Rainey
Clearly, we are used to Viola Davis wowing us with not just her talent, but her very being. Still bringing life to unsung music pioneer and original Georgia peach Ma Rainey was epic, even more special because it’s another August Wilson play, following her Fences Oscar win, brought to screen and Chadwick Boseman’s last dramatic film performance.
Tessa Thompson and “Sylvie’s Love’s” Mic Drop for Black Love
Black love is on full unapologetic blast in Sylvie’s Love starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha, known on Twitter as just “Kerry Washington’s husband,” and, honestly, we are here for this one forever. After all, complicated love like Sylvie’s and Robert’s is timeless.
Shondaland’s “Bridgerton” Gave Us Black Royals We Could Love
Simon (Regé-Jean Page), more formally known as the Duke of Hastings, and his crew, especially Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and Will (Martins Imhangbe), not to mention Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), brought both color and life to Shondaland’s Pride and Prejudice-esque web of complex royals to much delight. Added bonus is our longtime crush, Zimbabwean-British bae Regé-Jean Page, is finally getting his due.
Black Women Directors Released A Record Number of Films
One of the unsung triumphs of 2020 is that of Black women directors. Radha Blank, Garrett Bradley and Maïmouna Doucouré set it off in January by sweeping all of the directing awards at the Sundance Film Festival with their films The Forty-Year-Old Version, Time and Mignonnes (Cuties). In addition to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, Nadia Hallgren’s Becoming and Lisa Cortes’s All In: The Fight for Democracy, 2020’s long list of released films from Black women directors also includes Numa Perrier’s Jezebel (pictured here), Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted, Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades, Dawn Porter’s docs John Lewis: Good Trouble and The Way I See It, Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth, Chyna Robinson’s No Ordinary Love, Ekwa Msangi’s Farewell Amor, Regina King’s One Night in Miami and more.
Black Women Hollywood Execs Staged A Tinsel Town Takeover
The ascension of Black women Hollywood execs was arguably 2020’s most surprising flex. As documented here, Black women elevated their Hollywood game, with Alana Mayo, Tara Duncan, Nicole Brown and Wonya Lucas all becoming the heads of Orion Pictures (under MGM), Freeform, TriStar Pictures and Crown Pictures (which controls the Hallmark Channel). Vanessa Morrison became the president of streaming at Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production. Not to be outdone in TV, Channing Dungey—who made history when she became the president of ABC Entertainment Group, the first Black person to head a mainstream broadcast network, in 2016—is now chair(wo)man of Warner Bros. Television Group. Meanwhile Nigerian-born Pearlena Igbokwe is chair(wo)man of Universal Studio Group. If that weren’t enough, Rashida Jones took the reins of MSNBC.