Preview of “Scandal” The TV Hit


Previously published in The Washington Post. 

Well, did you sleep with the President or not? I did not ask the obvious question, the question burning on so many minds, bubbling up in conversations around the room as we previewed two episodes of “Scandal,” the new TV series. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the provocative brain behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Practice,” “Scandal,” is a series based on a African-American-woman-owned public relations crisis management firm in Washington.  It is insightful and riveting. It is penetrating. The disclaimer offered at the opening of the screening did little to squash the realism perceived by so many Washington workers in the audience.  “This is Hollywood,” we were told. “Everything’s taken up a few notches.”

But, people who work in Washington – in Congress, at City Hall, formerly in The White House – laughed knowingly at some of the dialogue. It is authentic.  The ruggedness of Washington work hit home. “There’s no crying – in politics!” somebody said, looking up at a scene of a young woman crying in the bathroom.  “Scandal” promises to be as entertaining and stimulating as TV gets. It’s as much about relationships as it is about how Washington really works.

There were ten “Scandal” screenings in the Washington area and the star of the series, Judy Smith, portrayed by Kerry Washington, has done many interviews with local media. At the Wednesday night screening at Lima Restaurant she was greeted with hugs.  One young woman introduced herself to Smith as a lifelong fan.

“I have admired you since I was a little girl watching the Monica Lewinski case,” gushed the young woman, who is now a communications director for one of the few Washington politicians NOT in the midst of a scandal. “I was eight years old watching the news with my mother, and I would ask, ‘Mommy, who’s that brown lady in the background?’ I have watched your work over the years,” she said. Smith was the fixer for Clinton, Marion Barry, Michael Vick, Clarence Thomas, and BP Oil – slick guys and what?

Watching “Scandal”, I was delighted at another depiction of a tough, smart, strategic, successful African American woman on TV.  I thought about Donna Brazile and Gwen Ifill.  “Why do we always have to be portrayed as bitchy?” someone in the audience asked. “It’s a necessary toughness,” I said. I was reminded of real-life tough Black women in the Washington area, too. They are tough, yes, but equally compassionate and, above all else, deeply faithful.

Theses are Washington area tough Black women, who held their own and helped their communities from powerful positions in media and government. I’m thinking of former Prince George’s County Councilwoman Dorothy Bailey, WRC’s long-time executive Aisha Karimah, former D.C. Council woman Sandy Allen to name a few. They are powerful, empowering, and deeply faithful. Their faith has yet to be depicted in a TV series.

On TV we see struggling Black women praying, but never powerful ones.  We see Black women in conflict with men.  We don’t see their connection to their spiritual beliefs. It’s easier to throw in sexual twists than spiritual ones.  I remember my favorite TV character, Claire Huxtable, enjoying romantic evenings with her husband. But I don’t recall any memorable scenes about her faith in a God or her religious practices.

Most of the women I know are faithful.  Even if they are not church-connected, they have strong spiritual beliefs or rich philosophies they draw on in tough times. We are redefining Black women in the media, thank goodness. Books like the one by Sophia Nelson; newspaper series, like the one by The Washington Post help.  The First Lady attending church with her husband and children drive home the image, as well.

When I worked on The Hill, I joined a group of Black women on weekly conference calls where we held “corporate prayer.”  We prayed for our bosses, prayed for leaders in both chambers of Congress. We were of different religions, but we all believed in the power of prayer. We reserved a room for prayer service during the healthcare reform.  Congressional chiefs of staff, communications directors, and administrative aides prayed collectively on occasion. I hope at least one episode of “Scandal” will depict Washington workers with faith.

At the end of the screening I did not ask Smith the extent of her relationship with The President – nor did I ask her about her faith. I was not there as a reporter.  A friend, a fellow former journalist, invited me.  Tough questions aside, I did what the other guests did. I enjoyed the evening and sided up for pictures with the star afterwards. I later found the answer to the burning question answered in a Washington Post feature on Smith (http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/tv/dc-insider-judy-smith-is-basis-for-abc-drama-scandal/2012/03/29/gIQAbT8JlS_story.html). She absolutely did not kiss The President..

