Kerry Washington made history as the first black woman to play the lead in a prime time drama in 38 years. Her character on ABC’s “Scandal,” Olivia Pope, has been criticized by some, but many laud Pope’s sense of independence, poise, professional success and even her vulnerability. As Kerry Washington prepares to play a decidedly different character, “Broomhilda” in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” she spoke with Elle Magazine about how both roles speak to preconceived notions about black femininity.

Here’s an excerpt:

On playing Olivia Pope: She’s phenomenally successful, able to control her world and makes things happen with clarity and force in her profession.

On Olivia’s style: I chose pale pastels and earth tones – no black or navy suits. She spends her days saying things people don’t want to hear. She has to balance that by wearing things that make people safe and comfortable.

On playing a slave in Django Unchained: Without Olivia as my day job, I don’t know if I would have been able to play Broomhilda. She has strength I knew nothing about. Tarantino is a director who’s not intimidated by blood and gore and violence and the darker side of the human soul.

On being chained in stocks and whipped: That day on set broke all our hearts. To find the strength in that circumstance was mind-bending.

On playing the damsel in distress: Look I can see how it’s not particularly feminist to play the princess in the tower, waiting to be saved. But as a black woman – we’ve never been afforded that luxury. There was no man coming to save you; it wasn’t part of the story. In some ways, this telling is a statement of empowerment.

We’ve seen black women occupy stereotypical roles such as the asexual Mammy or hypersexual vixen, but rarely do our actresses play the damsel in distress. Though the “princess in the tower” role isn’t prevalent for black actresses, is it empowering? What are your thoughts, Clutchettes?


  • jamesfrmphilly

    i’ll save you kerry……

  • KitKat

    Ok, I was just thinking about this while watching the Walking Dead. I am beyond tired of the black chick whose role is to protect the innocent naive white girl/child. Danai Gurira, is a very beautiful woman and I found myself thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if she had a protector, if she could be the innocent one for once. Nope all we get is flared nostrils and mean mugging. It does not serve white women well to expect to be saved by black women or the white man.

  • T.

    Kerry’s comment about the damsel in distress reminds me of something black feminists and womanists have said about the early women’s movement; that for white women, it was a victory to get out of the role of housewife and into the working world – that was what they understood the movement to be about. They didn’t understand that for black women, who were already familiar with the world of work (and often overworked and underpaid), the opportunity to stay at home with their families and enjoy domestication was something to be desired, and was seen as empowering.

    The same principle applies to what Kerry’s saying. White women have, from time, been the damsels in distress in the movies, the ones who get to be helped and saved and rescued. So for them, it’s empowering to see roles emerging in which that paradigm shifts and (white) women are portrayed as strong and independent and able to save themselves.

    For black women, it’s been different, and so yes, I think it can be empowering for black actresses to play roles where they don’t have to play the StrongBlackWoman, where they get to be the protected ones, the precious ones, the ones that other people look out for, care for and take care of.

  • RenJennM

    As a young Black woman studying film, this really makes me think. Often, I’m annoyed by the LACK of roles for Black women in film and television, but I have to admit that I don’t put as much emotion behind the thought of the QUALITY of roles that Black actresses get. Don’t get me wrong: I do think about what we get, but my main focus is usually on how often we get them. Half the time, I’m just happy to see us on screen!

    But, Kerry really does bring up a great point. Black actresses, particularly in American film and television, rarely, if ever, are given the role as the damsel in distress. Usually, we’re saving ourselves, our men, our children, our best friends, and the world all the same damn time! lol Subconsciously, it might be convincing people that we are never in need of help and that we always have it together. In real life, as Black women, we do make it appear that way; so, maybe, when we do complain, it makes us look like we have no right to since we’re so “strong”.

    Honestly, I think it would be refreshing to see more roles where, if there is a damsel in distress, the damsel is a Black woman. It’d be nice to see us “saved” sometime. Of course, with everything, there should be a balance… I would hate to see Hollywood or independent filmmakers go overboard with this concept.

    But yeah, let’s make that another facet added to the dimensions of the Black woman in the film world. I would like to be a part of that.

  • nettrice

    I agree. Based on historical stereotypes black women fall somewhere between “Mammy,” “Sapphire,” and “Magical Negro”. We’re sassy, nurturing, intelligent and we work hard to please. As Zora Neale Hurston once wrote the black female is “de mule uh de world.” Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, was not actually a voodoo priestess as much as she was a hairdresser with whom rich white folks confided their deep secrets. Unfortunately, even during slavery, few stories remain of slave women being rescued by their escaped slave mates.

  • edub

    Wow. Good on you to study film! Believe me, we need more people like you in the world!

