Actresses Jill Scott and Jada Pinkett Smith are very different women, but in 2009, they have something extremely rare in common. They are both headlining their own television series.
Scott, the Grammy Award-winning R&B singer/songwriter, is starring in “The #1 Ladies Detective Agency, a series based on the best-selling books by novelist Alexander McCall Smith, debuting on HBO Sunday, March 29 at 8 p.m. Pinkett Smith stars in and executive produces the TNT medical drama “Time Heals,” now going into production.
In fact, Scott and Pinkett Smith are two of only three black women who have ever headed a major hour-long television drama. The only other actress was the late Teresa Graves, whose short-lived 1974 series, “Get Christie Love,” was the very first hour-long drama to star a black woman on TV. In 1968, Diahann Carroll’s “Julia” earned her the distinction of being the first black women to star in a television show, but on half-hour sitcom.
Certainly, black women have had major roles on TV before. “Law and Order” star S. Epatha Merkerson has been on the show since 1993 and is the cast’s longest-running regular character. Last year, she surpassed “Knots Landing’s” Michelle Lee as the actress appearing in the most episodes on one TV show. But for all her longevity, Merkerson rarely has a storyline based around her in the ensemble cast.
Certainly there have been many black sitcoms – from “Martin” to the “Family Matters” to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” that have been successful – but all were based around a male star.
Shows centered around black women like “Girlfriends” “Living Single” and even “Soul Food,” a black family drama focused on three sisters that aired for five seasons on Showtime, were ensemble shows that weren’t dominated by any one character. Though the VH-1 reality hit “I Love New York” is the rare reality show focused on a black female character, its star, Tiffany Pollard, is better known for setting back images of black women on TV than creating more opportunities for them.
Of course, there is Oprah Winfrey and Tyra Banks, but as talk show hosts (and, in one’s case, a media empire), their success has apparently done little to convince television powers that be that scripted drama would work with a black woman in a lead role.
“Women of color, period, are usually the least serviced characters on shows,” says St. Petersburg Times TV critic Eric Deggans. “There haven’t been a lot of roles for them because there aren’t a lot of roles for people of color on television anyway…”
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