Has prime time TV finally accepted black actresses?
Last week's Emmy Awards suggests it has: This year, black women were nominated for 10 Emmys, nine of which were dramatic. Three performers won, including How to Get Away with Murder star Viola Davis, who became the first black woman to win the lead actress in a drama prize.
Davis' win capped a good night: Uzo Aduba won best supporting actress for her role as the hilarious, sensitive, tongue-tied Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren on Netflix's Orange is the New Black, and Regina King picked up an award for her role as the devout Aliyah Shadeed on ABC's American Crime.
A growing number of dramas now offer strong roles for women of color, including Fox's Empire, Sleepy Hollow, and Minority Report; ABC's Scandal and Mistresses; Starz's Power; DirectTV's Rogue, CBS's Extant; FX's American Horror Story; and BET's Being Mary Jane and Book of Negroes.
It's hardly an avalanche, nut it's certainly a nice start.
As Davis, 50, noted in her Emmy speech, actresses of color haven't exactly been drowning in good roles.
"The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity," she said. "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."
It's taken the work of visionaries Lee Daniels (Empire), John Ridley (American Crime), Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder) and Power creator Courtney Kemp Agboh to create those roles.
In a sense, the rise of these shows was inevitable: The networks have long relied on African American audiences. Empire, starring Terrence Howard as hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon and Emmy-nominated Taraji P. Henson as his ex-wife, Cookie, is a veritable pop culture phenom. The series, which returned for its second season Wednesday, owed much of its early success to African Americans viewers.
Yet TV producers have only recently begun to offer sophisticated fare with meaty roles for black actresses.
The best shows feature complex, multidimensional characters, women who juggle competing responsibilities such as work and their love lives.
As leaders and professionals, they also struggle with weighty moral decisions and more often than not are willing to break the rules to succeed.
They are antiheroes, a type once associated with male leads.
Scandal, which kicked off its fifth season Thursday, features Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a top fixer for the rich and famous. It's her job to make senators, corporate heads, and lobbyists look good - often by covering up their misdeeds.
Yet Olivia also is passionate about helping ordinary folks fight injustice. She travels a morally murky road.
Moral ambivalence also seems to be the defining trait for the leading women in Power, American Horror Story, and How to Get Away with Murder.
Henson, who plays the divine Cookie on Empire, consistently acts in the name of uniting her family. Yet sometimes that means alienating some and hurting others; she's gone as far as making an attempt on her ex-husband's life. The Season Two premiere has her anger her middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), with threats of a hostile takeover of the family biz.
Annalise Keating, Davis' excruciatingly complicated character in How to Get Away with Murder, which returned for its second season Sept. 24, also is powerful, magnetic, and determined. A successful Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer and law professor, Keating helps her students get away with murder.
Their victim? Keating's white husband, Sam (Tom Verica).
Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder present biracial couples as a perfectly ordinary fact. Yet How to Get Away with Murder also looks at how racial stereotyping can be used as a weapon: When Sam and Annalise have the mother of all fights, she compares his performance in bed to that of her black lover (April Parker Jones). For his part, Sam calls her a typical black harlot.
It's strong stuff for network television.
Issues of race, gender, beauty, and sexuality are explored in these shows with frankness. Olivia, Annalise, and their compatriots present a public face modified - straight, lightened hair, makeup.
Yet we also see them in private when they take off these symbolic gestures of cultural acquiescence as Annalise does in a memorable episode of How to Get Away with Murder that had her strip off her carefully constructed public mask.
One of the salutary effects of these dramas is their power to give viewers concrete representations of black women as accomplished professionals.
Minority Report star Meagan Good and Sleepy Hollow's Nicole Beharie don't play black cops but cops who are black.
As more and more roles open up for African American women, expect more of the normal - more politicians, soldiers, leaders. But you should also look for series that follow the lead of How to Get Away with Murder and explore what makes the experience of African American women unique.