Private Passions: Let's Talk About Kerry Washington
I don’t know the names of Kerry Washington’s kids. I know the Emmy nominated star of the wildly popular ABC drama Scandal has a son and a daughter, and I know she’s married to a former football player, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what her children are called. It’s not that I’m desperate to know, but it’s fascinating to me that one of the most famous women in American pop culture today, a woman whose visibility on television has made her a beloved icon to countless black woman, has managed to keep her private life locked down as securely as this.
Part of the unspoken agreement of celebrity is a willingness to open the door of your personal life to the public, be it from tell-all interviews in glossy magazines, the golden couple red carpet walk, or social media photos of practiced spontaneity. It’s just expected that the biggest star on TV would tweet out cute pics of her children or do a People Magazine reveal of the new-born or spill the beans to Ellen or Oprah just enough to keep the headlines coming. It’s the reason I know the names of more offspring of celebrities than is probably wise to admit. Kerry Washington is a star whose fame has grown and remained utterly undiluted, yet never at the cost of her private life. For every celebrity who has bemoaned, fairly or otherwise, the cost of fame, Washington stands as the prime example of the alternative route anyone can take if they really want to.
Washington was born in the Bronx and studied at George Washington University, where she graduated with a double major in anthropology and sociology. As a kid, she attended youth theatre and even learned to dance from ‘an awesome substitute teacher named Jennifer’, who later moved to L.A. to appear on In Living Color. Like many actors, her early career is defined by bit-part roles in an assortment of projects, from Save the Last Dance to The Human Stain, as well as typically New York centred TV parts (only one Law & Order episode, interestingly). Her big break into the critical gaze came with a very strange Spike Lee movie called She Hate Me, wherein Washington played the ex-partner of Anthony Mackie who wanted him to impregnate her so she could have a child with her new girlfriend. In a typically Lee fashion, the film is chock full of fascinating ideas that he has no room to fully explore in the ways required of the material: It takes on everything from the racially suspect stereotypes of the endlessly virile black male to the relationships between the genders to the wrongness of government interfering in the private lives of its citizens.
Predictably, while some critics like Lee fan Roger Ebert supported the film, the majority of reviews were harsh, with Washington’s performance one of the few elements to get notices across the board. Washington talked of the part as a major opportunity, not only as a chance to work with a revered director but one that was seldom offered to black women:
‘[My character in She Hate Me] was such a smart, fierce woman and I’d never seen a character like that portrayed on screen — a woman of color who was so successful, so in charge, so seductive — somebody who didn’t have to biforcate herself in being either smart or beautiful but was able to be all of that. I just thought this is an important character.’
The next few years saw her reach further prominence through supporting roles in high-profile projects, such as Ray, where she played Ray Charles’s second wife, The Last King of Scotland as the youngest of Idi Amin’s wives, and a small part as Alicia Masters, the blind sculptor and romantic interest of The Thing in the original Fantastic Four duology. Most of the work was limited in scope and didn’t open the doors to greater prominence that would usually accompany a white woman of similar talent and beauty. Washington took on the roles available to a black woman - the Tyler Perry films, a supporting part in the Wayans Brothers’s abysmal so-called comedy Little Man - but none of this would put her on the map that a certain TV show would. A lot of the work she was doing was stellar, but its failure to break through to the mainstream only emphasised the racial gap in Hollywood. Take Night Catches Us as an example: Washington stars as the widow of a Black Panther who grows close to a visiting former Panther who has returned home for his father’s funeral. Written and directed by Tanya Hamilton, a black woman, the film made a splash at Sundance with the kind of reception that would usually lead to everyone involved becoming a household name and awards favourite. That didn’t materialise, and the film quietly disappeared after a tiny release. Like many black actors before her, Washington suffered from the racist catch-22 of the industry: Get thankless roles in the movies by white people that audiences will actually watch; do amazing work in movies by black film-makers and have people pretend they don’t exist.
Of course, it was a black woman who got Washington the role of her career, one that would be idolised and scrutinised by audiences and critics alike, an anti-heroine for a new age and oft-ignored demographic who could change the landscape of TV as we know it. Like many of Shonda Rhimes’s TV series, Scandal at its best is immensely addictive, delightfully ludicrous and just real enough to make it hurt. It’s the ultimate potboiler of every Rhimes trope you can think of, but executed with such slickness and narrative whiplash that what is essentially a sexy political soap opera becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. A large chunk of the show’s success falls on Washington’s shoulders. Olivia Pope is the kind of abrasive protagonist of moral suspicion that we seldom see played by a woman on the small screen, much less a woman of colour. She grounds the show in the way the material often contradicts, but completely sells the ceaseless ethical quandary of her daily life, even when it gets undoubtedly silly. It’s no mean feat being the first black woman to lead a primetime American series in 38 years. Olivia Pope is the perfect marriage of star, writer and climate: The Difficult Woman of the Obama era of TV.
