Felicia D. Henderson Proved Black Family Dramas Had Staying Power On TV

Written by on February 26, 2021

To place it merely, Felicia D. Henderson has the vary.

The TV producer-writer-director extraordinaire has spent the previous few many years writing jokes for Steve Urkel on the long-running sitcom “Household Issues,” crafting new diary entries for Mo-to-tha-E-to-tha on “Moesha” and finessing feminist storylines into episodes of “Sister, Sister.” For followers of TV nostalgia and aspiring writers, Henderson is the artistic genius you need to chat with for hours on finish concerning the Black sitcom heyday of the 1990s.

She can also be a premier instance of what it seems wish to trip Hollywood’s ever-bumpy waves and pivot at an ideal inflection level. By 2000, as networks began pulling again from investing in brand-new Black sitcoms, Henderson had landed the highest spot as showrunner and government producer of “Soul Meals,” a Showtime TV follow-up to the 1997 blockbuster hit concerning the close-knit Joseph household in Chicago. On the time, there had by no means been a profitable tv drama centered round a Black household. (CBS reveals “Underneath One Roof” and “Metropolis of Angels” solely lasted one season apiece.) “Soul Meals” was successful for the community and garnered a number of NAACP Picture Awards throughout its five-season run.

Within the years that adopted, Henderson produced episodes of “The Punisher,” “Empire,” “Fringe,” “Gossip Woman” and “Everyone Hates Chris.” She was additionally a author, director and government producer for the too-short-lived BET sequence “The Quad,” a drama set on the fictional traditionally Black faculty Georgia A&M College, in 2017.

“Henderson is the artistic genius you need to chat with for hours on finish about the Black sitcom heyday of the 1990s.”

Henderson’s record of credit could at occasions appear to be a random assortment of writing jobs and producer gigs. However a deeper look reveals a eager eye towards tales that middle household dynamics and powerful Black ladies who discover methods to cope with all of their mess.

“Whether or not it’s sci-fi or supernatural or motion, I really like household parts or constructing a household if one doesn’t exist,” she informed me over video chat in January. “That’s a theme in all probability in all of my work. Family, in my private life, is all the pieces. And in my artistic life, I really like writing about household in comedies and dramas and each style.”

Her personal lived expertise has coloured the way in which she tells tales — she’s one in every of six women, in a household of eight siblings. She grew up loving comedian books, and calls herself a “researchaholic,” able to dig into no matter is subsequent and be completely ready to face any obstacles. (She has gone again to high school twice to verify her talent set is as much as par.) But Henderson, 59, says her trajectory within the TV business had much less to do along with her personal planning and preparation and extra to do with coming into open doorways feeling grateful to have the ability to do one of the best job she presumably can. And she or he takes that strategy with younger creators developing behind her, offering a grasp class in generosity and kindness whereas holding her sights on serving audiences in one of the best ways she is aware of how.

At first look, seeing Henderson’s title connected to a TV sequence about vampires could appear to be one other random transfer. For the previous a number of months, she has been knee deep in pre-production notes for the upcoming Netflix sequence “First Kill,” a drama a few teenage vampire who is able to take her first life when she falls for a slayer whose household, clearly, is towards their relationship. So as soon as once more, household dynamics are central to the story.

“With ‘First Kill,’ it occurs to be vampire-versus-vampire slayer. It occurs to be a white household and a Black household,” Henderson mentioned. “It additionally occurs to be these two younger queer women, and I take into consideration my very own queer goddaughter and nieces. They need to be represented on tv. It’s very private for me.”

Felicia D. Henderson has worked on several TV series from “Moesha” and “Sister, Sister,” to “Soul Food” and “The Quad.” (Nicole Ari Parker)
Felicia D. Henderson has labored on a number of TV sequence from “Moesha” and “Sister, Sister,” to “Soul Meals” and “The Quad.” (Nicole Ari Parker)

Henderson began out in company finance. Finally it was clear she’d must get her MBA to maneuver up the ranks of administration, however she didn’t have cash for enterprise faculty. So she utilized to a Peabody Basis/NBC fellowship for individuals who had been focused on tv administration to attend the College of Georgia. She had no intentions of being caught in TV, however she bought to journey to New York and Burbank the place reveals had been made, and finally realized she truly loved the behind-the-scenes TV work. After graduating, she went into NBC’s administration coaching program, the place she was uncovered to writing and studying scripts. Certainly one of her bosses informed her to use for the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop; there, she bought the comedic chops to put in writing jokes for Urkel.

