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raceAhead: Shonda Rhimes’s Master Plan for Netflix

July 23, 2018, 5:56 PM UTC
Kerry Washington and Shonda Rhimes sit side by side on a couch, clapping and smiling.
Kerry Washington and Shonda Rhimes on "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
Randy Holmes—ABC via Getty Images

It’s Shonda Rhimes’s world now, and we’re all about to be better for it.

The Shondaland/Netflix empire is finally beginning to take shape, as the producer announced a new portfolio of projects on Friday. Several will make the raceAhead crowd sit up and cheer.

Rhimes, the former queen-maker at ABC — consider that when she left, all of Thursday evening belonged to her — is now one of the richest and most storied writer-producers in the history of television programming. And her almost preternatural ability to create ground-breaking entertainment is about to be free of mainstream shackles – time slots, language, theme, even commercial interruptions.

“Everybody thinks that there’s a ‘Shondaland show,’” the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder told The New York Times. “No. There’s a Shondaland show that we made for ABC. Now I can’t wait to show everybody what a Shondaland show is that we make for the world.”

Her multi-year, nine-figure deal with Netflix appears to have the contours of an internal creative universe much like how Marvel exists inside of Disney, one that will hopefully outlive the influence of Shonda herself, she says.

That said, Rhimes is clearly getting her groove in her new home. Her project line-up includes a television adaptation of British period romance novels, a Downton Abbeyish-sounding series about U.S. presidents and the people who run things behind the scenes, and a series based on the story of Anna Delvey, a fashionable and highly accomplished grifter who infiltrated New York’s high-tone circles only to end up at Riker’s Island.

She’s also here for the work. She’s creating a series based on Reset, the book by Project Include founder Ellen Pao about sexism and discrimination in Silicon Valley, and she’s working with actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith to adapt The Warmth of Other Suns, the award-winning 2010 nonfiction book by Isabel Wilkerson on the great migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South up North.

I have no Shonda-colored glasses to help me understand what value she sees in each of her choices, but I’m enough of a fan to appreciate the depths she’s able to plumb from her characters. It’s the ultimate inclusive power move. She has a unique ability to highlight their brokenness while making room for their salvation; and to let her human creations thrive in a world that has been conditioned to believe that good and bad people are easy to spot, and only entertaining if they’re on simplistic, binary journeys.

She’s never been here for that. She doesn’t just tell a story, she tells the story.

But Rhimes is not just reflecting the world, she’s shaping it. That she’s able to entertain while casually tackling race, power, justice, poverty, abortion, history, abuse, addiction, LGBTQ issues, and intersectional feminism on time and under budget makes her more than a programming wizard. If she’s able to distill her strengths into an operating system that informs Shondaland when she’s not in the room, she’ll become one of the most influential creators of the modern age.

On Point

No, Amazon should not privatize public librariesTwitter lost its damn mind over the weekend after a poorly formulated opinion piece written by an economics professor named Panos Mourdoukoutas appeared on Forbes. Though it has since been taken down, his main idea was that libraries were a drag on taxpayers who were getting little return for their investment. As if a silent alarm had been tripped, librarians rose up in articulate rage to dispute his dangerous claims. They brought receipts. The average taxpayer pays just $4.40 per month, half of what a Prime customer pays, to support the public library in their area. That gets them free access to music, books, STEM toys, programming, career help, internet and more, argues EveryLibrary on Medium. But a librarian named Cyree Jarelle Johnson went right to the heart of the matter in this epic thread: “Libraries by Amazon would eliminate the most important function libraries have—as a socialized daytime service to cash-poor and working class people left behind by digital advances,” he began. Johnson is also a newly published poet, y’all getting his book for Christmas next year.Twitter

Fake social media account farms in Indonesia stoked religious and racial violence
Reporting from The Guardian reveals the detailed workings of a “cyber army” using fake Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts to support the re-election bid of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok.”  Ahok, a Chinese Christian, was up against an opposite cyber foe known as the Muslim Cyber Army, who had been deftly using fake accounts to gin up ugly racial and religious divisions and drive people to the streets calling for Ahok to be jailed for blasphemy. Indonesia is one of the top five users of Facebook and Twitter in the world; the level of “buzzer” activity – organized buzz-generation campaigns – at play in any given time is astounding. Spoiler alert: Ahok not only lost, he ended up in jail. “The use of slander, hatred and hoax [fake news] was enormous,” said a spokesperson for Ahok’s campaign.
The Guardian

Lin-Manuel Miranda announces art fund for Puerto Rico
The multi-million dollar fund will boost the arts and the economy on the island, as it continues to struggle after Hurricane Maria last September. Schools and non-profits had languished in the years before the storm, a lengthy recession had left them without government or philanthropic support. The first five recipients of the fund include a dance school and a theater company. Miranda also plans to stage a version of Hamilton in Puerto Rico next January, all proceeds will go to the fund. "Arts will be at the center of [Puerto Rico’s] rebuilding effort," says Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller.
CBS News

The women behind the Arab world’s digital transformation
There are more women in tech per capita in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world, a fact which should get every conference organizer and investor’s attention. And their pathways into tech vary from person to person and region to region. A former luxury magazine editor in Cairo launches a digital marketing company. A mechanical engineer launches a rental platform for wedding and luxury wear. There are also early investors and promising coding operations, including a revolutionary (and gender balanced) tech hub in Gaza, which is preparing eager students to enter the global workforce. “Should the Gulf countries alone achieve full gender parity, the pay-off would be huge: an estimated $830 billion added to their economy by 2025.”

The Woke Leader

New report: Voter purges are on the rise in states with a history of racial discrimination
The trigger was the 2013 Supreme Court decision which invalidated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, the result was that nine states who had been prevented from changing their voting laws without the federal approval known as “preclearance” are now free to do so. Now, it appears that voter purges have surged by 33% between 2014-2016, with much of the activity coming from states that had been subject to federal oversight. Purging is a normal part of keeping a voter list clear of people who have died or moved, unless, of course, it’s not. In Arkansas, thousands of voters were incorrectly flagged as felons in 2016. For more background on the history of this American tradition, check out How Voter Suppression Works, the ACLU’s history of the Voting Rights Act, and excellent analysis on how voter suppression is continuing to warp democracy.

The story of Devonte Hart case gets worse if that’s possible
It turns out that Hart, who was murdered along with three siblings and other members of his adopted family, had biological family members prepared to take him in, but were denied. His mother, who had struggled with addiction and had successfully completed a drug program, had been coached to give up her parental rights specifically so her employed and stable sister could formally adopt the kids. Despite compliance from Devante’s birth family and a long, desperate fight to keep the kids,  the court opted to give the kids to a white family who lived miles away and who were already facing allegations of abuse. Why?

When only one of you is traveling while black
My former Fortune colleague John Kell offers a wrenching account of how an experience with Airbnb nearly destroyed a twenty-year friendship. When he was able to confirm his friend’s worst fears, that she was unable to book rooms on Airbnb – ten of them – for an upcoming trip because she was black, his first response wasn’t he’d hoped. “I wasn’t aware of how much I’d upset Malika by using Airbnb when she was having such problems,” he writes with regret. His confession of a missed opportunity for empathy is both touching and instructive. While Airbnb may have since made headway solving these issues on their platform, the attitudes that exist behind them persist. Travel well this summer, everyone.


I also remember what I liked about the [Grey's Anatomy] pilot was that they didn’t have last names. I remember Cristina did not have a last name. So, for me, when you are an actor — especially an actor of color — I think that just keeps things open as a possibility for you to play the part.
Sandra Oh