DeWanda Wise was on the precipice of another peak in her decade-long acting career when we spoke over dinner last fall. She was a month away from her debut as the new Nola Darling for Spike Lee’s updated Netflix series remake of his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. I asked her about the evolution of Black women in film and television, and she said something that has stuck with me ever since: “The last couple of years — literally I can pinpoint it to Kerry Washington and Scandal for Black women specifically on TV — it has accelerated.” Wise went on to explain that in 2012, the year Scandal premiered on ABC, she noticed that she was no longer auditioning for sidekick roles, but “testing very often in television to be the lead of a thing.”
Six years and and seven seasons later, many of us have heard the mythical story that just about every Black actress in Hollywood auditioned for the role of Olivia Pope. In a recent farewell interview with the New York Times, show creator Shonda Rhimes confirmed this version of events adding, “ It was like there was a shoe and everybody got to try it on, because it was clear that that kind of role was not out there or available to them. That was heartbreaking to me.” There are still huge strides that need to be made for Black women in just about every facet of entertainment. However, there is a silver lining for Rhimes at least. Her decision to cast Washington for the groundbreaking role of Olivia Pope opened the floodgates for Black women in television.
In addition to Wise’s part in She’s Gotta Have It, Black women have stormed television as strong dramatic leads in the years since Pope took the meaning of “gladiator” to an entirely new level. First, Gabrielle Union — one of the actresses who auditioned for Scandal — helped Being Mary Jane go from TV movie to highest rated series on BET. Then, Rhimes tried her own recipe — a smart, powerful Black woman in a bomb ass suit — again when she cast Viola Davis as Annalise Keating on How To Get Away with Murder in 2014. Taraji P. Henson burst onto the television scene as Cookie Lyon on Empire shortly after. Queen Sugar is nothing less than an ode to Black women and families starring Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner, and Bianca Lawson. Regina King carries American Crime, and Sanaa Lathan did the same thing on Shots Fired. And the trend is still growing. This year saw the premiere of Seven Seconds on Netflix, starring Clare-Hope Ashiteya and BET’s In Contempt. Even Black women who brilliantly dominate other kinds of shows, like Issa Rae’s Insecure, Tracee Ellis Ross on black-ish, and most recently, Yara Shahidi on grown-ish can thank Pope for getting all of America used to seeing an imperfect Black woman front and centre.
Olivia Pope’s reach as a professional handler has gone far beyond Scandal’s fictional D.C., and into the lives of real Black actresses. And as Scandal prepares for it’s final episode, I wanted to hear from them. So I asked several Black women who are currently playing prominent roles in different series what Olivia Pope has meant to them. Here’s what they told me.
Logan Browning, who plays Sam, the activist in the centre of the drama on the Netflix original Dear White People said, “To have a sexy and in charge yet flawed black female character leading a show meant the world was seeing what I see in the women in my life every day.”
Critics said that Gabourey Sidibe would never work again after her breakout titular role in Precious. Instead, she booked recurring roles on American Horror Story and is now a series regular on FOX’s Empire alongside Henson. For her, Pope means visibility. "Visibility of a black woman who didn’t constantly have to make mention of being a ‘strong independent black woman.’ Olivia is more than that narrative that is attached to most Black female characters in film and television. Olivia Pope is just a woman. A woman in a constant state of existential crises. She has all of the answers in her professional life and none of the answers in her personal life, and I’ll be damned if that’s not me and literally every other woman I know."
It’s not very often that Black women get to play lead roles in quirky fantasy series, but relative newcomer Jade Eshete is killing it in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Even she is in awe of the power that Pope has on the industry. “When the Olivia Pope/Scandal phenomenon hit, it was like the dawn of a new era. Kerry Washington, who was mostly recognised and adored by those of us in the black community from her early days of Save the Last Dance was FINALLY becoming a household name, and getting the long overdue recognition and artistic opportunities she deserved. That put some real pep in my step and bolstered my drive to pound the pavement everyday as a struggling actor. Her first Essence cover (which I still own to this day) was the definition of female empowerment. Her nuanced and compelling portrayal of the formidable Olivia Pope affirmed all of us—it showed us that WE COULD DO THAT, TOO! She gave us the permission to bask unapologetically in our greatness.”
As for Washington herself? She, too, has some thoughts about bringing this greatness to live every week for millions of viewers. Voice shaking with emotion, she told me, “It's just very powerful to be seen. I think that's why I'm so moved right now. I feel like Olivia Pope wouldn't exist — in a literal sense, if viewers hadn't tuned in — but if we as a culture weren't willing to see her in all of her complexity.” She continued, “I'm just grateful that Shonda, Betsy, Judy Smith, and ABC put forward a woman that was impossible to ignore. In forcing the world to see her, we created the sentiment in a community of Black women all over the world of being seen. I'm really grateful that Olivia existed.”
I think I can speak for many Black women when I say, we are, too.