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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Race, Gender, and the Law: Assessing Some of the Strongest TV Performances From Women This Year

Imma let you finish, but the limited series and television movie categories of the Primetime Emmy nominations have the most fascinating groups of performances out of the entire list. Seriously, you can fight me on this if you want. And this is in a year of some truly amazing nominees, like Aziz Ansari (Master of None) and Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish).

Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance absolutely SLAYED their roles on the must-see TV event, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and Bokeem Woodbine and Jesse Plemons helped make the second season of Fargo even more bloody and bats**t than the first, but we need to seriously bow down to Sarah Paulson The People v. O.J. Simpson, Jean Smart (Fargo), Kirsten Dunst (Fargo), Regina King (American Crime), Felicity Huffman (American Crime), Lili Taylor (American Crime), and Kerry Washington (Confirmation)?  These women portrayed some of the most flawed, complex, and compelling characters on the small screen--in any format of any year.

It is Paulson and Washington's portrayals, however, of two of the most divisive American women in history, Marcia Clarke and Anita Hill, that have stayed in my mind. I find it interesting that both characters are renowned female legal professionals who learned that even with their strict attention to the law and factual evidence on their side, they were still two women up against two powerful men. They were ridiculed in the media and defamed by their peers for simply not remaining silent and complacent.

While both Washington and Paulson's characters dealt with race and gender politics, The People v. O.J. Simpson dissected each volatile layer of the the post-Rodney King era in which it is set--adding more layers to Paulson's performance. Though Confirmation focuses more on Hill's brave expression of the truth right at a pivotal moment in then judge Clarence Thomas's career, it waits until the end of the film--in postscript--to discuss its significance to the women rights movement that followed. If a movie is good, you shouldn't have to explain its relevance; it should speak for itself. That's the trouble with the movie as a whole; it talks about itself so much and doesn't allow its characters to breathe on their own.

Despite the shortcomings of the film, Washington's performance is eerily spot-on to how I remember Hill's court statement, looking right in the eyes of her all-male prosecutors--determined to state the embarrassing and wildly inappropriate series of events that occurred in the office of her then superior but also acutely aware of the potentially damaging repercussions. Washington portrays Hill as smart, sensitive yet strong, and very self-aware of the mistakes that she has made while recognizing that she used her best judgment at the time. It's at times hard to watch a woman so revered have to recount a poor decision she made ten years prior--and be persecuted for it.

Meanwhile, Paulson's Clarke is not so quick to admit her mistakes. Resilient in court, yet vulnerable when no one can witness it, Paulson's depiction is equal parts adamant when it comes to the law--yet virtually naive about the role race plays in an obviously racially charged case. Despite all her legal acclaim, her shortsightedness--clouded by white privilege--ends up only allowing her to see the law devoid of politics (a rookie mistake). As a result, she crumbles under what she herself once described as "an open and shut case."

Both Paulson and Washington's performances present a prevalent dichotomy in our society: strong, single, independent, intelligent women whose authority and pragmatic approach are reduced to meaningless quibble when standing in the same courtroom as men. More than twenty years later, not much has changed.


Brittani Burnham said...

Love this post! I enjoyed Confirmation for Washington's performance. I haven't seen The People vs OJ, It's not On Demand anymore. I hope they put it back so I can watch before the Emmys.

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