Say her name -- Olivia Pope
We hear her name spoken with a reverence and mystery before we ever see her confidently striding into the headquarters of her business.
She exudes power, grace, intelligence and appeal and the most powerful men in the nation's capital literally tremble when she calls.
We are informed, Olivia Pope sets the rules.
She would have to, because we've never seen a dramatic hour-long prime time series with a black woman as the lead character on one of the major American broadcast networks.
One has to go back into the archives of the George Johnson Collection of Negro Film at UCLA Special Collections Library, which kept a record of every African-American to appear in a movie through 1970, to understand the deep symbolism of so distinctively naming Pope's character. For most of the first 60 years of the movie industry, black actors appeared in movies but not in the credits. We print the list of black actors from the Johnson Collection in Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vol. 2, 1900-1950 so that they will have a presence in history.
Kerry Washington, as Olivia Pope, and series creator Shonda Rhimes built a character who is authentic to the lives they lead.
As entranced as I was by the portrayal, I immediately thought of real women Washington's Pope ("I'm a fixer, I fix problems") reminded me of -- like college students competing for world titles in robotics, a geoscientist diving in the Pacific on a research expedition, editors of daily newspapers, politicians, the inventor of digital motion picture technology, sisters, cousins, nieces, the receptionist in my 36th floor office suite - all forging a new identity striding into a world which has ignored their very existence. Eventually, I had to limit it to just the women I had encountered this week.
Helping Rimes create the show is former White House aide Judy Smith, who discusses her crisis management firm in this video.
In my one-woman play, Queen Calafia: Ruler of California, I addressed the identity challenge through a character of similar accomplishment coming face to face with her historic legacy.
Contrasting the nostalgic commodification of Hollywood's traditional depiction, The Help, or the typical comedy ghetto, Rimes introduces American viewers to the kind of woman they are most likely to encounter as head of an agency, CEO of a company, their lawyer or doctor or as a Navy admiral.
Art is way behind life. In the annual State of Black Business series, I've found since 2005 that the number of black women in business has exceeded black men. By 2008, there were 758,276 black women self-employed compared to 546,013 African-American men. I call that rapid rate of ascent "the Oprah effect."
During Black Innovation Month in April, we set about dispelling stereotypes which put ceilings on the aspirations of young women. Recently strolling through Spelman College, I remember a whole campus full of Olivia Popes, images which we rarely see on television.
Rimes and Washington deftly explore the internal tension of success, giving Pope's bullet-proof countenance moments of vulnerability which make her more than a cartoon super-hero.
Smile when you say her name.
Playwright, novelist, filmmaker and historian John William Templeton is author of Job Creation and Innovation: State of Black Business, 9th edition and co-founder of the 9th annual National Black Business Month in August 2012.
Black Student Participation
- Washington, D.C.
- Florida Math, Science Participation by African-American Students
- Georgia Math, Science Participation by African-American Students
- North Carolina
- New Jersey
- New York
- South Carolina