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Monday, November 29, 2021

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

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To put it simply, Felicia D. Henderson has the range.

The TV producer-writer-director extraordinaire has spent the last few decades writing jokes for Steve Urkel on the long-running sitcom “Family Matters,” crafting new diary entries for Mo-to-tha-E-to-tha on “Moesha” and finessing feminist storylines into episodes of “Sister, Sister.” For fans of TV nostalgia and aspiring writers, Henderson is the creative genius you want to chat with for hours on end about the Black sitcom heyday of the 1990s.

She is also a premier example of what it looks like to ride Hollywood’s ever-bumpy waves and pivot at a perfect inflection point. By 2000, as networks started pulling back from investing in brand-new Black sitcoms, Henderson had landed the top spot as showrunner and executive producer of “Soul Food,” a Showtime TV follow-up to the 1997 blockbuster hit about the close-knit Joseph family in Chicago. At the time, there had never been a successful television drama centered around a Black family. (CBS shows “Under One Roof” and “City of Angels” only lasted one season apiece.) “Soul Food” was a hit for the network and garnered several NAACP Image Awards during its five-season run.

In the years that followed, Henderson produced episodes of “The Punisher,” “Empire,” “Fringe,” “Gossip Girl” and “Everybody Hates Chris.” She was also a writer, director and executive producer for the too-short-lived BET series “The Quad,” a drama set at the fictional historically Black college Georgia A&M University, in 2017.

“Henderson is the creative genius you want to chat with for hours on end about the Black sitcom heyday of the 1990s.”

Henderson’s list of credits may at times seem like a random collection of writing jobs and producer gigs. But a deeper look reveals a keen eye toward stories that center family dynamics and strong Black women who find ways to deal with all of their mess.

“Whether it’s sci-fi or supernatural or action, I love family elements or building a family if one doesn’t exist,” she told me over video chat in January. “That’s a theme probably in all of my work. Family, in my personal life, is everything. And in my creative life, I love writing about family in comedies and dramas and every genre.”

Her own lived experience has colored the way she tells stories — she’s one of six girls, in a family of eight siblings. She grew up loving comic books, and calls herself a “researchaholic,” ready to dig into whatever is next and be perfectly prepared to face any obstacles. (She has gone back to school twice to make sure her skill set is up to par.) Yet Henderson, 59, says her trajectory in the TV industry had less to do with her own planning and preparation and more to do with entering open doors feeling grateful to be able to do the best job she possibly can. And she takes that approach with young creators coming up behind her, providing a master class in generosity and kindness while keeping her sights on serving audiences in the best way she knows how.

At first glance, seeing Henderson’s name attached to a TV series about vampires may seem like another random move. For the past several months, she has been knee deep in pre-production notes for the upcoming Netflix series “First Kill,” a drama about a teenage vampire who is ready to take her first life when she falls for a slayer whose family, obviously, is against their relationship. So once again, family dynamics are central to the story.

“With ‘First Kill,’ it happens to be vampire-versus-vampire slayer. It happens to be a white family and a Black family,” Henderson said. “It also happens to be these two young queer girls, and I think about my own queer goddaughter and nieces. They deserve to be represented on television. It’s very personal 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 worked on several TV series from “Moesha” and “Sister, Sister,” to “Soul Food” and “The Quad.” (Nicole Ari Parker)

Henderson started out in corporate finance. Eventually it was clear she’d need to get her MBA to move up the ranks of management, but she didn’t have money for business school. So she applied to a Peabody Foundation/NBC fellowship for people who were interested in television management to attend the University of Georgia. She had no intentions of being stuck in TV, but she got to travel to New York and Burbank where shows were made, and eventually realized she actually enjoyed the behind-the-scenes TV work. After graduating, she went into NBC’s management training program, where she was exposed to writing and reading scripts. One of her bosses told her to apply for the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop; there, she got the comedic chops to write jokes for Urkel.

These events all seemed to align perfectly for what was ahead, even if Henderson didn’t realize it at the time.

“When I was starting out, I wasn’t seeking to define myself. I was just seeking to get in where I fit in. When I started out, I just wanted to be in the game. I just wanted to be in the room where it happened,” she said. “I’ve always had a strong work ethic that I get from my dad. You show up and you show out. Working hard is how you show that you’re grateful that you got a job. And that’s all you have to do. It really is how I see anything that I’m doing.”

“Creative curiosity has always led me more than ‘here’s where I want to be in the business in five years,’” she said.

“Working hard is how you show that you’re grateful that you got a job. And that’s all you have to do. It really is how I see anything that I’m doing.”

