Friends and Weekends

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”    –Henry David Thoreau

Executive producer Harry Lennix with producer Stephanie Frederic and talent from "The Mirror."

Executive producer Harry Lennix with producer Stephanie Frederic and talent from “The Mirror.”

There are men and women who “lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Then, there are my friends who lead loud lives of pure delight.  Their lives are filled with curiosity and adventure mingled with characteristic chaos and insanity.  They see life as never-ending play—whether it’s during work or after work.

This weekend, while some are languishing on a beach, others are consumed by breaking news, and most are on the edge beaten down by the summer’s heat, two of my friends are spending the weekend working on a creative collaboration.

Richard Gant on the set of "The Mirror."

Richard Gant on the set of “The Mirror.”

Richard Gant, part actor and full-time intrepid seeker of wisdom, and Stephanie Frederic, one of Hollywood’s most versatile producers of everything from movies to movie trailers and television shows, are shooting a movie.  In two days, the two of them along with several others will shoot a made-for-TV movie.  Stephanie is one of the producers of The Mirror, the first in a horror trilogy airing later this year on cable’s TV One.  Richard plays a character who commands attention the minute he appears on the screen.

Richard is in the movie due to friends including The Mirror‘s writer/producer Paul Skorich. In it, Richard plays best friend to Harry Lennix of The Blacklist, who also serves as executive producer. Among the other friends of friends appearing in the flick are former The Young and The Restless stars Victoria Rowell and Davetta Sherwood, Aida Rodriguez from Last Comic Standing, and television personality Karrueche Tran. Even a few of Harry’s friends not in the movie including actors George Newbern and Steve Harris dropped by the set to support a friend working on the weekend.

Moviemaking is no simple task to accomplish, especially in a weekend. But for those who choose to enjoy decidedly different lives, anything is possible except desperation. What are you and your friends doing this weekend?

Former "The Young and The Restless" stars  Victoria Rowell and Davetta Sherwood reunite on the set of horror flick "The Mirror."

Former “The Young and The Restless” stars Victoria Rowell and Davetta Sherwood reunite on the set of horror flick “The Mirror.”

On the set of TV movie, "The Mirror."

Harry Lennix with Richard Gant and others on the set of “The Mirror.”

On the set of "The Mirror" with co-stars Aida Rodriguez, Karrueche Tran, Cheryl Francis Harrington and Davetta Sherwood.

On the set of “The Mirror” with co-stars Aida Rodriguez, Karrueche Tran, Cheryl Francis Harrington and Davetta Sherwood.

 George Newborn visiting the set where friend Harry Lennix is shooting a movie.

George Newbern of “Scandal” visiting the set of friend Harry Lennix’s movie.

Friendship... is not something you learn-2


Mad Men, 1968, and Caroline Jones

Mad Men, 1968 and Caroline R. Jones are about change during an era on edge. Each offers insightful examples of how people create change, how they maneuver it, and the consequences of it.

Caroline R. Jones

Caroline R. Jones

Mad Men, AMC’s dramatic look at the sixties advertising world, is like a good novel or play exploring the constancy of change and its personal impact. The show has complex characters, captivating drama, plot twists, subtle symbolism, appealing settings, and historical overtones. It’s about the vicissitudes of life.

Like with a good book, play or life, the unexpected suddenly happens to wipe out any boredom. “The Flood,” episode 605 of Mad Men, exemplified that notion. In one scene, everyone was sleepwalking through life—greeting, chatting, and complaining about his or her table position at a posh event with Paul Newman. In the next scene, realism returned with a jolt. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. How was change maneuvered? The men and women of Mad Men reviewed their surroundings, their relationships and themselves. In turn, creator Matthew Weiner exposed unprepared viewers to forgotten history and nudged us to look inward, too. It was 1968.

Washington, D.C. (April 1968) – The ruins of buildings following the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Nineteen sixty-eight was a year of challenges in America. Change arrived whether Americans were ready or not. Social consciousness heightened. Dreams exploded. Cities burned. Robert Kennedy was killed. Clenched fists lifted in rage. Civil rights demanded attention. Fears flourished. Women protested and eked out power. Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to win a seat in Congress. And the advertising industry transformed. Ads and agencies adjusted to accommodate the temperamental times.

Caroline R. Jones changed the advertising world and pioneered multiethnic marketing. Her story was more a compilation of Don Draper’s work life on Mad Men and Peggy Olson’s personal life, and less like that of the black secretaries, Dawn and Phyllis. Caroline embodied Don’s mix of creative genius, aggressiveness, good looks, ballistic personality, charm, and urbanity while dismantling old advertising ways to co-found and build new agencies. As an African-American woman, she broke sexual and racial barriers moving from secretary to copywriter and beyond á la Peggy.