Lord Have Mercy on Jack Johnson

Previously published in The Washington Post. 

As the sentencing for former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson looms, I began wondering how his closest family and friends are feeling.  I imagined they are sad to see him suffer (although he did it to himself). I wondered whether they tried to correct and rein him in when they could. I considered why his community loved him so.

 

Jack Johnson was not born in Prince George’s, but the County loved him dearly. He championed their cries against police brutality when he first campaigned for the office. Once elected, he continued to worship with them at their churches.  He danced the electric slide with them at their backyard cookouts. He promised jobs to their children, and found money for some of their community projects. He wielded power the way so many wished they could.

 

One elderly fellow in the County told me years ago, “If I was in office all my friends would have jobs!” He laughed heartily, and I understood that he and so many others were living vicariously through Jack. But now what?

 

His arrest was embarrassing to those who voted for him and stood by him through early investigations by the media. (I’ll discuss my personal part in this mess in a future blog. Promise.)

 

Disappointment, betrayal, anger, fury at those who brought him down, outrage at him for being so stupid. All those emotions must have swirled overhead in the County after his arrest and confession.  All these emotions had like clouds when I lived in D.C. and my mayor Marion Barry was arrested, led away in handcuffs on TV.

 

For many of my relatives and friends who moved from the District to Prince George’s as they prospered, seeing their elected leader in an incriminating videos last week was a double-blow to the head.  Jack’s arrest last year had been too painful to discuss. We mostly avoided the conversation for months. But with sentencing scheduled for Jack and his wife next week, I broached the subject.

 

“So, what do you think about the Johnson’s going to jail?” I asked one of my aunts who lives in the County.  She reminded me of how my Granddad had dealt with his wayward sons.  If you do the crime, you’ll do the time. Simple as that.

 

“Honey, when the police came to get your uncle… your grandfather told them, “He’s upstairs. Go on up there and get him. Second room at the top of the stairs. He’s the one in the top bunk.”

 

“No way!” I laughed.

 

My grandmother was miffed, according to my aunt. She wanted to save her sons from a criminal justice system she believed was even more corrupt than her sons.  A generation later my father was the one in our family who would get my teenage brother out of jail while my mother argued that he should pay the consequences for his actions.

 

Seeing Jack sentenced next week will feel to many like seeing a beloved son, a big brother, a favorite uncle going under, felled by “The Man.”.  For me, it will be like watching the community pimp finally taken off the streets.  Without his arrest, he would have continued to exert influence through his wife on the County Council. His bad behavior would have continued – to the detriment of the community he claimed to serve.

 

My grandmother put it aptly when she said, “You got kids out there starving and she’s walking around with all that money in her butt!”

 

The $80,000 Jack told his wife to stuff in her panties could have gone a long way at a food pantry – if community service really was his mission. He was not shaking down wealthy developers to prosper the community – but his community loved him. Or simply looked the other way as we tend to do with our sons.

 

I asked friends on facebook whether they would surrender their son to law enforcement.  Their answers were as conflicted as my family’s – as conflicted as any random group polled in the County, perhaps. Karen said, “Hmm. I always tell my kids if they do something they will face the repercussions of their actions.” I laughed out loud at the comment from LaShawn, my BFF since childhood. “I’m with the grandfather, he’s upstairs in the top bunk! There are consequences to everything that we do or do not do.” Monique’s response was most heartfelt: “My love for my kids is unconditional, but I am certainly teaching them to be accountable for their actions. It’s a tough question to answer because it would depend on the circumstances. If my son was guilty, I would encourage him to turn himself in, help him get the best legal representation he could and be there for support.” Monique added, “I don’t envy any parent in that situation.”