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Black History in Television & Film: The Greats Who Made “Scandal” Possible

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From ABC's "Scandal"

From ABC’s “Scandal”

“Scandal” is not only the latest craze in television but also black history in the making. As the star of the show, Kerry Washington is the first African-American female lead on a primetime show in about forty years. This enrapturing television series faithfully watched by millions of diverse nationalities country is the brainchild of award-winning screenwriter and executive producer Shonda Rhimes – also an African American. “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” are also the products of Rhimes’ imagination. This Golden Globe winner even had a writing hand in Walt Disney’s “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.” None of the latter would be possible, however, if African Americans of years past had not charted new territory in the entertainment industry for those who would follow them. Let us take a look at some of the black history makers who made possible our colorful entertainment of today.

A huge step was taken by Hattie McDaniel in 1939 when she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind.” Black Enterprise reports that she was the very first African American to win this title. Although prevalent discrimination left her only having screen credit for about 80 of the 300 films she went on to be cast in, her Oscar achievement served as a victory for African Americans as a whole in the entertainment industry.

The next prominent African-American actor to leave his mark in entertainment was Sidney L. Poitier. In 1963, he was the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. According to Black Enterprise, he earned the title at the age of 37 for his role of Homer Smith in “Lilies of the Field.” Prior to this achievement, he had already begun molding history by making numerous lead appearances in classic American films such as “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “The Defiant Ones.”

1965 is when doors really began to open up for African Americans on camera. As indicated by Nooga.com, it was during this year that Bill Cosby became the first black actor to co-star in a television series. In NBC’s “I Spy,” Cosby played the role of Alexander Scott – the trainer for professional athlete Kelly Robinson. Even more notable is the fact that Cosby won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor over his co-star for three years straight. Yet, this Emmy winner’s contributions to entertainment do not stop here. Arguably his most valuable mark on television entertainment history is “The Cosby Show” which ran for about 8 years. This show is most known for changing the way America viewed African-Americans and their families by portraying the famous Huxtable family as highly educated upper class professionals.  Beyond The Cosby Show, however, Bill is also known for his children’s cartoons featuring positive messages and starring African-American youth – “Little Bill” and “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”

On the note of children’s animations, Cosby’s achievements certainly served as stepping stones for Peter Ramsey. HuffPost Black Voices reports that this African-American gentleman recently made history as the first black man to direct a major animated film – “Rise of the Guardians.” Adding to the excitement and history is the fact that this children’s animated film has been nominated for a Golden Globe award.

Although Hattie McDaniel, Sidney L. Poitier, and Bill Cosby are not all directly related to the television shows and films of today that we know and love, it certainly took brave individuals like them to step into and change an industry largely unwelcome to African-Americans. Because of their determination and passion in days of old, however, we are able to sit down with our loved ones and enjoy shows like “Scandal” and films like “Rise of the Guardians.”

 ~

The founder of Your Black PoetsAyvaunn Penn is an award-winning writer pursuing her graduate degrees in dramatic writing and acting. Click to follow her on Facebook and Twitter. To have Ayvaunn Penn feature your original poetry on Your Black Poets, click here.

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