These occasions all appeared to align completely for what was forward, even when Henderson didn’t notice it on the time.

“Once I was beginning out, I wasn’t looking for to outline myself. I used to be simply looking for to get in the place I slot in. Once I began out, I simply needed to be within the recreation. I simply needed to be within the room the place it occurred,” she mentioned. “I’ve all the time had a powerful work ethic that I get from my dad. You present up and also you present out. Working laborious is the way you present that you just’re grateful that you just bought a job. And that’s all you must do. It truly is how I see something that I’m doing.”

“Artistic curiosity has all the time led me greater than ‘right here’s the place I need to be within the enterprise in 5 years,’” she mentioned.

“Working laborious is the way you present that you just’re grateful that you just bought a job. And that’s all you must do. It truly is how I see something that I’m doing.”

Within the ’90s, networks had been booming with Black-led sitcoms, from “The Contemporary Prince of Bel-Air” and “Moesha” to “Sister, Sister.” Henderson minimize her tooth within the writers rooms and met some rising Black creators like Mara Brock Akil, Vida Spears and Sara Finney-Johnson.

She says there’s nothing like being in a writers’ room with a objective to make all people snicker. However for a curious creator like Henderson, happening to the following large gig appeared fairly otherwise on the flip of the century.

“I do consider in recreating your self. In the event you’re sad the place you might be, recreate your self. And so to that finish, I’d written eight o’clock household comedy for a number of years and I liked it,” she mentioned. “However I did that for a number of years and I used to be like, ‘However what else is on the market?’ Once more, it’s simply the way in which my mind works and the way I transfer by the world.”

She went again to high school once more, this time to study the technical abilities wanted to put in writing dramas. She wrote her first screenplay at UCLA: “Samsonite Blue,” a semi-autobiographical drama about her relationship along with her youthful brother and their locations of their bigger household.

On the similar time, Showtime started growing “Soul Meals” right into a TV sequence.

In one more serendipitous second, or maybe it was ordained, one of many judges on the UCLA competitors was the pinnacle of drama growth at Paramount and fell in love with “Samsonite Blue.” Henderson met with Jerry Offsay, who was president of Showtime on the time, George Tillman, the director of the “Soul Meals” movie, and Tracey Edmonds, who was producing the sequence.

She sealed the cope with the reply to 1 interview query: “Why ought to I rent a comedy author to adapt ‘Soul Meals’?”

“Nicely, I’m one in every of six women, so I’ll by no means run out of fabric,” Henderson responded.

In fact, she bought the job. She turned one of many first Black ladies to run a drama sequence, paving the way in which for Shonda Rhimes, Courtney A. Kemp and different Black feminine creators. With the present, Henderson additionally helped launch the careers of a number of actors, together with Nicole Ari Parker and Boris Kodjoe, in addition to of writer-producers Salim Akil and Kenya Barris. She additionally employed a number of Black ladies to direct over the course of the sequence.

“Soul Meals” explored all the pieces from sophisticated household dynamics to politics, from racial discrimination to psychological problems. Teri Joseph, portrayed by Parker, was a company legal professional who handled a extreme anxiousness dysfunction. Henderson was in a position to pull from her sisters’ experiences with anxiousness to inform that story in a approach that had by no means been seen on tv earlier than. Right this moment, extra persons are starting to speak extra overtly about coping with psychological sicknesses, however within the early 2000s, these portrayals on tv had been significantly revelatory.

“All I felt is like, ’I actually hope that helps only one girl, one particular person,” Henderson mentioned. “I hope one particular person noticed themselves in that we see them too.”