In the ’90s, networks were booming with Black-led sitcoms, from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Moesha” to “Sister, Sister.” Henderson cut her teeth in the writers rooms and met some emerging 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 goal to make everybody laugh. But for a curious creator like Henderson, going on to the next big gig looked quite differently at the turn of the century.

“I do believe in recreating yourself. If you’re unhappy where you are, recreate yourself. And so to that end, I’d written 8 o’clock family comedy for a few years and I loved it,” she said. “But I did that for a few years and I was like, ‘But what else is out there?’ Again, it’s just the way my brain works and how I move through the world.”

She went back to school again, this time to learn the technical skills needed to write dramas. She wrote her first screenplay at UCLA: “Samsonite Blue,” a semi-autobiographical drama about her relationship with her younger brother and their places in their larger family.

At the same time, Showtime began developing “Soul Food” into a TV series.

In yet another serendipitous moment, or perhaps it was ordained, one of the judges at the UCLA competition was the head of drama development at Paramount and fell in love with “Samsonite Blue.” Henderson met with Jerry Offsay, who was president of Showtime at the time, George Tillman, the director of the “Soul Food” film, and Tracey Edmonds, who was producing the series.

She sealed the deal with the answer to one interview question: “Why should I hire a comedy writer to adapt ‘Soul Food’?”

“Well, I’m one of six girls, so I will never run out of material,” Henderson responded.

Of course, she got the job. She became one of the first Black women to run a drama series, paving the way for Shonda Rhimes, Courtney A. Kemp and other Black female creators. With the show, Henderson also helped launch the careers of several actors, including Nicole Ari Parker and Boris Kodjoe, as well as of writer-producers Salim Akil and Kenya Barris. She also hired several Black women to direct over the course of the series.

“Soul Food” explored everything from complicated family dynamics to politics, from racial discrimination to mental disorders. Teri Joseph, portrayed by Parker, was a corporate attorney who dealt with a severe anxiety disorder. Henderson was able to pull from her sisters’ experiences with anxiety to tell that story in a way that had never been seen on television before. Today, more people are beginning to talk more openly about dealing with mental illnesses, but in the early 2000s, those portrayals on television were particularly revelatory.

“All I felt is like, ’I really hope that helps just one woman, one person,” Henderson said. “I hope one person saw themselves in that we see them too.”

The cast of
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)

It was this sincerity and desire to reach audiences in a new way that further convinced Edmonds that Henderson was the right choice to lead the series.

“As a showrunner, she was never afraid to dive into unchartered waters with storylines, tackle controversial subject matters, and explore Black love and sexuality with an authenticity that we had never seen before in a series,” Edmonds, who was a producer on both the “Soul Food” film and TV series, told HuffPost in an email. “She also came from the world of comedy, so I knew that she would bring warmth, flavor and levity to the writing that would set us apart from traditional dramas.”

Running a TV series like “Soul Food” did come with an intense amount of pressure. The network had high expectations for good ratings, and there was the added complication of depicting a Black family in a TV drama in a way no one had been able to successfully do so far. Henderson didn’t want to be weighed down by the idea that she couldn’t be free to show a multidimensional look at Black families and relationships. Those dynamics would be complicated; the characters would not all be perfect just because Black audiences didn’t get to see themselves on television enough. (Henderson admits that she’s glad social media wasn’t around at the time, because she’s sure there were storylines where “Black Twitter would have had my neck.”)

“I thought part of that secret sauce was going to be to not be precious about what we depicted,” she said. “I said, ‘My plan is to show us our three dimensionalities, to show us warts and all, to show us as complete people. That’s what my goal is.’ And that’s what I try to do.”

“I think the success of those shows about Black families — the ‘Empires’ and the ‘Powers’ and the ‘Queen Sugars’ of the world that are all about Black family — in some ways, I hope that part of what ‘Soul Food’ did was to lay the groundwork for the acceptance and treatment as normal the idea of Black families on television,” Henderson said.

“I think the success of those shows about Black families — the Empires and the Powers and the Queen Sugars of the world that are all about Black family — in some ways.”

Henderson shopped around a few other TV dramas once “Soul Food” ended in 2004, but she could not get them sold. She says networks treated the success of “Soul Food” as an anomaly. So over the next few years she turned to some of her other interests, and was a producer on several TV series including “Gossip Girl,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Fringe.”

Then in 2017, BET premiered “The Quad,” created by Henderson and Charles D. Holland. The series was an exploration of a woman in a man’s world, specifically how Dr. Eva Fletcher (Anika Noni Rose) would find her footing as the new president of a historically Black college. Of course, family dynamics were at play in this series, too, as Fletcher’s daughter Sydney (Jazz Raycole) attended the school. Raycole’s character was raped by a football player at school, and the series explores conversations about consent and rape culture on college campuses. These story arcs, when shown on television, rarely feature Black women.

At first, Henderson said, BET was resistant to the more serious storylines around rape culture, hoping for a more celebratory look at the HBCU experience. But she knew how important it was to tell these stories. Raycole, who said two of her close friends had been sexually assaulted, said it “was really important that the story be told not only with a certain amount of sensitivity but also with the ugly truth of the lingering pain that stays with the victim.”

Raycole said Henderson was very clear and open about how she wanted to tell the story and hopefully spark a conversation about consent.

“The moments I remember most were watching her be this extraordinary leader in every room, from the writer’s room to the set,” Raycole told HuffPost in an email. “Seeing a strong, smart, capable, Black woman write, produce, and run a show was something I will hold on to forever and something that inspired me to pursue filmmaking. There are very few female showrunners nonetheless Black female showrunners and Felicia is not only extraordinary at what she does but extremely aware and incredibly kind as she does it. What I learned from watching her was invaluable.”

The series only lasted two years, but Henderson said she’s hopeful that there will be more TV shows that focus on the HBCU experience. With Vice President Kamala Harris in the White House — and after an outpouring of support from HBCUs and Greek letter fraternities and sororities — Henderson predicted in January that there’d be an influx of shows centering these experiences. (We’re already seeing a glimmer that she was right: In February, The CW greenlit a pilot for an “All-American” spinoff series 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 at the BET Presents the American Black Film Festival Honors on Feb. 17, 2017. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Like many people, Henderson began thinking intentionally about her next moves when COVID-19 brought everything to a halt in her industry. The killing of George Floyd also had a huge impact on her, as did the deaths of two of her friends.

“For the first time in my career, and yes, I waited for my 50s to say, ‘What do I want my career to look like?’ Because I’d always been driven by my creative and intellectual curiosity. I have very specific goals now,” she said. “I am empowered by where my heart sits as a Black person who sees the world recognizing the depth of institutional racism. I’m also just not willing to do anything anymore. Not that I’ve done a lot of it, but that in any way doesn’t uplift me or my people and I’m not going to be apologetic about what my goals are and where I want to go.”

When she’s not behind the camera, she is outspoken about the importance of political activism and focuses on her charity work. In June, she and the cast of “Soul Food” held a fundraiser for Sybrina Fulton, the mother of slain teen Trayvon Martin who was running for Miami-Dade County commissioner. She also works with the Jenesse Center, a domestic abuse facility in Los Angeles. On top of that, she just finished teaching a drama-writing class at Columbia University.

Along with TV producers Brock Akil, Finney-Johnson and filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, she endowed the Four Sisters Scholarship at UCLA for students interested in telling the Black experience on screen. Her sisterhood with these women has lasted for years and is rooted in cheering each other on in the industry. In an interview with HuffPost’s Taryn Finley, Brock Akil said that support system has been vital to her work and it has shown up in many ways since they met on the set of “Moesha.”

“It looks like tears. It looks like holding each other’s hand. It looks like fussing at each other. It looks like giving each other time to figure some things out. It looks like sisterhood,” Brock Akil said. “And we hold a lot of each other’s not only memories and dreams, but we remind each other of each other’s beauty, and not just physical beauty but really the generosity of our hearts for each other.”

“Felicia reminded me to go get the things that I want, not always taking care of everybody else first before we take care of ourselves. So that’s another way our friendship looks.”

That camaraderie has kept her going — and Henderson still has a lot to give audiences. The premiere date for “First Kill” hasn’t yet been announced, but she is already working on “45 Days” for Amazon Studios. The limited series follows 15 different families during the civil rights era, and puts focus on the children at the center of the movement. One day, she hopes to direct movies and adapt a comic book series — and she always, always will focus on projects that elevate Black people and women. Along the way, she hopes to open up more opportunities for others to walk through the same doors she went through more than two decades ago.

“I’m teaching the next generation of creators, bringing my voice to bear and helping make media-literate creators who embrace their responsibility as content creators,” she said. “And I’m making sure that kids who look like me are ready when they get there, so that the opportunity isn’t a one-and-done. And that actually, for me, is a way of taking care of myself. It’s knowing that I’m doing the work to help others. That’s important.”

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