Actress Lupita N’yongo graces the cover of July’s Vogue. Photo by Jasmyne Ray.
In its 39th season, “Saturday Night Live” was widely criticized for not having a black female cast member. Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah, the only black cast members at the time, also spoke out about the show’s lack of black comediennes.
The casting fault was noted during an episode hosted by Kerry Washington, where she had to play Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé, all in the same skit. While Washington made her second change from “Oprah” to “Beyoncé,” a voice over spoke on behalf of the show’s producers, apologizing to her for the number of black women she would have to play in that episode. The voice over went on to allude to the show making efforts to cast a black comedienne in the near future, “unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”
Since that episode, Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones have joined the cast, filling the seven year absence of black female cast members from when Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007. In a more positive light, this seems to be the only recent setback related to the prominence of black women on television.
When “Scandal” premiered on ABC in 2012 with Kerry Washington as the lead, a black woman hadn’t starred in a network drama since Teresa Graves in “Get Christe Love!” in 1974. In this year’s fall network television lineup, there are more black women appearing in leading and supporting roles than ever before.
In addition to Kerry Washington on “Scandal”, ABC has introduced two new shows, “black-ish” and “How to Get Away With Murder”, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Viola Davis, respectively. There’s Nicole Beharie in “Sleepy Hollow” and Jada Pinkett-Smith returns to the small screen in the Batman inspired series “Gotham”, both on Fox. Gabourey Sidibe, Angela Bassett and Patti LaBelle will all be featured in FX’s “American Horror Story: Freakshow.” But the cherry on top of a perfect fall lineup comes in the form of Alfre Woodard playing the president of the United States in a new NBC drama, “State of Affairs”, set to premiere in November.
In an interview with BET, Mara Brock Akil, creator and executive producer of shows with predominately black female casts like “Girlfriends” and “Being Mary Jane”, said she thinks it’s “f—ing fantastic” that there are so many African American women playing major roles.
“Networks are finally catching up to something that I’ve always known,” she says. “There’s beautiful stories to tell through the eyes of a black woman.”
And it’s not just television that’s beginning to be more open towards black women. Black models Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman and Malakia Firth have all risen to fame walking in fashion shows for major fashion designers like Christian Dior, Givenchy, Chanel and Prada. Most recently, Dunn became the new spokesperson for Maybelline cosmetics.
“She truly reflects Maybelline’s vision of global beauty,” global brand president of Maybelline New York Jerome Bruhat says.
There’s something incredibly satisfying in watching a television show or a movie and seeing that the main character looks like me. When I’m watching “Scandal” and see Kerry Washington strutting around in her flawlessly tailored pantsuits and cleaning up a politician’s social mess, there’s a sense of obtainability. Just being able to flip through a magazine and see Jourdan Dunn’s Maybelline ad speaks volumes for me. It’s one of those situations where you think “if they can do it, so can I.” I can be an actress. I can be a model. I can be anything.