Kerry Washington To Host SNL Amid Cast Controversy

It’s just been announced that Kerry Washington- star of the wildly popular ABC show Scandal as well as leading lady in movies that include The Last King of Scotland and Ray– has been tapped to host Saturday Night Live this November.

The decision was made weeks ago but the announcement comes at a point when the show’s cast has been engaged in a public discussion about its lack of black female cast members.

While SNL has long been criticized for its lack of diversity- this specific controversy began when the show hired six new cast members this season- none of whom were black females.  What makes this particularly problematic is that there have only been 4 black female cast members in SNL’s 39 seasons and they include: Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorne and Maya Rudolph.  The current cast of 16 currently boasts 3 actors of color: Kenan Thompson, Jay Pharaoh and Nasim Pedrad who is Iranian-American.

This dynamic prompted Jay Pharaoh to reveal in an interview with The Grio that he’s taken it upon himself to try to recruit a female black cast member with his sights set on one woman in particular, stating:

Her name is Darmirra Brunson…Why do I think she should be on the show? Because she’s black first of all, and she’s really talented. She’s amazing. She needs to be on SNL. I said it. And I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year.

When asked about Pharaoh’s remarks, the show’s other black actor, Kenan Thompson, weighed in with his own thoughts:

It’s just a tough part of the business. Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.

When asked how SNL would portray famous black women he continued:

I don’t know. We just haven’t done them. That’s what I’m saying. Maybe [Pharaoh] will do it or something, but even he doesn’t really want to do it.

Thompson has since been under fire for his remarks.

The trend isn’t specific to just new cast member, as summarized by USA Today pulling from a story:

Of the 90 episodes the show has aired since Season 35, only two black women (and four women of color in total) have hosted: Gabourey Sidibe (April 2010) and Maya Rudolph (February 2012), along with Latinas Jennifer Lopez and Sofia Vergara. And yet during this period, Miley Cyrus has hosted twice, as have January Jones, Taylor Lautner and Eli Manning.

Here’s my take:

I don’t think SNL should hire a black woman cast member just to have a black woman cast member.  They should hire her- like anyone else- for being funny and talented and good enough to be on the show.  That said, I don’t think that the fact that black women make up 2.9% of the show’s cast in the history of its existence is a reflection on the comedic chops of black women.  It’s a reflection on the show’s higher ups failing to look hard enough for a diverse cast.

You have to get in the room to audition and if someone can’t get in the room then they can’t audition.  If that’s the case, then I think that it’s up to the higher ups at SNL to leave the room and go find them.  Their failure to do so is lazy and the audience suffers for it.  It’s embarrassing that SNL is in a position where Kenan Thompson is speculating about the need to put a dress on himself or the other black guy when there are incredible women of color putting forth incredible performances on TV.  You don’t actually have to look much further than the cast of Orange is the New Black to see what happens when you search for talent– Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, Laverne Cox, Vicky Jeudy and Uzo Aduba are all breakout stars!  They got to showcase their talent because someone thought to look for them.

W. Kamau Bell, host of FX’s show Totally Biased sums it up in this terrific piece from Salon on race and comedy responding to the sentiments that underlie Kenan Thompson’s remarks by noting that folks who think that the lack of diversity is a reflection of a lack of talent are looking at the “country club” pool as opposed to the “public pool”.

I’m excited to see Kerry Washington hosting SNL in November.  I’ll tune in and I’ll be rooting her on– but I’ll be even more excited when the act of selecting a black woman to host SNL isn’t a victory in light of controversy but just a day in the life.

Photo by Rex Sorgatz under Creative Commons license

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Sara Haile-Mariam

Sara Haile-Mariam