From the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in English and science, Caroline headed to New York and began her advertising career as a secretary and copywriter trainee in 1963 at the prestigious J. Walter Thompson. She couldn’t type well, flunking the typing test twice, but she could write. With an encouraging boss who gave her creative latitude, Caroline moved ahead becoming the first black senior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson. She thrived by pushing through barriers, assuming executive positions with general market agencies, and accumulating many firsts including the first African-American female vice president of a major ad agency, BBDO.

Caroline continued creating change by co-founding and launching several agencies including Zebra Associates, one of the first full-service firms with African-American principals. At Mingo-Jones, she served as creative director on the “We do chicken right” campaign. Although the campaign was originally created to reach African-American consumers, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) made it a general market campaign — a groundbreaking move then and now. In 1986, she opened her own agency, Caroline Jones Advertising, where I worked with her for several years and set up the agency’s public relations division. Caroline was often asked what was it like at the top. She always responded, “It’s cold, but I can feel the sunshine.” At 59, she died of cancer.

Mad Men, 1968 and Caroline Jones reflect change then. But this is now. Will we resign ourselves to simply watching change? Will we learn the lessons history teaches about change? Or will we be the architects of change who ultimately feel the sunshine?

“Scandal” Makes History


Television makes history this week with the premiere of the new ABC series, Scandal.   Thirty-seven years after the first primetime hour-long dramatic series with an African-American woman in the lead role aired on television, ABC does it again.  In 1974, Teresa Graves starred as policewoman Christie Love on ABC’s short-lived Get Christie Love.  Now the network is moving forward and making history with Shonda Rhimes’ latest drama starring Kerry Washington as DC fixer Olivia Pope.  It is the fourth hour-long drama with a black woman in the lead including two cable shows, TNT’s HawthoRNe produced and starring Jada Pinkett Smith and HBO’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency starring Jill Scott.

When Scandal debuts on April 5, it comes with a few firsts. It will be the first dramatic network television series written and produced by an African-American woman for an African-American woman in the lead role.  Another first is the show’s inspiration, Judy Smith, Washington, D.C. crisis communications pro, co-executive producer of the show, and a beautiful living role model.  Still, little overshadows that in 2012—62 years after Ethel Waters starred as the first African-American on network TV in the ABC sitcom Beulah—too few black women play dramatic leads on television.

TV has neither been generous nor diverse when it comes to casting African-American actresses.  In TV history, most roles for black actresses lean towards comedy and away from drama.  There seem to be more roles for black women playing the help than playing women who hire them.

Since 1944, when regular network broadcasting began on NBC, the television industry has undergone revolutionary changes.   But for African-American actresses, winning roles remains a challenge and too often revolves around the same choices.  The advent of cable outlets such as BET, TV One, VH1 and TBS, increased the number, but not necessarily the variety of available roles for black women.  Comedy slots are still popular.   Reality TV roles rule from Real Housewives of Atlanta to Basketball Wives to shows with women who sing, model, rap or love rappers.  Dramatic leads are limited even though unlimited drama defines reality TV.

There have been a few promising moments and roles for black women, mostly as supporting actors in a small number of dramas. Diahann Carroll was the first African-American woman to star in a sitcom, Julia, which debuted on NBC in 1968 and ran for three years. In 1969, two variety shows starred black women: The Leslie Uggams Show that ran less than three months, and The Barbara McNair Show, which aired for three years.  African-American women have co-starred in ensemble cast dramas such as SnoopsBrewster PlaceSoul Food, The Game, Undercovers, S. Epatha Merkerson in Law and Order, Alfre Woodard in Memphis Beat, and Taraji P. Henson in Person of Interest and more.  Some of the most talented black leading women, including Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, Debbi Morgan, and Nichelle Nichols, have been limited to leading supporting roles or guests spots on dramas and fantasy adventure dramas.  And, of course, there is rare groundbreaking television with Oprah Winfrey and her long-running, successful syndicated talk show as well as all the upcoming possibilities from OWN.

We all know making history does not make a hit TV show.  We watch television to be entertained, to lose ourselves in somebody else’s funny, sad or implausible story. Sometimes those stories are about people who look like us, often they are about people we aspire to be or who should be avoiding.  Television is a reflection and respite from our daily grind.

Shonda Rhimes with two long-running, successful shows, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, has a track record for producing compelling, well-written dramas.  She knows how to capture all the many dimensions of a woman—complexities and simplicities, strengths and struggles, flaws and feistiness.  She gets it. She delivers diverse lead roles for women of all colors.

Scandal premieres with a mix of the Shonda Rhimes halo and the glow of Kerry Washington’s stellar acting skills.  Together, that combination can change television history by offering a different dimension and revealing an image of black women often visually absent on television and beyond the box.  Will viewers tune in to look beyond one-dimensional images of the help, the healers and the heathens and see what leading roles—and the women in them—should look like in the 21st century?  Will television push past crawling into making history?  Another step is in the works.  NBC is developing a drama pilot, Notorious, with Meagan Good in the lead role as a detective. Time will tell if history repeats itself only every 37 years or rapidly plays catch up.