I can see why the R’s Arturo García crushed out on Kerry Washington's visage on the Jumbotron at the Democratic National Convention last week: she's not only a stunning woman, but she speaks her stunning truth about the history, joy, and responsibility of US citizenship. And, in her work, she embodies her rallying cry that “we are not invisible.”
Washington’s video career is someone who steadily and surely does amazing things with some material that make you go “hmmmm,” from Anthony Mackie’s smoothly manipulative ex-girlfriend in Spike Lee’s problematic alternative-family message flick She Hate Me, Ray Charles’ long-suffering, stand-by-her-man wife in Ray, Idi Amin’s abused, adulterous wife in that neo-Africans-As-Savages film The Last King Of Scotland to the oh-too-sexy temptress in that I-wish-Chris-Rock-would-divorce-his-wife-already movie I Think I Love My Wife.
When I saw Washington as the little-too-long-in-the-struggle Black radical Patricia Wilson in Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us that I finally understood what she brings to these films: Washington makes the viewer wrestle with these characters’ humanity while they are making some decisions that we say we may not make in the safety of our own homes, theaters, and lives. It was with that realization that I wanted to watch Washington challenge me with the choices her characters make.
And, wow, she sure did for 7 weeks in the Spring with her show Scandal. As Olivia Pope, the owner of a crisis-management firm in Washington DC, Washington again and again challenges the viewer to behold her brilliant, well-respected mind as she fixes some seriously ethical messes for Washington DC’s powerful types, including her ex-lover, President Fitzgerald Grant. (They get involved while she’s working as his presidential campaign manager and with full support from his wife. It’s still a mess.) All the while marveling at Pope’s brains, I wonder if, indeed, I could make the same, sometimes unethical decisions she makes for clients and her employees, who also serves as her posse when shit goes down, like when she can’t emotionally extricate herself from the President Grant as he’s facing a marriage-challenging disaster.
What Washington makes visible with her work is the complexity, the sheer messiness, of Black women’s lives, almost as if she eschews the “positive.” respectability-politics role in order to play them. As she said in a 2012 interview:
In order for us to honor each other’s humanity, it’s important to see the full range of who we are. I’ve never had a career where I’ve said I won’t play a prostitute or I won’t play a thief or I won’t play a slave or I won’t play a maid, because for me there’s nothing wrong with playing those people. People who have a history of being a slave, a prostitute, a maid, a drug addict–those people are human beings too. We all deserve to have our stories told. And we all have much to gain by walking in other people’s shoes. I don’t believe that there needs to be one story or one storyteller.