Diahann Carroll in “Julia” (1968)
In the summer of 1995, I was standing back stage on board the cruise ship Legend of the Seas. It was my first week as Production Manager and the guest star for this cruise was about to go on stage. The phone rang and with less than five minutes to curtain, I was inclined to ignore the call, but I answered anyhow.
“Hello, this is Vic Damone…may I speak with Diahann?”
It was a reality check that I will never forget. At that moment, I had a legendary Hollywood star waiting in a dressing room and another legendary star (her ex husband) on the telephone calling shore to ship from Los Angeles to wish her well. What’s more, the star in the dressing room below was a groundbreaking actress on stage, film and television. And even more than that, she had been a symbol of black pride, beauty and the future of blackness throughout my youth. She was part of why I became who I am. I was about to introduce, Miss Diahann Carroll.
I asked our stage assistant to bring Miss Carroll up from the dressing room to receive her call. We would hold the curtain for as long as it took.
My time on board that week with Miss Carroll was not idyllic. I was new in the position and still trying to understand my authority; the ship was new and still technically under construction; Miss Carroll was nervous about appearing in her first live performance in several years plus being in preparation for taking on the role of Norma Desmond in the musical Sunset Boulevard. Ironically, the only thing that was flawless that cruise was the Alaska weather. Still, despite all of the potential and actual angst, I came away from my interaction with Diahann Carroll completely besotted and with a greater understanding of just how important someone like her has been to the world. She was a game changer. We need more game changers.
When Diahann Carroll appeared in the title role of the television show Julia in 1968, she was the first black woman to lead a national network television show that was not variety or one where she played a maid.
The question is what kind of game changers do we need in the world? This election cycle, there has been a lot of talk about how Bernie Sanders and The Dump represent “out of the box” thinking. They are both painting themselves as non/anti-establishment candidates who are presenting alternatives to political business as usual. But are they really game changers? The Dump talks a very aggressive game. He says things that politicians don’t say; he does things that politicians don’t do. His unorthodox campaign is successful in terms of garnering him people’s votes as well as media presence as well as stirring up xenophobia and racism (even if he is by political standards financially broke). But I would argue that he is not a game changer; he is putting on a show. He is simply applying to politics the same dreadful histrionics he has used in business (one could call them theatrical robber baron or huckster tactics). As he always has, he is leveraging both his whiteness and his maleness to be given a pass as a “bad boy” where any non-white non-male would have been submerged (or put in prison) a long time ago. That is definitely business as usual.
Sanders is a bit different. He is talking an innovative game. Sanders brings vision and inspiration and soaring aspiration to the campaign that is desperately needed. He voices the real goals and concerns of “the people” and does not lose touch with that crucial connection. He is authentic and extremely wise. This is exactly what he has done for 25 years in Congress. He has not been afraid to present radical ideas and independent thinking. He has been a vocal opponent of the establishment, big business government, hawkish politics and he has been a consistent and dedicated voice for his highly independent constituents. But with all that, he has played entirely by the rules. Many people forget that the rules of the United States Government allow for dissent…radical dissent even. He has been vocal and sounded the rallying cry, but Sanders has not dismantled any systems or successfully blocked any of the usual way things are done in our government. Bernie Sanders may be using radically different colors, but he is still very much so drawing within the lines.
Scenes from “Julia” (I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas)
When Diahann Carroll appeared in the title role of the television show Julia in 1968, she was the first black woman to lead a national network television show that was not variety or one where she played a maid. Her role was a professional nurse, and she was the star. It was also a show that spoke upfront about race in the middle of the most violent years of the Civil Rights Movement. Take for example the episode “I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas” that opens with her young son arguing with a little white boy about the whether Santa Claus is black or white (see clip here). Prior to this, Miss Carroll had appeared opposite white actor Richard Kiley as a fashion model in Richard Rodgers’ No Strings on Broadway where she was also his love interest, breaking the color barrier in musical comedy. Because of her other powerful performances (Porgy and Bess, Carmen Jones, House of Flowers, etc.) she was a highly sought after guest on musical television programs with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr. and other major white stars. She was not a ‘sex kitten’ a ‘blues mama’ or a domestic. Diahann Carroll was presented as a legitimate, mature artist who’s stunning voice, acting chops and statuesque beauty could not be contained in the racist attitudes of the day and could easily rival Doris Day or Barbra Streisand. In the 1950’s she had married white producer Monte Kay who was also 14 years her senior. In the late 1980’s she stood toe to talon with Joan Collins in Dynasty. She was powerful without being a cliché of black womanhood. Diahann Carroll was always true to herself which meant that she never played by the rules of her era. She was a real game changer.
Hillary Clinton insisted that the role of First Lady (both of Arkansas and then of the United States) was not simply to play hostess. Building on her role model Eleanor Roosevelt, she saw herself as both an extension of the President’s political power and effectiveness and as an independent player with a clear political agenda. Clinton then went completely against the grain of former First Ladies and opted to run for and win a seat in the US Senate instead of devoting herself to her husband’s legacy. Following a highly volatile battle for the Presidency against Barack Obama, she then went on to serve as his Secretary of State. We can and should argue about her record in each of these roles and we can find fault and favor with her decisions and motivations in certain circumstances, but it is undeniable that she has rewritten the resume of qualifications for people seeking high political office, particularly women. She has actually changed the game.
Diahann Carroll today
We need game changers. This is the rhetoric that The Dump and Sanders are using. Sometimes you have to play outside of the box, or draw outside of the lines. But there is only one candidate who has consistently done this throughout their career. In fact, she has drawn an entirely different picture of what it looks like to find a path to the White House. One could argue that she has performed no better than any other white male politician. But I think you would be hard pressed to find any other politician with her public service pedigree and I believe we are a little to quick to assume that the playing field is so level that her being a woman doesn’t matter. No one seems willing to use gender to Clinton’s advantage, but all too many are willing to use it as a weakness (criticism of her hair, clothes, voice, etc.) We need to invest in her as a whole and uniquely qualified person…a woman, an international statesperson, a Senator, a First Lady and an attorney…a game changer…and more importantly we need to insist that she see herself this way as well. She is the true radical by raising the bar for qualifications of all Presidents who follow, male or female.
The 2016 presidential election will not be won by the status quo, but in our current climate of ethical volatility, most people are focused on lofty ideology. It would serve the voting public to shift that focus more toward actual skills, political caché and battle tested durability that will be necessary to move the immovable object of the US Congress to action. This election should be won by the person who opens up a completely new way of thinking about what it means to be President of the United States and what that means to the context and relationship between our three branches of government. This next administration may not be as much about policy as some would have it as it is about the person. Just as the producers of Julia must have realized they had a unique opportunity, Hillary Clinton can be our nation’s Diahann Carroll. What’s wrong with a black Santa Claus anyhow?