This week, we want to take a deeper look at a real-life BAMF, the way The Good Fight is failing when it comes to representation, and how those two things are connected.
Badass: Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, the first black woman to serve on New York State’s highest court, who died last week at age 65. According to The New York Times, the judge “was known for her steadfast liberal voice, regularly siding with immigrants, the poor, and people with mental illness against established interests” and “was not one to use her decisions as a soapbox even when they set precedents.”
In one of Judge Abdus-Salaam’s first cases as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Bureau of the state attorney general’s office, she represented more than 30 NYC bus drivers who brought a discrimination suit after being denied promotions – and won. Last year, she wrote a decision that expanded the definition of parenthood beyond biology, a crucial win for same-sex couples with children. Previously, non-biological parents had not had standing to seek custody or visitation if the couple broke up – something Judge Abdus-Salaam called “unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” Last December, she ruled that excluding a juror based on their skin color – not just their race – was prohibited.
The news reports following her death – which we choose not to focus on here, and instead celebrate her life – were full of anecdotes and quotes speaking to her kindness and humility. Kaylin Whittingham, president of the New York Association of Black Women Attorneys, described her as a “girl on fire.” Former colleague Steve Younger said that she “always had a sparkle in her eye,” and chief judge of the state Court of Appeals Janet DeFiore said that “Sheila’s smile could light up the darkest room.” New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo called her a “trailblazing jurist” with “an unshakable moral compass.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio described her as “a humble pioneer.” Other friends and colleagues called her “unfailingly gracious,” “at the pinnacle in the judiciary,” “a brilliant person,” and “a beautiful human being.” Former Attorney General Eric Holder, a former classmate, spoke at her 2013 court of appeals swearing-in ceremony, and the Times ran the initial report of Judge Abdus-Salaam’s death by recalling his words: “Sheila could boogie.”
There’s something beautiful about that – a reminder that, in addition to being an exceptional legal mind whose impact on the law will outlive her, and despite the focus on the manner of her death, she lived.
Bad: The way The Good Fight has failed to develop its fictional black women in the legal world – notably Lucca, who is supposed to be a main character but whose only notable story arc is her romance with Colin.
The failure to develop Lucca beyond her role as the vehicle for the show’s primary heterosexual romance (which is noteworthy in itself, given that there is hardly any investment in the same-sex relationship between Maia and her longtime partner) is even more obvious when we look at the other members of the Reddick-Boseman team: despite being a secondary character, Marissa has a solid storyline surrounding her career aspirations and interest in becoming an investigator. We know a little about Adrian and he plays a substantive part in the legal storylines (which should be the norm, because Delroy Lindo plays them in a way that makes legal proceedings seem fit for the Broadway stage, complete with big dance numbers). We see Jay primarily in the context of Marissa’s story, and with respect to that tangle, Angelica Jade Bastién unpacks the not-so-cute nature of the “I’m coming for your job” dynamic and the likelihood of it becoming reality (she also has her own analysis of the way black characters, particularly black women, are portrayed on the show, and you should read it).
And then we have Barbara Kolstad, a named partner who has reservations about Diane and, to a seemingly lesser extent, Maia. Which is more or less everything we know about her. Despite the promise before the series began that Diane would find herself struggling to adjust to no longer being in charge and the potential to explore the complicated dynamics that women, particularly women in management positions, have with one another, all we know about Barbara is that she’s kind of on the fence.
Why are the most notably underdeveloped characters on the show black women? Well, maybe – just throwing it out there – it’s because there are no black women in the writers’ room. The Kings were very eager when it came to exploring a diverse set of characters and, to their…partial? kind of?…credit, two of the season’s episodes were written by people of color. Sorry – men of color. And yes, that matters. Just like it matters that the show’s eight writers are, in fact, seven men and one woman (excluding the Kings). While the woman – Tegan Shohet – is one of the three staff writers who work on most episodes under other writers, having two female perspectives for the entire show is not ideal. It’s particularly not ideal when the show is centered around three women. So, suddenly, it makes a lot of sense that neither Lucca nor Barbara are fleshed-out characters. It just doesn’t make any sense why the Kings didn’t bother to have any women of color in the writers’ room – and makes for a facepalm moment when Robert King gushed to Variety about how “streaming allows for truer colors.” He was talking about cinematography, of course, but the fact that he found the “way color-correction is done” noteworthy makes it seem all the more ridiculous that he and his partner haven’t bothered to look beyond the colors of pixels to their writers’ room.
We’ve written before about the impact that television has on young womens’ career aspirations – including the so-called “Scully Effect” of girls being inspired by the X-Files character Dana Scully to pursue STEM careers, which does have scientific merit. There’s also evidence to suggest that young women are inspired to pursue law enforcement and legal careers by media depictions of women in the workplace, which makes it particularly important for shows like The Good Fight to be cognizant of the power they wield. Given that race and gender are strong predictors of television viewing preferences, there is a distinct possibility that characters like Lucca Quinn and Barbara Kolstad could be instrumental in inspiring young black girls to grow up to follow in the footsteps of Sheila Abdus-Salaam.
In the 1963/1964 television season, a short lived drama called East Side/West Side raised controversy by taking a realist approach to political and social issues, including poverty and racism. Led by George C. Scott, it costarred Cicely Tyson, whose then-shocking depiction of a black woman willing to assert herself to her white male costar was met with hate mail by the bag. Tyson’s career would eventually earn her, among other accolades, three Emmys, a Tony, honorary doctorates from Columbia and Howard Universities, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
At her confirmation hearing before the New York State Senate for the Court of Appeals seat, Sheila Abdus-Salaam recalled that the earliest source of her interest in the law came from watching television shows like Perry Mason and – you guessed it – East Side/West Side.
Whether you choose to call that particular item a coincidence, evidence, or some serious black girl magic, there’s empirical evidence to support the idea that the potential next generation of Sheila Abdus-Salaams are looking to the Lucca Quinns and Barbara Kolstads for inspiration.
We think they deserve the chance to find it.