“I completely deserve this” is a phrase without apology, a sentence that many of us – especially if we are successful women, particularly if we are successful black women – can find difficult to say. Receiving the Producer’s Guild Norman Lear Award for Achievement in Television, writer and producer Shonda Rhimes used the words to begin an acceptance speech that was, it must be said, pretty tongue-in-cheek. And yet. Was she wrong? No, many of us thought, no she was not.
For the past decade, Rhimes has seemingly single-handedly changed the landscape of American television. Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder and the long-running Grey’s Anatomy have been lauded for the way they place women front and centre, and allow women of colour to not be necessarily fierce nor vulnerable, but both, or even neither. In a world where women so often find themselves muttering half-hearted “sorrys” before they speak, Rhimes and her art take up space without apology. Her shows aren’t spread out, but shown one after another on the same night under the jokey acronym TGIT – Thank God It’s Thursday; she teases and jokes with fans on Twitter; and even her production company is called Shondaland, a name that brings to mind another famously and fabulously unapologetic woman – Dolly Parton and her theme park, Dollywood.
It could be easy to dismiss quite how important it is to see Rhimes on a stage, accepting an award, telling the world she deserves it. But there is something very special about a black person who rejects humility, metaphorically spitting in the face of any perceived egotism. Many black women find life an ongoing balance between bigging ourselves up to fight against the racism and sexism we face daily, and avoiding accusations of arrogance – allegations that can quickly see us labelled with that most dreaded of words: “aggressive”. This balancing act is a tightrope we can often fall from. Shonda Rhimes, with her sprawling, diverse casts, over-the-top scripts and half-joking “I deserve this”, rejects all of these preconceptions, simply by doing her thing.
“Diversity” is, of course, word of the week. A month before the Academy Awards, and in the wake of yet another year of snowy-white acting nominees, actors of all races are tripping over themselves to contribute to discussions of #OscarsSoWhite. Black actors have, of course, been as divided as their white counterparts. While Jada Pinkett Smith has suggested an all-out boycott, Whoopi Goldberg uses her own Oscar win as proof the Academy “can’t be racist”. Charlotte Rampling’s musings about how the chatter was “racist towards whites” inspired internet ire, while Matt Damon criticised the “systematic injustices” that lead to a lack of diversity.
The Oscars are white because people of colour rarely get parts in Oscar-worthy films, and that happens because black and brown people rarely get the funding to make their own media
Current (black, female) President of the Academy Cheryl Boone Isaacs has even pledged to tackle the fact that Academy membership, and subsequent voting privileges, is overwhelmingly possessed by white men over 60. For many, this was an important step in the right direction, but I can’t help but feel as though I’m not as outraged about the whole debacle as I should be. To be honest? I’m bored. I’ve found most of the conversation boring and irritating in equal measure, and a small part of me wishes I could turn it all off, if only to keep my blood pressure down.
Yes, we shouldn’t ignore the fact the people voting are old white men who apparently only like watching films by other old white men, about old white men. But what are they voting for? The Oscars are white because people of colour rarely get parts in Oscar-worthy films, and that happens because black and brown people rarely get the funding to make their own media. The year before he was winning an honorary Oscar, Spike Lee was forced to crowdfund to make a movie on Kickstarter because he knew no studio was going to finance it. If someone the Academy calls “a champion of independent film and an inspiration to your filmmakers” can’t get funding, what hope do other less established filmmakers have?
The root of the problem is there are fewer Shonda Rhimes in film than there should be, and white people aren’t casting people of colour in their films. This week, George Clooney criticised the Academy’s lack of diversity as “backwards”, but none of the five films he’s directed in 14 years have starred any people of colour. I feel bored and irritated by so many of the cries for “more diversity at the Oscars!” because the Clooneys of Hollywood who insist something needs to be done aren’t doing anything themselves, leaving their words ringing hollow.
Every year, we have the same discussions about the Oscars and we ask why non-white people in the film industry continue to be ignored by the Academy. I can’t be bothered to ask – I want people to do. Filmmakers like Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler are making beautiful, striking films, and are slowly but surely getting more and more notice from the Academy. It’s not enough, sure, but it’s a start. Instead of giving statements of support, or promises to diversify, I’d rather the Academy and its members made concrete promises to fund more films from black and brown filmmakers. Shonda Rhimes is diversifying television – hopefully, one day soon, we’ll have more people who look like her doing the same for film.