The cast of "Soul Food" attends the premiere screening at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles on Feb. 11, 2004. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
The forged of “Soul Meals” attends the premiere screening on the Administrators Guild of America in Los Angeles on Feb. 11, 2004. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Pictures)

It was this sincerity and need to succeed in audiences in a brand new approach that additional satisfied Edmonds that Henderson was the suitable selection to guide the sequence.

“As a showrunner, she was by no means afraid to dive into unchartered waters with storylines, deal with controversial topic issues, and discover Black love and sexuality with an authenticity that we had by no means seen earlier than in a sequence,” Edmonds, who was a producer on each the “Soul Meals” movie and TV sequence, informed HuffPost in an electronic mail. “She additionally got here from the world of comedy, so I knew that she would carry heat, taste and levity to the writing that will set us aside from conventional dramas.”

Operating a TV sequence like “Soul Meals” did include an intense quantity of stress. The community had excessive expectations for good scores, and there was the added complication of depicting a Black household in a TV drama in a approach nobody had been in a position to efficiently achieve this far. Henderson didn’t need to be weighed down by the concept that she couldn’t be free to indicate a multidimensional have a look at Black households and relationships. These dynamics can be sophisticated; the characters wouldn’t all be excellent simply because Black audiences didn’t get to see themselves on tv sufficient. (Henderson admits that she’s glad social media wasn’t round on the time, as a result of she’s positive there have been storylines the place “Black Twitter would have had my neck.”)

“I believed a part of that secret sauce was going to be to not be treasured about what we depicted,” she mentioned. “I mentioned, ‘My plan is to indicate us our three dimensionalities, to indicate us warts and all, to indicate us as full folks. That’s what my objective is.’ And that’s what I attempt to do.”

“I feel the success of these reveals about Black households — the ‘Empires’ and the ‘Powers’ and the ‘Queen Sugars’ of the world which might be all about Black household — in some methods, I hope that a part of what ‘Soul Meals’ did was to put the groundwork for the acceptance and therapy as regular the concept of Black households on tv,” Henderson mentioned.

“I feel the success of these reveals about Black households — the Empires and the Powers and the Queen Sugars of the world which might be all about Black household — in some methods.”

Henderson shopped round a number of different TV dramas as soon as “Soul Meals” led to 2004, however she couldn’t get them bought. She says networks handled the success of “Soul Meals” as an anomaly. So over the following few years she turned to a few of her different pursuits, and was a producer on a number of TV sequence together with “Gossip Woman,” “Everyone Hates Chris” and “Fringe.”

Then in 2017, BET premiered “The Quad,” created by Henderson and Charles D. Holland. The sequence was an exploration of a lady in a person’s world, particularly how Dr. Eva Fletcher (Anika Noni Rose) would discover her footing as the brand new president of a traditionally Black faculty. In fact, household dynamics had been at play on this sequence, too, as Fletcher’s daughter Sydney (Jazz Raycole) attended the varsity. Raycole’s character was raped by a soccer participant in school, and the sequence explores conversations about consent and rape tradition on faculty campuses. These story arcs, when proven on tv, not often characteristic Black ladies.

At first, Henderson mentioned, BET was immune to the extra severe storylines round rape tradition, hoping for a extra celebratory have a look at the HBCU expertise. However she knew how necessary it was to inform these tales. Raycole, who mentioned two of her shut pals had been sexually assaulted, mentioned it “was actually necessary that the story be informed not solely with a specific amount of sensitivity but additionally with the ugly fact of the lingering ache that stays with the sufferer.”

Raycole mentioned Henderson was very clear and open about how she needed to inform the story and hopefully spark a dialog about consent.

“The moments I keep in mind most had been watching her be this extraordinary chief in each room, from the author’s room to the set,” Raycole informed HuffPost in an electronic mail. “Seeing a powerful, good, succesful, Black girl write, produce, and run a present was one thing I’ll maintain on to perpetually and one thing that impressed me to pursue filmmaking. There are only a few feminine showrunners nonetheless Black feminine showrunners and Felicia shouldn’t be solely extraordinary at what she does however extraordinarily conscious and extremely variety as she does it. What I discovered from watching her was invaluable.”

