Olivia Pope always wins big, but
Scandal star Kerry Washington could outdo her alter ego at the Emmy Awards this weekend with a feat that upstages most pseudo-political crises.
On Sunday, the 36-year-old star stands to make history as the first African-American actress ever to receive an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role in the popular ABC show.
She is the first black actress since Cicely Tyson in 1995 to earn a nomination.
According to experts, Washington is a frontrunner for the award along with Homeland star Claire Danes, and a strong candidate based on both the gravity and significance of her work.
And she did it all without the help of her gladiators.
“For Kerry, it’s time,” Cori Murray, Entertainment Director for Essence tells theGrio. “It’s a very natural evolution in her career. What I love about it, there’s that fever in the audience over Scandal. Not just black audiences, but all audiences, white people, Latinos. Everybody is really in love with the show.”
Along with Washington’s talent, Murray believes her off-camera work over the past year has been compelling and adds to awards momentum.
Coupled with social relevance, she sees the actress as having an almost clear shot for the prize, and a chance to make history for black stars.
“I don’t want her to win because of that, but it’s also time for her to win,” Murray comments. “Kerry’s been on every red carpet. She’s been working…All these wins are just as much about the quality of your work as the politics and getting out there. She’s been putting on a good face and being present in Hollywood.”
The votes are in: Kerry vs. Claire
According to other Emmy experts, votes are split between Washington and Danes, with the latter carrying a slight edge due to precedence.
Danes won the category last year, and also received a Golden Globe and SAG Award for her character Carrie Mathison.
On the other hand, this year marks Washington’s first nomination after a pass in 2012, and beforeScandal turned into one of the highest-rated dramas on television.
The second season of Shonda Rhimes’ TV series became ubiquitous on Thursday nights, with fans not only watching the show but also joining its stars to discuss each episode over social media.
Says L.A. Times writer and Emmy expert Glenn Whipp, Washington has proven a major factor inScandal’s success.
“People watch it obsessively and Kerry is a huge reason for it. I don’t think the show works without her lead performance,” he comments. “It feels like it’s certainly her time, and a really good opportunity for members of the television academy to honor an African-American actress.”
Beyond accolades, Washington has defied the standards of network television, making the Emmy nomination particularly notable.
“Given that Kerry is in a role in which her race takes a back seat, I think this is significant because it feels like she’s truly being recognized for being a good actress navigating a very complicated role,” comments Tracy Clayton, an editor for TheRoot.com. “There’s not this feeling that she’s being honored for being a ‘strong black woman;’ there’s not the kind of double-edged sword that many felt when Denzel Washington was honored for Training Day when it seemed that he was being honored for portraying a certain type of black man.”
How Washington broke the mold
Not only have black female leads in drama series previously been rare, the strength and popularity of Washington’s character has become almost a prototype for new shows within the genre.
After Scandal, there was Meagan Good in the short-lived Deception; Gabrielle Union in Being Mary Jane; and now Nicole Beharie in Sleepy Hollow.
In an interview last year with OWN, Union noted the relevance of Olivia Pope, saying the entire casting experience was different because of Rhimes.
More than the role, however, Washington deserves credit for bringing the series into its own.
“With Scandal, the show just really caught fire this season,” Whipp points out, noting the handful of magazine covers Washington has graced over the year. “Her performance fuels that show. Without her, such a central role and powerful character, and she’s so great at it, she’s just kind of leaped to the front of the category this year.”
Jethro Nededog, Senior TV Writer for TheWrap, interviewed Washington shortly after she got word of her nomination.
“I got the feeling that she sees how historical it would be if she did win the award,” he remarks. “But she doesn’t really publicly stress it that much. Personally, what’s funny is that, not including Scandal, you would pretty much consider her a movie star. It would be huge for her to have gotten the actual award because it would mean that not only with Django Unchained, she is doing well on both the small screen and the big screen.”
Washington told the N.Y. Times in July she was “honored” to share the sentiment of the nomination with actresses like Tyson, Alfre Woodard and Regina Taylor, but appeared more excited to be part of a show that was “diverse and inclusive.”
Before Tyson, who earned her nod for Sweet Justicein 1995, Taylor was nominated in 1993 for I’ll Fly Away, and Woodard in 1986 for St. Elsewhere.
While there has been a black winner for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series – Isabel Sanford inThe Jeffersons in 1981 – the last nominee in that category was Phylicia Rashad in 1986 for The Cosby Show.
Nededog predicts Washington will not win this year because the Academy may wait to honor her, but he acknowledges the current buzz factor surrounding the star.
As Scandal’s successors demonstrate, the character of Olivia Pope alone does not quantify achievement, Washington’s performance does.
“It’s Hollywood trying to repeat the winning formula,” says Nededog. “They see this African-American lead in Scandal doing really well, and say let’s replicate it with Deception. Of course that didn’t work because, when it comes down to it, I really do think people watch Scandal without even realizing the races involved. If you look at the cast, it’s diverse race-wise, but also religion and sexuality and all that kind of stuff and I think a lot of that falls away for most people when they’re watching. Just the formula of having a minority women in a lead role doesn’t always work.”
Murray agrees, pointing out the complexity and multi-dimensionality of Olivia Pope.
Granted the show took a season to find its groove, Washington certainly led the dance.
“I didn’t love Scandal when I started watching it that first season,” Murray admits. “If she would have gotten the nomination last year, it would have been very blatantly, ‘Oh, we’ve got to give the nomination to a black person.’ What I love about her nomination this time around, it’s because of the quality of her work.”
Changing the image of African-American women
Yet there’s no denying the impact that Washington, Rhimes and Olivia Pope have had on network TV, and in turn, African-American women.
Academy voters love the narrative behind the candidate, says Whipp, who calls it a “great opportunity for people to make history.”
To a certain extent, history has already been made.
“I’m so glad that Kerry is showing them that this can be done, and she’s not whitewashing it,” says Murray. “She’s not the typical African-American character that has been portrayed in TV and film. Whether it be the golddigger, the jezebel…especially now, this ratchetness. She’s an educated woman. She’s got problems. She fixes them. Sometimes she makes smart choices, sometimes she makes bad choices…She dresses her a** off. She’s changing the image of African-American women.”
Clayton adds, “What it really reflects is an effort to stay on this path, to continue to see black people and people of color as humans before anything else. But as for where we really are, we definitely aren’t there yet. If a black woman actually had an affair with the president of the United States, you’d better believe there’d be a huge racial component to the discussion surrounding it.”