Saturday Night Live came under fire earlier this season when they debuted their newest cast members, and not a brown face was in sight- namely, a black woman. In an era where black woman centralize popular culture, skits involving black women usually feature a sloppy Keenan Thompson in wig and dress, emasculating himself for hesitant laughs. The fans spoke out. Soon after, SNL announced that Kerry Washington would host.
Best known for roles like Della B in Ray, Chenille in Save the Last Dance, Broomhilda von Shaft in Django Unchained and of course her current stint as Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal, Washington is known for her luminous dramatic range. She is poise and believable in every role, cranking out 3-dimensional portrayals that are dignified and skillful. She retired her dramatic chops and joined the comedic playground. SNL cast members are comedic prodigies, and to perform with them is a high order and takes true courage. Washington seemed right at home.
They brilliantly opened the show diving right into the controversy, having Washington play Oprah and Michelle Obama in the same sketch. They then issued a hilarious public service announcement, a formal apology to Washington for asking her to play so many black women in one episode. Throughout the episode, we see a fantastic range of characters from ghetto fabulous Tammy Fox in “Steps to Success” to fictitious Spelman professor Alice Rogers-Smith in “How’s He Doing?,” a recurring sketch about what it would take for black people to stop supporting President Obama, and my favorite, a spicy vixen in parodying music video “What Does My Girl Say?” With masterful comedic timing, she soared in all of them.
This was a pretty smart decision on the part of SNL producers. It seems they came close to getting a fair amount of bad press. SNL has a troubled past when it comes to black women cast members. According to The SNL Archives, since 1975, the iconic weekend program has only had 3 black women as featured or repertory players, Yvonne Hudson from 1980-1981, Danitra Vance from 1985-1986, and Maya Rudolph from 1999-2007. By leaning into the controversy and poking fun at itself, the show uses self-deprecation to remain relevant and honest.
This was also a pretty fantastic decision on the part of Washington’s team. For an actress who often seems a bit distant and aloof, her regality is beautifully grounded and she comes off quite relatable and fun. It has also been confirmed that Washington’s episode pulled in the season’s highest ratings so far. Hopefully the producers will take note and realize the watchers value diversity and will develop some recruitment efforts to ensure the cast more accurately mirrors the many colors of the America fabric. Kerry Washington flexed Olivia Pope’s “fixer” muscle and performed some real PR rejuvenation for SNL. Congratulations! Kerry On!