    I have a question for you: Do you think she’s portraying a damsel in distress given that she’s a slave and, from what I’ve read from reviews, undergoes a horrid beating at the hands of her master? Do you find this portrayal refreshing?

    I’m not being argumentative at all, just want your perspective given that you know a whole lot more about film that I do.

  • Val

    Kerry Washington is a hack. Any Black woman who would take a role in a Quentin Tarantino film is a pride-less hack.

  • The Other Jess

    No matter how Kerry tries to sugarcoat it, Django Unchained was written to unleash visual violence and humiliation on Black women like never before – the script has her character brutally raped NUMEROUS times, gangraped, and even a plantation called Candland, or something crazy. Black women continue to co-sign their own degradation and marginalization.

    Y’all are busy unjustly complaining because a Black Latina chose to represent another respectable, strong intelligent Black woman, but want to happily give a pass to the racist Quentin Tarantino and his black lackies Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx, who will be presenting major “stay in your place, negroes” degradation – smdh.

  • The Other Jess

    I agree Val. Her willigness to be brutally raped on screen as if it is some kind of compliment is utter degradation at its best. And Quentin Tarantino is an obvious unapologetic racist. Black people who see this hateful propagada are absolute idiots.

  • Nikster

    U mad ma?? Yeah u mad…u stay mad. Why a is she a hack for doing a Tarantino movie?

  • MzBonds

    We have never seen a character like Olivia Pope on television before. I am pleased Ms. Washington is bringing her to life with such polish. A super hero in designer clothes. If I had attended a Halloween Party this year, I would have worn a white trench and been Olivia.

  • BreaktheCycle

    I agree that Black women should get the chance to play the role of “damsel in distress”, but lets be clear that Django Unchained is not an example of this. Playing the role of slave woman being helped by a white man and her slave husband is not the “princess in the tower” role ya’ll are envisioning. It is not empowering, and for people to not see it for the degradation that it is disturbs me. We have told our slave story time and time again. We do not need some opportunist director to tell it for schlock value, then try to spin it into “opportunity” for black actresses. Just my two cents.

  • BreaktheCycle


  • Keepitreal

    I BEG of my beautiful black people, can we please stop the “You mad” shit? Pretty pretty please with non ebonics sprinkles on top?

  • Val

    @The Other Jess


  • kidgosis

    I think it is incredibly empowering to portray a damsel in distress because we need to see fewer women whose entire world hinges on her rejection of perceived weakness. A world is so fragile, one chink in that armor means it all comes tumbling down. We need to move past that as the archetype for strength; the regular suppression of human emotions is actually a health hazard. A woman who is not afraid of or beholden to her emotions but can recognize, process, and transform them is one who is truly strong.

    Also, we need visual representation of a black woman that someone thinks is WORTH saving, not needs saving. It’s the difference between passion and obligation. We all have distress, and whether we can save ourselves or not, to see we’ve got someone ready to slay a thousand dragons for us is something every person should be exposed to.

  • nettrice

    Considering the time in which this film was set this DID happen to us frequently and often. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is another example (based on a true story) and people had a hard time with that, as well.

  • michabo

    Why is she a hack? Can you give a reasoned argument as opposed to just using invective language?

  • Box

    Yes, love Kerry and Jamie but they will not get money with this film. Also, shocking this film is getting Oscar buzz.

  • Ravi

    Not sure if her assessment of black women in film and television is all that accurate. I’ve watched more than my fair share of both and usually black women are playing the damsel in distress in action movies and shows featuring black characters.

  • MsLady

    Is it really shocking though? Monster’s Ball, anyone?

  • Box

    @Mslady I was being sarcastic because these are the only type of films that get Oscar buzz for black people the oppressed race films that’s why I’m pretty much over the Oscars and these films.

  • Bree

    I agree that it is nice to see the black woman playing the damsel in distrss instead of the strong black woman stereotype, but the context in which Kerry Washington portrays that damsel in distress is troubling. So it is not satisfactory for the black woman to play a woman who needs protecting; but context matters as well.

  • apple

    we can’t even be damsel in distress in our real lives

  • Chillyroad

    @the other Jess

    You just told black women that black men don’t have their back and even worse black men with daughters who are dark skinned actually hate their dark skinned daughters, now it’s Kerry Washington and Tarantino? A black woman and a white man? Black women don’t have any friends… Not even eachother it would seem.

  • Tonton Michel

    Can’t wit to see the movie.

  • __A

    She is not really a damsel in distress b/c she isn’t really portrayed as a damsel or lady. She’s shown as property and is brutalized in the storyline. If you ever look at any typical damsel in distress movies with white women, they are never really brutalized or it is not shown. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was not a damsel in distress movie. A damsel in distress will always be seen as a lady but just…in distress and in need of being rescued. When they beat the woman or rape her, she is no longer seen as a lady. Now it’s just some dark movie with a woman being abused.

