Black History Month Spotlight: The Force That Is Shonda Rhimes

February is designated as Black History Month here in Canada. While The Sustainable Switch works to celebrate and elevate Black talent and culture year-round, we are taking it as an excuse to shine a light on some amazing Black talent on-screen and behind-the-scenes for the TV and film industry. This article focuses on media mogul Shonda Rhimes.

Career

Shonda Rhimes is an American writer and producer, well-known for the creation of numerous popular TV dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy (2005-), Scandal (2012-2018), Private Practice (2007-2013), and How To Get Away With Murder (2014-2020).

Figures 1-4 – Private Practice/Grey’s Anatomy/ How To Get Away With Murder/ Scandal

Rhimes was born on January 13, 1970, in Chicago, Illinois. Her career first took off in 1998 when she wrote and directed the short film Blossoms and Veils. The following year she wrote the HBO TV movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, in which Halle Berry played the singer and actress who was the first Black woman with an Oscar nomination for best actress. After this, Rhimes wrote two epic screenplays that defined my formative years: Crossroads (2002) and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004).

Figures 5 & 6 – Princess Diaries 2/ Crossroads

After this foray on the big screen, Rhimes turned her focus to TV. Her first breakthrough came with Grey’s Anatomy, which debuted in 2005 and was an immediate hit. That same year, Rhimes also established her own production company, ShondaLand, which would go on to produce a number of popular series.

In 2007, Rhimes created a spin-off of Grey’s Anatomy, called Private Practice, also focusing on the dramatic lives of medical professionals. In 2018, another spin-off was established called Station 19, focusing on firefighters in the same city as Grey’s Anatomy (Seattle), with some overlap and crossover episodes occurring. In 2012, the TV series Scandal premiered, focusing on a political fixer, having an illicit affair with the U.S. President. In 2014 Rhimes produced How to Get Away with Murder, a darker series following a high-powered lawyer and her students. Next came The Catch (2016-2017), a series about a female investigator; Still Star-Crossed (2017), a Shakespearean-inspired story set after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet; and legal drama, For the People (2018-2019).

While all of these shows premiered on ABC, in 2017, Shonda Rhimes signed a production deal with Netflix. Her first project for the streaming service was the hit TV series Bridgerton (2020-), which is essentially a perfect mashup of a Jane Austen novel and Gossip Girl. The highly awaited second season is coming out soon, on March 25th.

Rhimes’ second project for Netflix – Inventing Anna – follows a hungry female journalist investigating the curious case of Anna Delvey (or Sorokin). The exciting new series is based on the legendary Instagram heiress who conned her way through New York’s elite. The series is set to premiere on February 11th. Find the trailer below!

Diversity on Screen

Shonda Rhimes is widely considered as a leader in the TV industry when it comes to casting people of colour in lead roles. Rhimes herself has stated she simply writes about the diversity she views as normal in the world surrounding her, and wonders why this is such a wild concept to others in her industry.

This section takes a look at 3 of Shonda Rhimes’ series: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Bridgerton.

Grey’s Anatomy

When Grey’s Anatomy premiered in 2005, the show was immediately recognized for its diverse casting, with almost half being people of colour. According to Rhimes, she didn’t specify the characters’ ethnicities when writing the shows pilot, giving her the opportunity to establish an open-casting process. This allowed her to choose the best person for each role, without any preconceptions.

Figure 9 – Grey’s Anatomy Cast

Scandal

The political drama, Scandal, was an instant hit when it premiered in 2012. Actress Kerry Washington plays the main character- the high-powered and deeply damaged Olivia Pope who runs her own crisis management firm, whilst having an illicit affair with the U.S. President. Kerry Washington absolutely killed it in this role and made history as the first Black female lead on an American prime-time network since 1974.

Figure 10 – Scandal

Bridgerton

The Netflix Original series is based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling novels of the same name – chronicling the Bridgerton siblings as they navigate British high society in the 1810s. The show follows Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) in her journey to find a husband.

Figure 11 – Bridgerton Family

On the surface, the show is quite similar to other films and series of its kind. Where it really differs, is in its casting. Generally, when this era is depicted on screen, people of colour are left out entirely, or if they are shown, are often shown as slaves. With Bridgerton, Shondaland flipped the script, working to make race somewhat ‘irrelevant’. This depiction has been somewhat controversial, with some applauding the artistic choice, while others have criticized it.

Essentially, the Black characters in the show exist as equals, with only hints at a time when that wasn’t the case. In Season 1, Episode 4, Daphne’s fake suitor, “The Duke”, is reminded by his maternal figure, Lady Danbury, that there were once two separate societies, divided by colour. That was until the King fell in love with his Queen, a Black woman, and everything changed. Black society was elevated, and individuals were given status and titles in British society.

This version of the story allows us a view into an alternate reality – a different way that history could have played out with this pairing. This is where the line between fact and fiction blurs, with recent speculation that Queen Charlotte, the wife of George lll, may have actually been Black.

Overall, while controversial, this casting choice offered people of colour an opportunity to audition for roles that would normally be unavailable to them. By making this choice, Shonda Rhimes removed significant barriers that are usually in place for Black actors.

Learn more about Black talent on-screen and behind-the-scenes with our other Black History Month spotlights:

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