Why is it still groundbreaking for a TV show like Scandal to have a black female star?

Kerry Washington, star of <em>Scandal</em>, is the first black woman to be starring in a US primetime network show since the 1970s.

Blanche and Dorothy and Rose and Sophia. Donatello and Leonardo and Michelangelo and Raphael. Max and Khadijah and Synclaire and Regine. Samantha and Carrie and Charlotte and Miranda. The Power of Four (those foursomes were from The Golden Girls, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Living Single and Sex and the City, respectively) is a well worn television trope. For one thing, it makes it incredibly easy for TV writers to format “Which X Show Character Are YOU?” quizzes, and for another, it’s the perfect number for audiences to latch onto and identify with. It allows for interesting mixes - each relationship reveals further insight into the characters, and allows for more nuanced inferences to be written for, and understood by audiences. It’s a magic TV number.

Whatever permutations the four take on, there is always a "hub person" ie the character around whom the others revolve. The three are mere satellites - interesting and worthy of study, sure - but all working around the main event, the fully formed planet that brings them all together. So that’s why Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was the only one who “couldn’t help but wonder”. It’s why Sarah Jessica Parker won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, while the others were nominated in the "Supporting Actress" category (only Kim Cattrall ever won). And even when all four of the leads won Emmys in the "Lead Actress" category, as with The Golden Girls, you knew in your gut that Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) was the show’s centre, just as Khadijah James (Queen Latifah) was the glue that kept the the girls together in Living Single.

The hub person that I am most excited by at the moment is on Some Girls, a teen show on BBC Three. Holli, Saz and Amber all revolve around their hub person, Viva, who is smart and wise and fun and pretty, and as complicated as a 16 year-old girl on telly can be. She is also black (where her satellites are white and Asian). If you can’t tell why that is worth noting, then you must not watch a lot of television. Even more thrillingly, Viva is a hub person in the same era as one of television’s Great Black Girl Moments™; she exists in the time of Scandal, and the character of Olivia Pope, who, with apologies to Charles Spencer, is sheer televisual viagra. Scandal is a phenomenon, not that you would guess this from its buried-away little slot on More4 on British telly.

Its star, Kerry Washington - all quivering lips and conflicted Bambi eyes - made history when she was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of the Washington DC fixer who isn’t quite as immaculate as the sharply tailored white suits she favours. Washington was the first black woman nominated in the category of Lead Actress in a Drama since Cicely Tyson in 1995; no black actress has ever won it, not once in the Emmys’ 64-year history. Scandal is one of the highest rated dramas on television at the moment, and Olivia Pope is not only the hub person on her show, she’s almost a hub person for prime time television as a whole. It is exciting, but we’ve been excited before, like when Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001, and we all braced ourselves for a veritable rainbow revolution in the world of casting. In reality, only three black women have been nominated in that category since then (Gabourey Sidibe in 2009, for Precious; Viola Davis for The Help in 2011 and Quvenzhane Wallis last year, for Beasts of the Southern Wild) and none of them won. Break out the champagne. . .

But back to Scandal, which is impressive while still carrying the mantle of startling "firsts" for a television show being broadcast in the 2010s. Here are the facts of it: it was created by a black woman, based on the life of a black woman, and stars a black woman in the lead role. Washington is the first black woman to be starring in a US primetime network show since the 1970s. For the show’s eighth episode of the current (third) series, creator Shonda Rhimes has enlisted the talent of Sundance-winning Best Director Ava DuVernay (in turn, she was the first African-American winner of that prize). Ebony magazine tells us it “will be the first time a Black woman directs a primetime network TV drama created by a Black woman and starring a Black woman.” It is 2013.

Scandal is not problem-free, of course. It has been clumsy and cringingly awkward when it comes to race. There was a Sally Hemings' line shoehorned into season two with all the finesse of a tripping hippo, and a near total lack of acknowledgement of Pope’s achievement in shadow of American history and reality (you should watch Jessica Pearson - played by Gina Torres - in another US import, Suits, for that). It succeeds when it looks like it’s not trying too hard, when it just seems to be stating bald facts - the moment in season 2 episode 16 when the client reaches out to shake the hand of "Olivia Pope" and automatically approaches her junior colleague, a white redhead. It nails it even more powerfully in the season three opener, when Pope’s father (Joe Morton) asks her, “How many times have I told you, you have to be what?” And Olivia replies on a whisper, “Twice as good. . .” “To get half of what they have!” he completes with a bellow. It’s a pretty perfect scene, telling the story of one person, but also an entire race in a matter of seconds. It is an almost always impossible ask; what is often being asked of black people is something more than human: infallibility. And with the DNA of Scandal being what it is, the request has come to the show’s door - it has to be twice as good.

Thankfully, it usually is.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage