Television shows starring black women
have been few and far between on the Big 3 television networks. That’s why when a show starring a black woman, such as “Scandal,” premieres it garners a great deal of media attention and anticipation in the black community. This roundup highlights five television shows with black women in lead roles that have aired on major network television from 1950 to 2013.
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ABC sitcom “Beulah,” which started as a CBS Radio show, has the distinction of being the first network show to star a black actress. “Beulah” is about a maid who has a knack for fixing her employers’ problems. The legendary singer and Broadway star Ethel Waters was the first actress to play the lead role. But she left in 1951, and Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel and “Imitation of Life” star Louise Beavers filled in as “Beulah” until the television show’s cancellation in 1952.The show has faced wide criticism for perpetuating racial stereotypes
about blacks, notably that black women are mammies who enjoy caretaking and nurturing whites.
NBC sitcom “Julia”
broke ground in 1968 for being the first network show to feature a black actress in a non-stereotypical. In the comedy, Diahann Carroll plays a widowed nurse raising her young son. It marked one of the rare times the viewing public had the opportunity to see a black woman play a working professional rather than a domestic. Still, “Julia” faced criticism for ignoring the social realities blacks found themselves in during the turbulent 1960s when racial turmoil and civil unrest engulfed countless black communities, not to mention economic and educational barriers. “Julia” ran until 1971.
ABC’s “Get Christie Love!” got its start after a television miniseries of the same name became a hit after airing in January 1974. Starring Teresa Graves as Christie Love, the show was about a female police detective who goes undercover to try to thwart a drug ring. The success of woman-centric blaxploitation films such as “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown” reportedly paved the way for “Get Christie Love!” The television show didn’t last long, however. ABC canceled it in 1975.
ABC’s “Scandal” debuted to much fanfare in April 12 given that it was the first time in more than 30 years that a television show starring a black actress appeared on a major television network. Starring Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, “Scandal” is about a woman who runs a crisis management firm that the powerful and elite trust to solve their problems, including murders and extramarital affairs. The problem is that Olivia is involved in a scandal of her own—a secret romance with married U.S. president Fitzgerald Grant. This ongoing scandal and the scandals that ensnare those in Olivia’s circle create constant tension and high drama. While “Scandal” has had some detractors, especially viewers who object to Olivia’s romance with the president, the hour-long drama created by Shonda Rhimes has become a bona fide hit for ABC.
Cris Mateski/BlkWgn Photography
When NBC’s “Deception”—starring African-American actress Meagan Good—debuted in January 2013, the show immediately drew comparisons to “Scandal.” Good stars in “Deception” as San Francisco police officer Joanna Locasto, who’s working undercover to solve the mysterious death of her childhood best friend, Vivian Bowers. Joanna grew up in the Bowers household because her mother worked as a servant for the powerful family. When the show begins, Joanna returns to the Bowers estate to help the FBI determine the perpetrator responsible for Vivian’s death. This creates a conflict of interest for Joanna because she was once involved in secret romance with Vivian’s brother Julian, who still carries a torch for her. Joanna suspects, however, that Julian may have been involved in Vivian’s death. More of primetime soap than a political drama such as “Scandal,” critics had a mixed reaction to “Deception,” with some taking issue with the show for failing to address race and class substantively.