The sequence solely lasted two years, however Henderson mentioned she’s hopeful that there will likely be extra TV reveals that target the HBCU expertise. With Vice President Kamala Harris within the White Home — and after an outpouring of assist from HBCUs and Greek letter fraternities and sororities — Henderson predicted in January that there’d be an inflow of reveals centering these experiences. (We’re already seeing a glimmer that she was proper: In February, The CW greenlit a pilot for an “All-American” spinoff sequence set at an HBCU.)

Actors Jazz Raycole, Peyton Alex Smith and Anika Noni Rose at the BET Presents the American Black Film Festival Honors on Feb. 17, 2017. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Actors Jazz Raycole, Peyton Alex Smith and Anika Noni Rose on the BET Presents the American Black Movie Competition Honors on Feb. 17, 2017. (Kevin Winter/Getty Pictures)

Like many individuals, Henderson started considering deliberately about her subsequent strikes when COVID-19 introduced all the pieces to a halt in her business. The killing of George Floyd additionally had a huge effect on her, as did the deaths of two of her pals.

“For the primary time in my profession, and sure, I waited for my 50s to say, ‘What do I need my profession to appear to be?’ As a result of I’d all the time been pushed by my artistic and mental curiosity. I’ve very particular targets now,” she mentioned. “I’m empowered by the place my coronary heart sits as a Black one that sees the world recognizing the depth of institutional racism. I’m additionally simply not prepared to do something anymore. Not that I’ve carried out a number of it, however that in any approach doesn’t uplift me or my folks and I’m not going to feel sorry about what my targets are and the place I need to go.”

When she’s not behind the digital camera, she is outspoken concerning the significance of political activism and focuses on her charity work. In June, she and the forged of “Soul Meals” held a fundraiser for Sybrina Fulton, the mom of slain teen Trayvon Martin who was operating for Miami-Dade County commissioner. She additionally works with the Jenesse Heart, a home abuse facility in Los Angeles. On high of that, she simply completed instructing a drama-writing class at Columbia College.

Together with TV producers Brock Akil, Finney-Johnson and filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, she endowed the 4 Sisters Scholarship at UCLA for college students focused on telling the Black expertise on display. Her sisterhood with these ladies has lasted for years and is rooted in cheering one another on within the business. In an interview with HuffPost’s Taryn Finley, Brock Akil mentioned that assist system has been important to her work and it has proven up in some ways since they met on the set of “Moesha.”

“It seems like tears. It seems like holding one another’s hand. It seems like fussing at one another. It seems like giving one another time to determine some issues out. It seems like sisterhood,” Brock Akil mentioned. “And we maintain a number of one another’s not solely reminiscences and desires, however we remind one another of one another’s magnificence, and never simply bodily magnificence however actually the generosity of our hearts for one another.”

“Felicia jogged my memory to go get the issues that I need, not all the time taking good care of all people else first earlier than we maintain ourselves. In order that’s one other approach our friendship seems.”

That camaraderie has saved her going — and Henderson nonetheless has rather a lot to present audiences. The premiere date for “First Kill” hasn’t but been introduced, however she is already engaged on “45 Days” for Amazon Studios. The restricted sequence follows 15 totally different households through the civil rights period, and places give attention to the kids on the middle of the motion. Sooner or later, she hopes to direct motion pictures and adapt a comic book e book sequence — and he or she all the time, all the time will give attention to tasks that elevate Black folks and girls. Alongside the way in which, she hopes to open up extra alternatives for others to stroll by the identical doorways she went by greater than twenty years in the past.

“I’m instructing the following era of creators, bringing my voice to bear and serving to make media-literate creators who embrace their accountability as content material creators,” she mentioned. “And I’m ensuring that youngsters who appear to be me are prepared once they get there, in order that the chance isn’t a one-and-done. And that truly, for me, is a approach of taking good care of myself. It’s realizing that I’m doing the work to assist others. That’s necessary.”

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