TV has historically struggled with highlighting the stories of Black women; but every so often, a show gets it right and introduces the world to a character we can all relate to.
Nina Mae McKinney was the first Black leading lady in Hollywood. She starred as a fabulous flapper in King Vidor’s all-Black musical Hallelujah! From McKinney to Joan Clayton to Coco Jones, we have been able to redefine what a Black leading lady looks like in various ways because our stories are anything but monolithic. Time and time again, Black women step into roles proving that Black women can be rich and fabulous with serious goals.
Check out some of TV’s most influential characters who served brains, beauty, and all of the things.
Regina “Gina” Waters-Payne
Martin goes down as one of the greatest television shows in history. The hilarious sitcom followed Martin Payne and his leading lady, Regina “Gina” Waters. “Damn Gina!” is an iconic phrase not only because of the energy Martin exuded when saying it but because Gina Waters was quite the woman. Brought to life by Tisha Campbell, Gina was a fun, romantic, and successful Black woman. She worked in Public Relations and forever gave a look whenever she entered a room. When Entertainment Tonight talked with Campbell about her role in Fox’s highest-rated sitcoms, she said, “I felt like it was the right thing, and it turned out to be the right thing — much bigger than any of us could have imagined. To see how it has stood the test of time, I never ever thought that we would be iconic.” And as a self-sufficient woman full of beauty, brains and brawn, Campbell effortlessly embodied an iconic character that showed us how to show authentically in love and life.
A spin-off of The Cosby Show, A Different World, was a much-needed series centered around the lives of Black college students. One of the most memorable students, Lena James, was a petite ball of fire. The Baltimore native was named after Lena Horne, and boy, did she have the same gusto as the icon. Jada Pinkett-Smith, who played Lena and the world-renowned actress, was able to connect with her resilient roots as she actually hailed from Baltimore, Maryland, and she knew what it meant to be intelligent and have integrity.
If ‘Black Supermom’ were a person, it would be Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show. The mother of five worked as a lawyer and showed us how to do it all and have it all by our own definitions. Phylicia Rashad, who personified Clair, told Black Enterprise, “What I observed with Clair Huxtable was how people appreciated that character. People appreciated seeing an intelligent woman who was celebrated by her husband.” Clair was one of the first working mothers to not only take on an affluent career but make such an impact that her way of life was crowned “Clair Huxtable effect.” Rashad was nominated for two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Clair Huxtable – giving truth to her title as a feminist icon.
There would be no Issa Dee in Insecure without Khadijah James in Living Single. The cultural importance of this show transcends time as the unconventional gang of friends showed the true stories of the single life. Creator Yvette Lee Bowser really did a thing when she brought Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Kim Fields, Erika Alexander, T.C. Carson, and John Henton into our lives to represent stories that had to be told. Khadijah James’ story as a magazine editor surrounded by equally successful friends dispelled the myths that Black women are a monolith. Quintessentially, Queen Latifah as Khadijah was vital for curvy girls all over the world because her love life was popping. From Grant Hill to Morris Chestnut to Cress Williams, Khadijah’s roster was full of baddies. Her confidence in every part of her being was just the empowerment we needed.
Diahann Carroll blazed the trail for Black actresses in ways that we can’t even imagine. She was the first Black woman to star in her own sitcom, Julia, in 1968. And she went on to break down more barriers as Dominique Deveraux in Dynasty, an evocative soap opera that aired on ABC. In this role, she gave it to her co-star Joan Collins, who played Alexis Carrington. AARP asked the late actress how she ended up on the hit show and she replied, “I saw the show and I thought, ‘Oh, this is absolutely a hoot, I love it.’ I thought it would be great fun if they thought that I could fit into this. And so my manager and I approached them, and [we had] a meeting.” Carroll continued, “I was absolutely thrilled [to get the part]. I just loved the opportunity to put this character, Dominique Deveraux, on screen. We were all very excited — we knew that it would be the talk of the town.” When Carroll passed in 2019, the amazing Debbie Allen tweeted, “Diahann Carroll you taught us so much. We are stronger, more beautiful and risk-takers because of you. We will forever sing your praises and speak your name. Love Love Love, Debbie.”
One thing about Olivia Pope, she gon’ Olivia Pope. And that means she will walk into any room wearing a gorgeous outfit and turn every head. Shonda Rhimes created a character we could all root for even when she didn’t make the best decisions. Kerry Washington took on the role of Oliva Pope, a lawyer-adjacent ‘fixer’ and Gladiator cleaning up the mean streets of D.C. While Olivia’s storyline was full of gasp-worthy plots, her character was based on a real-life crisis manager. According to Shondaland, “After starting as deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush, Smith went on to manage crises for some of the world’s most famous, most royally screwed people, including Monica Lewinsky, Kobe Bryant, Paula Deen, and many others.” Washington even credits her courage to have kids to her time in the role of Olivia Pope. She told Entertainment Tonight, “There will be things that Olivia Pope has given me that will always stay with me. I don’t know if I would have had kids at this point in my life if she hadn’t made me feel like ‘anything is possible.’ She’s given me a lot of courage.”
Joan Clayton’s character was an expert course in never settling and never giving up. Michelle Darrisaw of Oprah Daily even revealed Joan taught her that when it comes to your goals, “don’t be afraid to be labeled as demanding.” Joan’s impact on the culture is so immense that she’s inspired Black women to excel in their careers without fear of taking up too much space. Over a decade later, after Girlfriends ended, Tracee Ellis Ross recalled her time as Joan Clayton during a conversation with Charlamagne Tha God. Ross said, “Girlfriends and our crew, the cast had so much diversity. We were led by Mara Brock Akil, by a Black woman, our writers’ room was majority Black women, our crew, and our director of photography was a Black man…and it changed the way I go forward in my career because it was such an assumption and that’s not the way it is everywhere.” Despite Joan’s imperfections, she was integral to the evolution of Black women and how we are represented.
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