Black Celebrities Are the Flavor of the Season

SCANDAL - ABC's "Scandal" stars Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

SCANDAL – ABC’s “Scandal” stars Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

My amusement over African-American women gracing the covers of the blockbuster September magazine issues was based on my previous thoughts about how silly and transparent the entertainment world has become in this media-flooded point in history, and how bogus is the idea that executives in that word have suddenly seen the racism light.

The Guardian gleefully announced recently that black celebrity women are featured on six magazine covers for September, normally the most profitable month of the year for consumer periodicals. Singers Beyoncé and Ciara are on Vogue and Shape, actors Kerry Washington, Amandla Stenberg and Willow Smith are on SELF, Dazed, and i-D; and American Ballet Theater’s principal dancer Misty Copeland is on Essence. Tennis star Serena Williams graced the August cover of the New Yorker. (Click on names to see their respective covers).

Someone asked me what I thought about that. Did I think it was a breakthrough of some sort? I was amused to discover I had no thoughts at all about that. My amusement was based on my previous thoughts about how silly and transparent the entertainment world has become in this media-flooded point in history, and how bogus is the idea that executives in that word have suddenly seen the racism light.

Here’s why.

The smash hit television show Scandal arrived on the air waves in the fall of 2012 with a plot guaranteed to create lots of buzz. The star, Kerry Washington, plays the role of Olivia Pope, a Washington, D.C. political “fixer” based on the real-life crisis communications expert Judy Smith. At that time, the very fact that a black woman was starring in a “white” drama series was remarkable enough. But this time, Kerry Washington’s character Oliva is having an affair with the white and Republican President of the United States! There was something to be shocked about for nearly every sub-group in the American population. This, the exceptionally crisp writing, and the fast-paced delivery, a la West Wing, by the actors combined to assure record-breaking ratings.

I know, however, from my 25 years of toil in the corporate jungle that almost nothing is as it seems. Some might have thought Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes, who is black, was the power behind this gutsy move on ABC’s part, and I’m sure that’s part of it. However, the salient element of all decisions corporate is the potential for profits. Period. Corporations make noises about being socially responsible and taking risks to promote social justice, and they do it and fund it artfully. Don’t you believe it. The only color corporations can see is dollar-bill green.

NBC must have noticed how Scandal was performing ratings-wise because in January of 2013 they premiered Deception, starring Meagan Good in the lead role. Her character, Joanna Locasto, is in love with the rich, white son of the shows male lead, Victor Garber. How original!

Since Scandal debuted, there has been a virtual avalanche of beautiful black women starring or co-starring in new series on TV: Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder (married to a white man); Halle Berry in Extant (white husband played by heart-throb Goran Visnjic) are just two of the ones on network television.

Producers were falling all over themselves trying to grab some of the money-making vibe from Scandal. So can you blame me for finding their failure to even try to change the formulae amusing?

Then, in January 2015, came Empire. This time, FOX really pushed the envelope by featuring a nearly all-black cast. Except for high-octane guest stars, any white actors appearing on screen are minor characters. And we aren’t talking about the Huxtables here. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the lead actor who plays a music mogul from very humble (and questionable) beginnings. His wife, Cookie, played brilliantly by Taraji P. Henson, has served 17 years in the slammer after taking a dive to protect her man. Each of their sons is a piece of work. One is a business man who suffers from bi-polar disease. One, the youngest, is a spoiled and adventurous rapper who never saw a boundary he wouldn’t cross. And one is a rhythm and blues singer who is, according to his father, inexplicably gay. It was a ratings buster from the get-go.

How long did it take for the Hollywood geniuses to launch a me-too version of Empire? As of March 2015 there were no less than 73 pilots (network and cable combined) starring or co-starring black actors in lead or supporting lead roles for the fall season of 2015 and the winter season of 2015.

It’s all about that cash, about that cash…

So, no, I wasn’t too surprised about the fact that six major magazines hired beautiful black women of all hues to grace their annual September 2015 blockbuster covers. They are just in time to ride the money wave originated by Scandal.

Contributor Lezlie Bishop is a retired corporate public relations director, who now writes mostly for fun and catharsis.  She grew up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1950s and 60s, a woman of mixed heritage living in a tumultuous time for people of color.  Lezlie’s large collection of blog posts, many autobiographical, can be found at her personal blog at linthesoutheast.blogspot.com.

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