Television shows have captivated our attention since the birth of television in the 1930s. Storylines that involve complex characters and dramatic events create timeless memories that span generations. Unfortunately, a vast majority of programming was produced, written, and created by white men. America did not see a woman produce a national TV show until the 1950s. Even then, Black women did not break into the TV show industry until the 1977 PBS educational series “Infinity Factory,” produced by Madeline Anderson. Today, Black women are producing and writing some of the greatest TV shows. In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d love to highlight a few Black women who have created binge worthy television programs and shared timeless stories.
Of course, we have to start with arguably the GOAT of primetime television. Shonda Rhimes is a writer, producer and showrunner from Chicago, IL. Rhimes worked tirelessly to make ends meet as a struggling writer in Hollywood until she received her big break writing for Disney’s “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.” Two years later, she was the creator and executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy,” a drama series that follows the staff at Seattle Grace Hospital. The show went on to become one of ABC’s most watched programs with new episodes still airing to this day.
After the success of Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes went on to produce several other shows for ABC, including a Grey’s spin off called “Private Practice.” Rhimes then went on to write the nationally syndicated “Scandal,” which features Kerry Washington in one of her most notable roles to date. Not too long after, Rhimes struck gold again as executive producer of the blockbuster hit, “How to Get Away with Murder.” These shows gained widespread success and spanned several seasons. Before eventually moving on from ABC, Shonda Rhimes was making an estimated $10 million a year.
After her contract with ABC ended, Rhimes took her talents to Netflix where she signed a multi-year $100 million deal. It was there that her brainchild, Shondaland, was born. Under her production company, Rhimes has produced the hit show “Bridgerton” and written the newly released “Inventing Anna.”
All of Rhimes’ projects can be streamed now on Netflix.
If you were anywhere near a computer during the early 2000s, then you know about the craze that was YouTube. This is where Issa Rae, like many creatives during that time, found her start. Rae is the Los Angeles creator and star of the 2011 YouTube series, “Awkward Black Girl.” Her work on “Awkward Black Girl” opened up the opportunity to work with Pharrell Williams to premiere its second season on his YouTube channel, “iamOTHER.” The series garnered massive attention as it offered a counterattack to the stereotypes about Black women perpetuated by Hollywood.
Two years after the birth of “Awkward Black Girl” and receiving a Shorty award for Best Web Show, Rae partnered with Larry Wilmore to pilot a show for HBO. This show came be known as “Insecure,” a show starring Issa Rae as it dives deep into the messiness that is transitioning from your twenty somethings into your thirties and full-blown adulthood. For multiple seasons, the show drew in older audiences who relate to that pressure of not having it all.
“Insecure” is available for streaming now on HBO, HBO Max, and Hulu.
Before TikTok, there was Vine. Vine was a platform that allowed creators six seconds to produce eye catching content. With only six seconds, creatives had to get imaginative if they were going to be viral. This includes maintaining a recurring character through skits or developing an unforgettable catch phrase. Quinta Brunson was such a creator who had you laughing well after her six seconds were up. If the name of the Philadelphia born creative does not ring a bell, you should know she is the creator behind the famous “Oh he got money!” catch phrase. Operating under the name Quinta B, Brunson would act as a woman going on dates with men whose pockets raised her eyebrows in her skit, “Girl Who Never Has Been on A Nice Date.” She was quirky, funny and down to Earth.
These qualities are what helped land her a position as a freelancer turned video producer for the online media platform, BuzzFeed. While at BuzzFeed, she wrote for, produced and starred in the scripted comedy “Broke.” After leaving BuzzFeed, Brunson acted and produce a number of shows before writing for and starring in the first season of HBO’s sketch comedy “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” She only worked on the project for a season before leaving due to scheduling conflicts. Not long after, she received the greenlight from ABC for her show “Abbott Elementary.” The show, which is written by, produced by, and created by Brunson, is a comedy that sheds light on the Philadelphia public school system. In its first few episodes, the show has received a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and become premiere program of the ABC network.
“Abbott Elementary” is available for streaming on Hulu and airs every Tuesday at 9 pm EST/ 8 pm CST.
Misha Green seemed to always work on projects that counter the social norm. Originally from Sacramento, CA, Green has written for highly nuanced shows such as “Heroes” and “Sons of Anarchy.” She also created the drama “Underground,” a story about the Underground Railroad set in the Antebellum South. However, these projects did not have the same social impact as her HBO hit show, “Lovecraft Country.”
Black people in media are very often caricatured into embodiments of stereotypes. Too often do we get programs that are essentially trauma porn of Black suffering. Very few TV shows highlight both the strength and resilience of our community and cast us as the heroes of our own stories. Lovecraft Country is one of those shows. Produced by Jordan Peele, the show is based on the Matt Ruff novel of the same name. However, Green adds her own twist to the narrative as she incorporates layers that critique racial relations in the 1950s. The show is a mixture of Lovecraftian folklore, science fiction, horror, and action/adventure. Unfortunately, the show was not renewed for a second season, but Green has left us with a timeless show that one can binge over and over again.
“Lovecraft Country” is available for streaming now on HBO and HBO Max.
Courtney A. Kemp
The Blaxploitation films of the past introduced us to the gritty underbelly of urban centers that most minorities found themselves in. In my opinion, these films did not intend to portray Black people as thugs or impoverished. I believe these films portrayed that innate spirit within the Black community to make ends meet for themselves and their families, no matter the cost. This eventually crept into our weekly television programming as we saw narrative after narrative of “the hood” and its byproducts. We root for that young brother who has to sell drugs to support his family because we see in stark detail the circumstances that left him no choice. No other show has grasped the attention of nation like Courtney Kemp’s first show she ever pitched, “Power.”
Kemp, a native of Norwalk, CT, pursued a degree in literature and initially sought to become a professor. However, her focus shifted, and she found herself writing for GQ magazine. After working at GQ for 3 years, Kemp packed her bags and headed for Los Angeles equipped with the dream of becoming a TV writer. While there, she landed a position as a staff writer for “The Bernie Mac Show.” This granted her the connections to write for other projects, most notably the 2012 film “Beauty and the Beast” and the popular political drama series, “The Good Wife.”
“Power” came from one chance encounter with 50 Cent and Mark Canton at a LA coffee shop. Kemp pitched the idea for a show about a former drug dealer who seeks to turn his life around and become a successful businessman; 50 Cent and Canton loved the idea and agreed to executive produce the show. The first episode aired on June 7, 2014. Since then, “Power” received numerous awards and broke several records. The show has now evolved into a “Power” universe, with multiple spin off shows airing or in production. Recently, Kemp signed a deal with Netflix and there is massive anticipation to see what she comes up with.
“Power” and subsequent “Power Universe Books” are available for streaming on STARZ and Hulu.
The women highlighted are just the tip of the iceberg of a revolution of women, especially Black women, who are taking the television industry by the neck and telling their stories as honestly as they know how. As both a writer and a lover of television, I seek to learn from the journeys of these women who took matters into their own hands in constructing their narrative. And by reading this post, I hope you can learn from them as well.