“The entertainment industry is driven by testosterone.” “Male executives dominate the film and television industry.” “You have to be part of the ole boys’ club to win in this business.” If this is all true, there are lady showrunners running around Tinseltown that didn’t get the memo. Five female powerhouses have chosen to ignore the status quo. They are disruptors demanding not only diversity, but inclusion. Meet television’s starring storytellers – black girl magic on high octane!
Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernay, Mara Brock Akil, Regina King and Courtney Kemp Agboh have the small screen on lock. Millions of television viewers across the world anticipate the nights that their shows air. In a societal climate that’s filled with so much racial tension, these women have stayed the course and seen beyond the color lines to produce and direct programming that has the ability to galvanize people of all colors, sexual orientations, and viewing preferences. Their work knows no limits. The characters they bring to life transform board rooms, operating rooms, bedrooms, and even farms.
She must be one badass writer, producer, creator and executive—Shonda Rhimes, that is. After all, the entire ABC Thursday night show lineup is named for her production company, ShondaLand. Each one of her hit shows, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, are all well-crafted, cleverly humorous, dramatic, and witty all at the sam time. But if you know anything about Rhimes, you’d understand that her leading characters all possess bits of herself.
According to an Ad Age 2016 article, “Ms. Rhimes has adroitly redefined gender, sex and race on TV. The protagonists of her shows are powerful, flawed and incredibly complicated women. Her nighttime soaps may not have the same cachet as the broody serials over on cable, but her characters exude antihero characteristics like Walter White’s on ‘Breaking Bad’: It’s never exactly clear who’s wearing the metaphorical white hat. Nor is Ms. Rhimes afraid to shed some on-screen blood, keeping up with cable in that regard and earning her the label ‘character murderer’ among some fans.”
When challenged with the question of how does she work her magic, Rhimes shared this: “The secret sauce of the business that I can offer is my creativity, and in order to keep my creativity alive and fresh … I have to pretend that no one is watching the show, that there are no audiences, there are no ratings, I’m just telling a story.”
Although at one point Rhimes felt alone as a creator at such soaring heights, she now has peers that standout. Another female media maven is Ava Duvernay. But Duvernay is no stranger to the limelight. She was once the publicist that strategically garnered attention for her celebrity clients. But now with the acclaimed movie Selma under her belt, as well as her new series Queen Sugar that airs on Oprah’s Own Network, she’s another recognizable household name. Her latest creation is an interesting twist to the over saturated reality show-driven market. Queen Sugar’s primary setting is an African-American family farm in Louisiana. But the storyline that deals with loss, extramarital affairs, race and more, also allows the characters to breathe life into an interesting drama about ordinary people of color.
In an Essence Magazine interview Ava had this to say, “As a Black woman filmmaker I feel that’s my job: visibility. And my preference within that job is Black subjectivity. Meaning I’m interested in the lives of Black folk as the subject. Not the predicate, not the tangent. [These stories] deserve to be told. Not as sociology, not as [a] spectacle, not as a singular event that happens every so often, but regularly and purposefully as truth and as art on an ongoing basis, as do the stories of all the women you love.”
There is more of a racial mix when it comes to the main cast of Starz hit series Power. Executive produced by Courtney Kemp Agboh and rapper and businessman Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Power pulls in an audience targeted at women and men who enjoy the thrill of nightlife and the grit of street crime, mixed with a little romance. Kemp has masterly woven the worlds of NYC high life together with the darkside of the City to create a relentless drama that has fans hanging on for nine months for each season. Now that’s powerful!
What else stands strong is Mara Brock Akil’s talent to sustain the test of time with multiple highly successful shows. Having been a writer for four seasons of Moesha, the supervising producer and writer on the ‘90’s classic The Jamie Foxx Show, at the start of the decade she became the creator and executive producer of UPN cult-classic Girlfriends. But Brock Akil hasn’t just produced shows intended for black audiences; she was a consulting producer and writer for ABC sitcom Cougar Town as well. Her latest work, one that is pivoting, thought provoking, sharp, and oh so sexy, stars Gabrielle Union, in Being Mary Jane. This made for mature viewers program rocks the BET network’s line up each season. It’s safe to say that Mara Brock Akil will let no man or woman stand in her way as she makes her impact on television. Mara has been quoted saying:
“We still have a lot of work to do in American culture. More open-mindedness is happening, in some cases rapidly, in some slowly.” It seems like Brock Akil is doing the work to make America great.
This final television and film dynamo truly does it all. She has been acting since she was a young girl on the hit series 227, where she played Brenda. She is none other than the incomparable Regina King. King not only has managed to remain a relevant actress over decades in an industry that admires youth and doesn’t particularly propel women actresses of color to its highest levels, but she is now taking the seat in the director’s chair. With a slew of accomplishments that span from 1985 all the way through 2016, she is a formidable force to be reckoned with. King has dazzled the big screen in films such Poetic Justice, Enemy of the State, and Ray, which are just a fraction of her film work. On television, she has played a myriad of characters. Her most recent roles have been on rating toppers like HBO hit The Leftovers and ABC drama American Crime. Not only is Regina King building her resume, she’s collaborated with Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil on their projects to add her name to those bills as well. Since 2013, King has put on her director’s cap for shows such Southland, The Catch, Being Mary Jane and OWN’s Greenleaf. King has managed to master being on screen and behind the scenes. Variety Magazine interviewed King in March of 2016. She shared a sentiment on her directorial work.
“It’s an opportunity to be more involved in telling the story,” she says. “Having a little more control — that might have something to do with it.”
And if control, power, respect, creative-license, inclusion, and a voice along with brilliant images is what these extraordinary women work so hard for, then they’ve definitely solidified their names in the entertainment history books. EGL sends major kudos to these media giants for their superb work to cross boundaries and showing that women of color aren’t just breaking barriers, but soaring at unimaginable heights.
Written By: Tawana C. Coleman