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With ‘Scandal,’ Shonda Rhimes Is Upending Racist Hollywood Formulas and Changing TV

Acclaimed writer, director and executive producer Shonda Rhimes has hit yet another milestone. Her new show Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, has been picked up for a second season on ABC. The show and its creator are garnering praise from all sides for this long-overdue feat. The last time one of the major networks renewed a show with an African-American female lead was Get Christie Love back in 1974.

Scandal is based on the real-life exploits of political fixer Judy Smith. It centers around Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, who is just about the most powerful woman in Washington, D.C. She’s so poised, so beautiful, and so brilliant that she can literally bring the president of the United States to tears, as he laments losing her love. The fact that she also happens to be a young, black woman is simply taken as a given.

But it’s not a given. Far from it. In fact, this is a groundbreaking set-up. As the show’s creator, Rhimes has done what so many before her have tried and failed to do: create a seismic paradigm shift in Hollywood.

The paradigm shift that I’m referring to isn’t about the fact that there’s a black woman anchoring a network drama, as wonderful as that may be. No, the real story here is about Shonda Rhimes and the franchise that she’s created with hit shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and, now, Scandal.

Rhimes is proving that she has a repeatable formula for success that works precisely because of the diversity of its key players. In doing so, she’s helping to upend the old idea that mainstream America won’t watch African-Americans on television unless they’re acting the fool or playing the trusty, dusty side-kick.  After all, Hollywood still shapes the stories that are deemed important enough to be told in our culture. And the doors of Hollywood open when network executives believe that there’s money waiting on the other side. In that sense, Rhimes is more of a trailblazer and role model for the young black women coming behind her than the character she created.

Even more impressive, Rhimes has been able to retain her “creator” status on all of her shows, including Scandal. This is no small feat. Those unfamiliar with the inner workings of Hollywood aren’t aware of the crucial nature of that title. It’s not about bragging rights. It’s about having the legal and financial control necessary to maintain your creative control. That’s much, much easier said than done.

So many of us have the creative genius, but not the business knowledge and the fortitude to protect what we create and keep it from being corrupted. Nurturing this type of fortitude is the only thing that will keep there from being another forty-year lapse between Scandal and whatever comes next.

Kuwana Haulsey is an award-winning novelist and author of the upcoming memoir, “Everything I Ever Needed to Know, I Learned from a Six-Month-Old.”

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