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Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in "Underground." (WGN America)
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in "Underground." (WGN America)

Advocacy and artistry

Television is the antidote to #OscarsSoWhite

By Kara Cutruzzula on April 7, 2016

“My resume would be way longer and I would be really rich if i would just sell my soul, darn it.”

Jurnee Smollett-Bell was only half-joking when she tossed off this comment during a panel with other women in the entertainment industry who refuse to accept what’s so easily offered.

As a black actress in Hollywood, Smollett-Bell sees plenty of scripts. Scripts that offer up diverse roles as the girlfriend, the best friend, the ‘black girl,’ the secretary. Not exactly scintillating stuff for an artist. Few would blame her for wanting to sell her soul — metaphorically or otherwise.

But luckily she came across a role that was a little more meaty than Background Friend #3. The onetime childhood actress stars in WGN America’s smash hit Underground, which follows a group of slaves in the antebellum south. Not only does it illuminate an entire era, but it does so incredibly well. The fact that it airs on WGN America — which notched its highest ever ratings for an original series during the show’s premiere — almost feels like a minor miracle following a year that saw black actors shut out of every major Academy Award acting category — which became the root, of course, of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

But if #OscarSoWhite proved that Hollywood’s diversity problem is toxic and prevalent, the women on stage with Smollet-Bell provided a refreshing counterpoint and, perhaps, an antidote. Television is the promised land.

As creator, writer, and executive producer of Underground, Misha Green is personalizing a time period usually depicted with cliches or, worse, heavy-handed characterizations. In watching other portrayals of slavery, “I felt like we hadn’t seen anyone enslaved with personal agency,” she said. Her characters — including Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee — get to laugh and cry and actually debate their lot in life. She can wonder: To run or not to run?

“She’s struggling in a world that’s very foreign to me and really very relatable at the same time,” said Smollett-Bell.

"Black-ish" star Yara Shahidi. (ABC/Bob D'Amico)
“Black-ish” star Yara Shahidi. (ABC/Bob D’Amico)

A similar blend of complexity, agency, and nuance is displayed on Black-ish, the hit ABC sitcom fronted by Anthony Anderson and starring Yara Shahidi as his angsty teenage daughter. In reality, Shahidi is all poise, zero angst, and articulates exactly what drew her to the role, which she compared to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. “I get to play the voice for Generation Z,” she told ABC News Nightline co-anchor Juju Chang, who moderated the panel. On the show her character is able to twiddle around on her cellphone, like most teenagers, but also looks up and drops bombs that illuminate one universal truth: teenage girls are always paying attention, even when they’re rolling their eyes.

Though they span centuries and provide two very different depictions of being black in America, both Underground and Black-ish succeed in the same way: they’re wildly entertaining. On the strength of its storytelling and fast-paced, can’t-look-away feeling, reviews of Underground have even compared it to Prison Break. Black-ish, meanwhile, tackles issues of police brutality and the modern use of the N-word with a deft, knowing voice and even light comedy.

Why is TV at least slightly more hospitable — or at least not as outright cancerous — to diverse programming? Nina Shaw has answers. “There is more of a segmentation of the marketplace,” explains the prominent entertainment lawyer, who reps John Legend, Laurence Fishburne, Ava DuVernay, and the executive producers of Black-ish and Underground at her firm Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano, and that TV relies more heavily on advertiser dollars and therefore needs to produce programming that is a bit more authentic — and reflective of its wider, more diverse audience.

That sense of freedom has given rise to Shonda Rhimes’s glass-ceiling shattering Thursday night block, to Black-ish, and even to Fresh Off the Boat, which is one of the first modern shows to realistically depict the nuances of Asian-American life. But it’s still a short list. Despite what seems like an influx of more diverse programming on TV, Juju Chang noted that 69 percent of TV episodes were still directed by men.

But the artists who create and star in these groundbreaking shows must also bear another type of stress. As Nina Shaw pointed out, Yara and Misha and Jurnee are not simply artists, but they are artists and activists because of their race. “In the end I have to be an advocate for people like them,” she said. “I see myself as a guardian not just for their artistic integrity, but their right to be who they are behind the camera and in front of the camera.”

Yet finally getting into the right room saddles them with yet another challenge. Misha Green recounted talking to someone on her post-production team, who complimented her: “When you walk into a room, you command so much attention!” they said. To which Misha corrected: “I’m like, No, they’re looking at me like, Who are you and why are you here? Because I’m the only one who looks like that in here.”

The idea that she might be the only black female in the room affects how she considers her position. “I don’t think you can live in a bubble where you don’t have any social responsibility,” said Misha Green. “I think you can entertain and be socially responsible at the same time.” Underground is a testament to her creativity and ability to marry historical relevance with pure entertainment.

Nina Shaw agrees that it’s just not possible to sit back and bask in your own success: “If you are a woman and you want to be empowered, then you need to empower other women.”

To close out the panel, Juju asked, “What is the future of Hollywood?”

For once, a simple answer. Shaw motioned to the women up on stage: a black female TV creator, and two black women starring in successful, groundbreaking shows: “This is the future of Hollywood.”

Additional reporting contributed by Laura Macomber.


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