When Scandal premiered on ABC in 2012, it was famously the first network drama with a black female lead since 1974’s Get Christie Love!, a cop show in the mold of Blaxploitation films that lasted just one season. In the beginning, Scandal’s heroine, the Washington fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), wore the “white hat,” as her employees often pointed out; aside from her steamy affair with the president, Olivia was always calm, cool, and collected. She had all the poise — not to mention the closet of glamorous workwear — of Ivanka Trump, with none of the collusion.
But as the show developed past its first, highly procedural season, cracks began to show. As The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2014, on the verge of its fourth season (it’s currently midway through its sixth), the show initially presented a kind of post-racial fantasyland in which no one seemed to notice or care that Olivia was black; by the second season, that began to change, particularly when Olivia’s parents (played by Joe Morton and Khandi Alexander) came on the scene and added a “subtextual racial resonance” to the show, and particularly when Olivia’s father reminds her that she’s always had to be “twice as good as anyone else.”
Over time, Olivia started to come undone — you weren’t always sure she was in control, and you weren’t always sure she was doing the right thing for the right reasons. Television’s depiction of black women has run a parallel course alongside Olivia Pope, loosening up enough to reflect the complexities of life in America as a black woman while at the same time developing characters that aren’t solely defined by their gender or race. Two new dramas, Fox’s Shots Fired and BET’s Rebel, explicitly revise the trope of the “strong black woman” for a new era.
A ten-episode mini-series about a racially-charged police shooting, Shots Fired was created by filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood and her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood, who were searching for a way to answer their 12-year-old son’s questions after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. The show stars Sanaa Lathan as Ashe Akino, an investigator with the Department of Justice who’s brought in to a small North Carolina town when the police force’s sole black cop fatally shoots a white teen.
Ashe is a complex character — sexy and tough, but not always in control. In the words of my former colleague Sesali Bowen, “She likes alcohol and casual sex, not because she’s damaged but because she’s an adult.” She has a young daughter who lives with her father and his new wife, a stable arrangement that Ashe seems determined to upend. “You used to like crazy,” she tells her ex, adding, “We both know you’re bored as hell.” She’s a classic loner maverick, a woman who gave up a cushy job with the District Attorney’s office because she’d rather be her own boss. She’s a stark contrast to her partner in the investigation, a by-the-book DOJ lawyer named Preston (Stephan James) who wishes he had her swag. “I’m every man’s type,” she tells Preston at the bar after their first day together, and although the show’s costume designers put her in decidedly un-glamorous t-shirts and jeans, you believe her.
The title character of BET’s Rebel, which, like Get Christie Love! began as a made-for-TV movie, is even more akin to the second coming of Pam Grier. Rebecca “Rebel” Knight (Danielle Moné Truitt) is an Oakland detective and army veteran with a collection of funky, strappy bras and — like an expression of her multitudes — hair that’s practically never styled the same way twice: wrangled into a faux-hawk when we first meet her; big and wild when she visits her family later; pulled back and braided at the police station; and totally natural and messy when she’s grieving. In the first scene of the show’s two-hour pilot, she walks into a dive bar and goes rogue on a group of white men in suits. “Touch me and I’m gonna throw some real cuffs on your ass,” she warns, whipping out her night stick; when she arrests one of them for stalking a woman he had raped, she warns his buddies, “Y’all better fall back, or I’mma pull out another weapon and stand my ground. Am I clear?” Crystal.
Like Shots Fired, Rebel’s instigating incident is a police shooting — but this one is personal. Rebel and her white, male partner come across a man with a gun, and she realizes it’s her younger brother. Even after he drops the gun, Rebel’s eye-twitching partner won’t drop his; just as he’s about to fire, Rebel shoots her partner in the leg. But then the sirens start to wail, and the cop cars arrive, and as Rebel’s brother begins to run, a hailstorm of bullets flies through his back, killing him. The incident — and the pointed questioning she endures after the fact — is enough to make her quit the police force. She starts performing at poetry slams and taking on cases as a private investigator.
Shots Fired is a far more naturalistic series than Rebel, which revels in its stylishness. (The pilot was directed by John Singleton, the first black director to be nominated for an Oscar, for 1991’s Boyz n the Hood , which he also wrote.) As a consequence, Ashe is a far more complex character than Rebel — less of an archetypal badass bitch. Although she is that, too; in the first episode, she has sex with Preston’s football-player brother, who starts to feed her a line about her “sad” eyes before she cuts him off: “I appreciate the sentiment but you’re sounding like a real bitch right now.” Later, a plainly jealous Preston informs her that the evening didn’t mean anything to his brother. Ashe just laughs. “Didn’t mean anything to me, either.”
At the series’ start, Preston is far more willing to give the majority-white police force the benefit of the doubt than Ashe. When video surfaces of Joshua (Tristan Wilds), the black cop who shot the white teen, joking about shooting “crackers,” Ashe tells Preston, “We both know something ain’t right here” — particularly since the police were involved in the death of another teenage boy, who was black, and who hasn’t inspired nearly the same level of investigation from the Department of Justice.
Watching these two dramas — not to mention Underground, a show about a group of runaway slaves led by Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds, who also appears as a fiery preacher in Shots Fired) — it’s hard not to think about the black women who have historically been at the forefront of social justice movements in this country, whether or not they got their due. In the current issue of The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz has a profile of the early feminist and civil-rights activist Pauli Murray. As Schulz writes, the past few years “have seen a burst of interest in her life and work,” which is not entirely coincidental. She continues:
Historical figures aren’t human flotsam, swirling into public awareness at random intervals. Instead, they are almost always borne back to us on the current of our own times. In Murray’s case, it’s not simply that her public struggles on behalf of women, minorities, and the working class suddenly seem more relevant than ever. It’s that her private struggles…have recently become our public ones.
The emergence of TV heroines like Ashe and Rebel — strong black women without the scare quotes, women whose strength doesn’t preclude their humanity — feels like a similar sign of the times. Get Christie Love! grew out of the tradition of Blaxploitation films; with her low-waisted bell-bottoms, bare midriff, and sassy catchphrase — “You’re under arrest, sugar!” — Love, played by Teresa Graves, is a relic of her time, trapped in the amber of the sexist ’70s and stuffed into the mold of sex object first and foremost.
But Shots Fired and Rebel come from a deeper place, and their commitment to social justice casts their sexy-cool heroines in a far different light. On these shows, strength is not an Instagram filter or a slogan you can screen-print onto a T-shirt. It’s not a stylistic choice — it’s a necessity.
Rebel airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on BET; Shots Fired airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox.