Last month, Emmy Award-winning director Ava DuVernay — in accepting the NAACP Image Award for Entertainer of the Year — saluted by name several of her fellow African-American directors and producers currently helming cable, broadcast and streaming TV series, before stating a sentiment felt by most everyone in the packed Los Angeles auditorium: “This is our time.”
Arguably, at no point in the history of television has the influence of African-American women been felt so much, both in front of and behind the camera. Scripted series, movies and documentaries created by African-American women are making a lot of noise as the ranks of actresses, directors, writers and producers continue to increase across all platforms.
From DuVernay’s OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network-produced series Queen Sugar to HBO’s sophomore comedy show Insecure from star/producer Issa Rae to Courtney Kemp’s successful Starz series Power and Lena Waithe’s new Showtime drama The Chi — which received a second-season commitment last week — black women are getting a chance to tell their stories from the screen, the director’s chair and the writing room.
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‘Black Women Are Amazing’
“The world is catching up to what we knew all along; black women are amazing, and they create powerful characters on-screen,” Connie Orlando, executive vice president and head of programming for BET Networks, said. “It’s much more than a movement — I think the world is finally seeing the talent black women have, as well as the breadth of stories that we haven’t told yet and need to be told.”
Some of those African-American female-helmed shows have gone on to win hardware for their creators during the recent wave of industry awards shows.
• Along with her Image Awards accolade, DuVernay earned an Emmy Award last September for her Netflix documentary 13th.
• Waithe was the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series for her work on Netflix’s comedy series Master of None.
• Kemp’s Power took home three NAACP Image Awards, while Janine Sherman Barrois (TNT’s Claws) and Gina Prince-Bythewood (Fox’s Shots Fired) won Image Awards for outstanding writing.
Shows directed and produced by or featuring African-American women in lead roles continue to proliferate on the television landscape — and not just on African-American targeted networks BET and TV One.
General entertainment networks like WE tv, OWN, VH1 and Bravo have developed both scripted and reality content featuring black female stories and images — from Braxton Family Values to Greenleaf to Love & Hip Hop to Real Housewives of Atlanta, respectively — that have resonated with viewers across all demos.
“If this were 20 years ago, people would say, ‘Well, there’s Issa Rae, and that’s all we need,’ ” Phoebe Robinson, co-executive producer and co-host of HBO’s comedy special 2 Dope Queens, said. “But now Insecure can exist along with [theatrical film] Girls Night Out and 2 Dope Queens. This is a great time for creative content and I just think it will keep changing for the better.”
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And, as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements continue to affect change within the entertainment industry, African-American women are increasing their own numbers on the small screen.
Black female actresses in speaking roles comprised 19% of all female lead roles during the 2016-17 TV season, up from 16% in 2015-16, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
Black women were well-represented within the 13% of African-Americans directing television episodes during the 2016-17 season, part of a record 22% of all television episodes directed by people from ethnic minority groups during the period, according to the Directors Guild of America.
Actress China Anne McClain (Disney Channel’s Descendants 2) said she sees a change in the environment as more acting opportunities are becoming available to African-American actresses.
“I really hope it’s not just a trend,” said McClain, who currently stars in The CW’s superhero series Black Lightning. “I hope it’s a movement that’s actually changing because it’s very important to represent real life on television.”
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The recent success of African-American women behind the scenes in particular has yielded unprecedented long-term development deals. In August 2017, Netflix shocked the television world by luring prolific showrunner Shonda Rhimes away from ABC — where she developed the network’s successful Thursday-night lineup of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder — and signing her to a multiyear production deal.
Starz last May signed Power creator Kemp to an exclusive, multiyear development deal. Starz programming president Carmi Zlotnik compared Kemp to veteran broadcast TV producer David E. Kelley — a “full-package” showrunner with multiple talents.
Heading into its fifth season this summer, Power — led by Kemp and co-creator Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson — is not just the most watched show among African-American viewers on premium cable. It also is the third highest-rated premium show behind HBO’s Game of Thrones and Ballers, according to Starz.
Kemp “has transcended the role of writer to become a showrunner in the sense that she’s got the creative ability, she’s now got the management ability and she’s a great spokesperson for her show,” Zlotnik said. “Those three things make up the trifecta to me, and you don’t always get those altogether.”
Zlotnik said there will be more high-profile development deals with African-American female producers and directors similar to those for Kemp and Rhimes, as the industry looks to capitalize on the appeal of diverse stories and images.
“I think we’re going through a sea change where inclusion and empowerment are expectations, not special gifts,” the Starz executive said. “I think that it’s not just because the industry sees the social benefit, but I think they see the business benefit.”
That certainly rings true in looking at overall viewership trends for television content. Adult African-American women watch 51 hours, 36 minutes of television a week, well above the 36 hours, 38 minutes viewed by all adult women, per Nielsen’s recent African-American Diverse Intelligence Report.
Further, African-American women gravitate toward TV shows with celebrities or multidimensional characters of color, with all top-rated cable and broadcast shows among black women featuring either predominately black casts or a black lead.
Show like Fox’s Empire and OWN’s The Haves and The Have Nots, for example, rank among the top five highest-rated shows among the group, according to the report.
“This audience hadn’t been spoken to in the way that they’re being spoken to today,” said OWN president Erik Logan. “Reaching [African-American women] was one of the driving factors for why Oprah wanted to have a network, and I think if you look at the success that we’re having by talking to that audience and others are having by trying to speak to that audience as well, I don’t see that there’s going to be a day or time where that just goes away.”
OWN has three shows among the top 10 most-watched shows among black women during the 2016-17 season: The Haves and the Have Nots; the DuVernay/Winfrey-produced drama Queen Sugar; and If Loving You Is Wrong, according to Nielsen.
With other targeted shows like the drama Greenleaf, which features Winfrey in a recurring role, as well as OWN’s new relationship dramedy series Love Is ___, Logan said the network is well positioned to effectively reach an audience that distributors will continue to covet going forward.
“We now are creating content for a segment of women — specifically African-American women — who watch a lot of television and have not seen themselves on the screen in the way that they are seeing themselves now,” Logan said. “By continuing the relationship that we have with them and continuing to put programming on so that they can see themselves, it’s going to be one of the driving factors of OWN’s success in the coming years.”
BET last September rebranded its Centric TV network as BET Her, the first cable network primarily targeting African-American women. It’s the perfect platform to develop original content for that audience, including the return of the Queen Latifah-produced docuseries From the Bottom Up, Orlando said.
“It serves as the focal point for current events, given the moment that we’re in right now in entertainment with #MeToo, and we have big plans for the network’s original content,” Orlando said.
Lots of Project Activity Now
A number of projects created and produced by African-American women have recently launched or are slated to debut later this year on cable, including TV One’s documentary series Two Sides from Emmy award-winning actress Viola Davis, as well as upcoming projects from Power’s Kemp (ABC’s Get Christie Love), Mara Brock Akil (OWN’s Love Is ___) and Misha Green (HBO’s Lovercraft Country).
Also, the pool of talented African-American women actresses, producers, writers, directors and showrunners will also expand as opportunities open up on all platforms.
2 Dope Queens’s Robinson said that streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube are also providing opportunities for African-American women to showcase their talents. The 2 Dope Queens format, hosted by Robinson and Jessica Williams, started as a podcast before HBO picked it as a four-part special; part one debute on Feb. 2.
“What’s great is now instead of waiting for the gatekeepers to choose what goes in front of viewers, we have choices,” Robinson said.
Added BET’s Orlando: “Now that these women have a chance to tell their stories there’s no turning back because you can’t deny the quality and the commitment of these talented women in front of and behind the camera.”
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.