As Washington became more famous, she shifted her public platform to one of distinct privacy, shutting down any questions on her private life, romances and so on. That’s not to say she stayed distant from the world. She has always been politically active in interviews and TV appearances: She’s been on Real Time with Bill Maher multiple times, she’s spoken at the DNC, she was vocal in her support of Hillary Clinton and being a black feminist, and she tweeted in allegiance with Planned Parenthood. Her interviews, both in print and on-screen, reveal her to be a warm, genial presence with impeccable public skills. She knows how to steer a conversation in her direction and keep the focus on what she wants to talk about, be it promoting her latest project or getting the word out about a cause. She gives enough to the public through this necessary process of celebrity that it doesn’t seem like a big deal when she flat out refuses to talk about her private life.
She’s under no obligation to do so, but watching Washington navigate the echelons of A-List fame, one of the few black women in Hollywood able to do so, becomes ever more fascinating because of her ability to wield total control over consumption of her family life. You’ll seldom see Washington photographed with her husband, former footballer turned actor and philanthropist Nnamdi Asomugha. They don’t do red carpets and steadfastly avoid the paparazzi, and the only photograph you’ll ever see of their daughter are in fuzzy shots taken from a distance (she is fully covered and her face concealed). She didn’t announce the birth of her kids until a couple of weeks after the event, a strategy repeated from belated announcements of her marriage, and you won’t find any pictures of her kids on her well maintained Instagram age (her friend and strategist Allison Peters does a large share of her social media activity, although Washington approves everything that is posted). Scandal fans have been happy to push the conspiracy that she’s just married as protection to conceal her passionate affair with co-star Tony Goldwyn but such concerns barely register in Washington’s world. She’s way too savvy to get involved with that kind of nonsense.
It’s easy to tell when a celebrity is cooperating with the paparazzi. Think of everything Ben Affleck’s done something stupid and it’s immediately been followed by a well-timed photo-op with his children and ex-wife (or recent example where he adopted a cute dog to deflect from accusations of sexual harassment), or Taylor Swift’s entire performance with Tom Hiddleston and the tank top of shame. Celebrities like to perpetuate the falsehood that they live their lives completely separate from the world of gossip and tabloids, but that’s never been the case. The ecosystem of fame needs that relationship, and publicists work to craft the desired narratives. Sometimes that means giving Us Weekly an exclusive glimpse of your newborn child, or giving Jimmy Fallon all the juicy gossip on your marriage. When things go wrong, you want to be the first one out there keeping everything calm, otherwise all manner of noise can overwhelm the narrative you’ve worked so hard to keep in good shape. For celebrities of colour, a minority in a mercilessly cruel industry, that process is all the more treacherous. As noted by Anne Helen Petersen in her wonderful piece on Washington’s media prowess:
The sheer multiplicity of representations means that no one celebrity or star comes to bear the weight of proving his or her worth, or merit, or perfection. Black celebrities simply do not have that privilege: How they act out family is overdetermined with political and cultural significance… Washington was the first black woman in 38 years to be cast as the lead in a primetime series. And regardless of Shonda Rhimes’ significant power in the industry, her road after Scandal, now in its sixth season, will be fraught: No number of Twitter followers has changed Hollywood’s trenchant racial logic, in which women of Washington’s caliber remain relegated to the role of the black best friend or historical (and often subservient) figures.’
Others have taken the path of quiet secrecy that Washington has with her personal life - Did you know Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling had another daughter? Or that Carey Mulligan and Marcus Mumford had another kid this year? - but there’s an effortlessness and strength to Kerry’s way that shows a willingness to play the fame game without using her family as collateral. She can talk about politics and race and feminism without having to relent to questions about her kids. That’s not exactly easier said than done - indeed, it’s a strategy more celebs could probably execute if they really wanted to - but it’s a balance Washington’s managed with skill and flare in a context that white celebrity will never be subjected to.
Like many actors who aren’t cishet white dudes, television has become Washington’s medium. Even after Scandal catapulted her to new heights of fame, she couldn’t get more prominent film work beyond the least developed character in Django Unchained and a part in another Tyler Perry movie. It was TV where she took her first effort as producer, a dramatization of the Anita Hill hearings, where she also played the lead role. Last year, ABC announced a deal with her which would allow her to develop projects exclusively for the network. With Scandal about to wrap up and Shonda off to Netflix, ABC are keen to hold onto some of that success, and Washington will have a seat at the table of power in an industry that spent too long ignoring her talents.
Oh, by the way, her kids are named Isabelle and Caleb, and that’s probably all you’ll ever know about them.
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