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Celebrating black women in TV

Written by TV

Often under-represented in the industry, our writers discuss talented black women and their powerful characters on the small screen.

Viola Davis

Not only is Annalise Keating one of the most iconic black women on TV, Viola Davis is a wonderfully inspiring and hilarious woman, it’s impossible not to love her and her character. Viola Davis brings to life a fierce, flawed and complex character many can find themselves in. After earning her Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress for her portrayal of Annalise, Viola Davis and the character deserve all the love and appreciation.

Credit: ABC, IMDb

There are many reasons why Annalise Keating is one of my favourite characters – she is incredibly strong and intelligent while also vulnerable and even at times, insecure. Sometimes within the same episode. She’s a good character, always there for her family and the Keating Five but she’s also a bad person: she cheated on her husband with a man whose wife was dying of cancer and she certainly isn’t always morally acceptable. She’s confident, she’s confused but most of all, she’s incredibly inspiring (her speeches in court always have me in tears, with the hair on my arms standing high). All of this makes her feel like a real character that not only I can relate to but I’m sure many other black women can resonate with.

she makes it her mission to represent other marginalised black characters

Annalise’s skin colour does not define her but it is also incredibly influential in making her who she is, deep down. As the lead in the show, she makes it her mission to represent other marginalised black characters, Nate Lahey being a significant one. She makes it her mission to change the justice system for the better for black individuals. She makes the show recognise and put to the forefront black issues and experiences. She handles everything that is thrown at her with heart and emotion and it’s refreshing to see such a wonderfully strong, independent black woman on our screens in the main role, discussing black issues with sensitivity and importance.

Credit: Getty Images, IMDb

Shonda Rhimes has never shied away from writing complicated, interesting women who have become iconic for their authentic emotions and true-to-life struggles and Annalise Keating is one of these. Both Rhimes and Davis herself have crafted a successful, smart black woman who is believable without relying on stereotypes, without invoking over-used tropes. She’s written with care, with understanding and Viola Davis plays her with respect and with power as she breathes life into a character that both entertains and challenges us all.

We’re invested in her story and now that the show has ended and her arc has also come to an end, I can only hope that other shows can follow in How To Get Away With Murder’s direction and create characters as wonderfully brilliant as Annalise Keating.

Lucy Lillystone

Amber Riley

With the recent Glee controversy surrounding alleged racism from Lea Michele to Samantha Ware, I thought I’d gush about the true queen of the Glee club: Mercedes Jones. There’s a reason it’s Mercedes who ends up with a record label deal and not Rachel, that’s for sure.

Credit: IMDb, 2013, Television Food Network, G.P.

Glee might have aged as badly as a block of cheese, but Mercedes is still an incredible character. She never stoops down to anything below her morals, and always kept her integrity. Despite being a strict Christian who believes sex is only for after marriage, Mercedes is the one who helps Quinn when she’s pregnant and gets kicked out of her parents’ house. Alongside this, despite Rachel and Mercedes constant rivalry in the Glee club, Mercedes is there for Rachel on her opening night when she performed in Funny Girls. She truly was the heart of the Glee club (and she had the best solos).

She did won an Olivier Award in 2017 for her role in Dreamgirls

It’s quite sad that Amber Riley hasn’t had any major acting roles since Glee because I think she’s so talented. Whilst she may not be on the screen as often, she did win an Olivier Award in 2017 for her role in Dreamgirls on the West End, so she’s still singing and stealing the show. Out of all the cast of Glee, I’m still rooting for Amber Riley the most.

Sophie Hicks

Angela Bassett

Credit: FX, IMDb

An acclaimed film and television actress, Angela Bassett first came to my attention after seeing her in American Horror Story: Coven. Although she has starred in hits films, including an acclaimed performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It, and most recently a supporting role in Black Panther, it was in Coven that I found her most memorable. As the immortal Voodoo witch of New Orleans, Bassett’s portrayal of Marie Laveau is now considered iconic in the AHS fandom for her ruthless power and hatred for the white witches and slave owners. Hellbent on revenge, Marie Laveau serves as one of the main villains in Coven.

Although she went on to be in the next three mediocre seasons of American Horror Story, that being Freak Show, Hotel and Roanoke, Bassett always stood out in her roles and gave me hope that the seasons would improve (which they didn’t).

She plays headstrong and self-assured women

What made her stand out so much in Coven is that she held her own opposite talented actresses such as Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates. As Marie Laveau, she made for a challenging enemy and dynamic for reigning Supreme Fiona Goode. She plays headstrong and self-assured women and will hopefully make a surprise return in season ten of American Horror Story.

Kate Dunkerton

Gina Torres

Credit: USA Network, IMDb

Anti-Blackness emerges in a number of forms and persists in the predominantly white-media-landscape. From derogatory stereotypes (ranging from the sassy Black woman to the servile servant), to the underrepresentation of Black women in leadership roles, Gina Torres’s part as Jessica Pearson in Suits re-centres Black success as normal. We don’t question her authority – in fact, she exudes female boss etiquette and even governs her protégée’s, Harvey Specter’s, sleazy tactics. She’s respected, she’s powerful and she’s a good role model for many of its viewers (regardless of their skin colour or gender identification).

But Torres’s office stride in her Louboutin heels does well not to mask over the realities a character in her position would face. Her swift departure from the show, in which Torres wanted to focus on her home life, showed the sacrifice her character was willing to make for something she believed in.

Talks of a spin-off with Torres’s character echoes her success

With both her character and her decision to discontinue her Suits contract, Torres reminds us that amongst all the success and high-demand lifestyle, it’s okay to take a moment for yourself. Talks of a spin-off with Torres’s character at the forefront echoes her success. Representation is a tricky balance to strike – but it seems as though its producers have tipped it right.

Holly Margerrison

Zazie Beetz

Credit: FX Networks, IMDb

Donald Glover’s Atlanta is a groundbreaking piece of television by any metric, but it’s really the cast that makes the show what it is. Not least of all, the show’s female lead, Zazie Beetz. Beetz has been a bit of a rising star within the industry, recently on the big screen in projects like Joker (2019) and Deadpool 2 (2018), and before that seen in Netflix’s Anthology series Easy, but most people will know her from Atlanta, where Zazie plays an amazingly deep Afro-German (like herself) woman, Vanessa Keefer.

Van is the main character’s love interest and the mother of his child, but is an incredible character in her own right. The series is peppered with episodes spotlighting Van and her daily struggles as a teacher and a mother, or whatever misadventures she gets into within the show’s Bizzaro-universe, including losing her job after failing a drug-test over a bit of weed, or attending a party at Drake’s house and finding out he is Mexican.

Van is one of the most fascinating characters on TV right now

She’s strong yet sometimes insecure, realistic and blunt while also being a loving mother, and her links with her German heritage are explored very well. Van is one of the most fascinating characters on TV right now, and part of what makes Atlanta the unconventional masterpiece it is.

Muslim Taseer

Featured image credits – TV screen: Wikipedia Commons. Screen outline: pixabay.com. Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Amber Riley and Gina Torres: IMDb.

Last modified: 25th June 2020

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