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Why Network TV Has Become Home to Black Female Oscar Winners


In the 13 years since winning an Academy Award for best actress in Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry has been called the “poster child for the Oscar curse,” “the queen of the post-Oscar dive,” and a pop-culture punchline. One movie blog headlined its list of terrible films by Oscar-winning actors “The Halle Berry Effect.” Lots of stars have followed their Oscar wins with bombs, but few have suffered from the wrecked reputation that Berry earned after Catwoman, Gothika, New Years’ Eve, and Cloud Atlas. Her intended Oscar-bait Frankie and Alice has a 21 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In 2012, she released a movie straight-to-video.

In "Extant" a Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi series that debuted on CBS last Wednesday, Berry plays an astronaut who returns from a 13-month solo expedition in space, only to discover she’s mysteriously pregnant. A few years ago, a starring role in a small-screen, CBS mashup of Rosemary’s Baby, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Spielberg’s AI, would have been just one more example of this career decline: from the Oscars to the Old People’s Channel. Now, it’s a career comeback of sorts—last week’s premiere earned decent, if not blockbuster ratings. The show also earned the honor of being the first entry in one of this TV season’s micro-trends: Oscar-winning or nominated black actresses headlining new network shows.

Viola Davis
ABC/Nicole Rivelli
Viola Davis in "How to Get Away with Murder"

Movie actors heading to TV has become fairly typical, even trendy. But Berry, along with Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson, are appearing on old-fashioned broadcast networks, not HBO or Netflix. Octavia Spencer, who won a supporting actress statue for The Help, is starring in “Red Band Society,” a Fox series about patients in a hospital’s psychiatric ward. (It’s like “Glee” with cancer.) Viola Davis—nominated twice, for Doubt and The Help—is starring in the latest snappy drama produced by Shonda Rhimes, “How to Get Away With Murder,” as a law professor in the Olivia Pope mold: smart, intimidating, sexy. And Taraji P. Henson, nominated for her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will star in Fox’s "Empire," a drama about the family behind a hip-hop music empire. (Jennifer Hudson can also be seen on TV screens, in Weight Watchers commercials.)

It’s both a sign of the increased attraction of a regular TV paycheck, and an indication of how much more welcome television has been to women and non-white actors than the film industry. (Last month, Zoe Saldana told an interviewer that the best roles for women are in outer space.) Studios, as has been extensively documented, are more hesitant than ever to take risks. Meanwhile, TV executives are no longer under the illusion that they will ever be able to attract the huge audiences that they used to. And so as Hollywood’s output becomes more homogenized, television—network TV, not just niche cable channels—has begun to pick up the slack. According to a recent UCLA study, more than half of films in 2011 had casts that were 10 percent minority or less. In TV, that was only 23.2 percent. (And note that this was 2011, before the debut of shows like “Scandal,” “Mindy Project,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”) This fall season will be network TV’s most diverse within memory, thanks in part to what Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur has called the “Shonda effect.”

Octavia Spencer
Annette Brown / FOX
Octavia Spencer in "Red Band Society"

Not all these shows will be successful, or even particularly good. At least a few will be cancelled by spring. But they all give talented actresses the chance to play characters who aren’t slaves or maids or nannies. Davis, Spencer, and Henson, who haven’t had Berry’s trainwreck film career, still have found their opportunities limited because they don’t look like Anne Hathaway. Mo’Nique, who won best supporting actress in 2010 for Precious, hasn’t appeared in theaters since. Gabourey Sidibe had found the greatest success on TV shows like “the Big C” and “American Horror Story.” At least for now, Lupita Nyongo—who also established herself as a fashion icon—may be breaking the trend: She’s been cast in the upcoming Star Wars film, and is signed to produce and star in a film adaption of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. But she may want to keep Shonda Rhimes on speed dial.

This article has been updated.