    I think it’s sad that so many black women think our version of damsel in distress and femininity is being abused and being a victim. There’s nothing ladylike about being abused and being a victim. That may not sound right, but I mean people will not see you the way you want to be seen. They will see you as pathetic and as damaged goods.

    It’s why I don’t like Tyler Perry’s particular brand of black femininity. It almost always involves a black woman being abused physically or emotionally. If she’s not the damaged, abused black woman, then she’s emasculating. People say that we complain too much, but I just don’t know how hard it is to get.

    I would like a black writer to write a black female character that is sweet and feminine and not abused. How hard is that to do? And I’m talking about a black writer. You can’t expect to get the right representation from mainstream Hollywood.

  • simplyme

    Ha…my brother put me up on the show because he knows I’m into interesting Black female characters in film and TV, but I couldn’t help but think the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, although I’ve only seen one episode, I think the show is awesome and she’s quite the badass, but after a while I was sitting their thinking “ok…when does she get to be human…and have vulnerability?”

  • The Other Jess

    @ChillyRoad – I hve absolutely no problem with a Black woman with a white man or any other man where they are in an equal consesual relationship. Kerry Washington’s role in ‘Scandal’ is fine.

    However reveling in playing a role that shows a Black woman being brutally raped and degraded by white men or any other men – not to highlight the evils of slavery, showcase white immorality, or detail historical brutality of slavery – for white America’s entertainment is unacceptable to me and shameful. Black women except any and everything if it comes from white people or Black men.

    But oh my gawd – don’t let an Afro-Latino have the nerve to play the role of a famous black woman, then all hell breaks loose among Black women – but we’ll excuse this crap from Tarantino. Really? How sad and ridiculous.

    And NO Black men DON’T have our backs – they reciprocate nothing as far as concerns for the well-being of Black women unless it benefits them also. Too many of them tellus this everyday through Black male entertainers, hip hop artists, athletes, and others, and through their absolute SILENCE on any and every issue concerning racism, colorism, violence and hate against Black women – mainly because much of it is coming from Black men themselves.

    but worst of all is that Black women don’t have OUR OWN backs, and thus neither does anybody else.

  • The Other Jess

    @_A CO-SIGN 1000%

  • The Other Jess

    Im eant Black women “accept” any and every thing

  • The Other Jess

    I really have to agree with you, SMH.

  • Anthony

    PLease let me be dog for a minute. Kerry Washington has messed with my mind ever since Eddie Murphy almost took her drawers off in I Think I Love My Wife!

    If there were ever a damsel worthy of saving in a movie, it would be one played by Kerry Washington!

    I also agree 100% about the role played by Danai Guirira in Walking Dead. Why on earth can’t she be a woman who is tough, and not a stereotypical angry black woman? Walking Dead is a good show, but I guess one can only expect so much from a series based on graphic novels written by a white guy from Georgia. I know what i said is a stereotype, but somebody prominent needs to prove me wrong!

  • Ravi

    I haven’t seen the show but the comic book is outstanding. Walking Dead is one of the best written books written in the last decade that I have seen. In the comic book, she is very much unlike any black character I’ve seen in fiction.

  • Sweetles

    You hit the nail on the head.

  • Anthony

    That’s good to knoe because I am considering getting into the graphic novels.

  • Ravi

    I must warn you, it is very graphic and absurdly violent. I can’t imagine that the show can be on cable and show even a fraction of what is displayed on the comic.

  • BriA

    I don’t think this new movie she is in portrays a damsel in distress at all….it just shows our history, the ugly history as Americans. Whenever the term damsel in distress comes up, I feel people think about princesses or fairytales. I’ll still support this film and RZA’s film to support the black actors but other then that I’m downloading lol

  • Rue

    I normally want to kick Tarantino in his “Tarantinos”, and this film doesn’t really change that at all…

  • Nefer

    While I do agree that the “damsel in distress” role would be a refreshing and uplifting moment for Black women in film, this Broomhilda role is not it. Black actresses have a hard time in Hollywood. Choices are limited and they have to sustain themselves. However, it irks me when they try to focus on the silver lining and come up with some elaborate justification for their roles. Let’s agree to call a spade a spade. Again, props to the actors, but Django is not going to do Black people as a whole any favors.

  • Greg

    Kerry Washington is a white man’s black woman. She meets the Caucasian ideal of beauty – fair skin, straight hair, pointy nose etc. Hollywood refuses to depict real African American women.

  • hint28

    I love danai guirira

  • Alesha

    Pray tell, What is a real African-American woman? A neck rolling Sapphire perhaps?

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