Diahann Carroll was regal, a representation she’s held for decades
Star of ‘Julia’ paved the way for other black actresses, like Kerry Washington
Diahann Carroll was an icon whose past was present for anyone in Hollywood.
In 2013, when I was looking for stories to tell about black people in Hollywood, I interviewed her. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed her groundbreaking role in Julia, a TV series in which she portrayed a black professional woman and not a domestic, as we’d often seen before.
Sadly, Carroll left us on Friday. She died at her West Hollywood, California, home. She was 84.
“To play the part of Julia in the early ’60s,” she shared in January 2013, “I did feel that it was something that I had not seen in my childhood and that the star of the show was not only a woman but a black woman. And I was very happy to be that representative. I felt that I could do it and I only tried to do jobs that I felt like I could do.”
The Tony Award winner is best remembered for the role of Julia Baker. But her career was long. She starred in Broadway and Hollywood musicals such as Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess. In the 1980s, she played the devilish Dominique Deveraux on ABC’s soap opera Dynasty. She appeared in television and film throughout the years, including Eve’s Bayou in 1997, and recurring roles on A Different World, Grey’s Anatomy and White Collar.
She was regal, she was glamorous on screen, on stage and in real life, a representation she held for decades.
Julia paved the way for other black actresses, such as Kerry Washington, who in 2013 was the woman many of us championed to collect an Emmy for lead actress in a drama series. Washington starred as Olivia Pope in Scandal on ABC.
And all of us in black Hollywood believed it was thee moment when Carroll (who was the first African American Emmy nominee in 1963 for Naked City) and Washington presented an award together, for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards in 2013.
Washington’s category wasn’t up yet. Carroll — who never minced words — spoke before the duo presented. “Tonight,” Carroll said, looking into the audience, “she better get this award.”
Washington didn’t win the Emmy for lead actress in a drama series that night. But it was a reminder of where we’d come from and where we should be going and the word came from one of our most important icons.
Carroll was shocked that Washington didn’t win. Still, Carroll remained determined, and as the world remembers her legacy, her words remain.
“We have to do exactly what we’ve been doing. And that is make a special effort to understand what your life professionally is all about; as you do that, you begin to understand what the industry is all about,” she said during our 2013 interview. “Where you sit and where you do not sit. It’s very difficult for an African American woman than a male — they’ve always tried to keep it a male industry — we seem to fall back into that whenever we get into trouble with integration. Anyone who feels we have resolved the racist problems in this country. We’ve made some steps, but we haven’t resolved them.”
Diahann Carroll walked this earth for 84 years and broke ground with every footstep. An icon. One of the all-time greats. She blazed trails through dense forests and elegantly left diamonds along the path for the rest of us to follow. Extraordinary life. Thank you, Ms. Carroll. pic.twitter.com/YXjh7d3LWU
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) October 4, 2019
Our chat was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2013, the day President Barack Obama was being sworn in for his second term. I asked her about her legacy. She’d made many contributions over the years. What would she love for people to focus on once she’s gone? Was it the political activism? The groundbreaking roles?
“That’s hard to say because I was very fortunate and many things came to me, but I do know that if one door is not opening, we must try a different door and not sit there and complain,” she said.
Like the night of the 2013 Emmys — with one sentence on one of the biggest stages during awards season — her presence was a reminder that black women in Hollywood still hadn’t made much progress since her 1968 series Julia aired on NBC. For her that had to change.
“I also like that I see more young black Americans coming together to form their own corporations and to make their own product. It’s a difficult place to be, but it was difficult for everyone who is involved in production and creation. It’s harder than being just there when the job is offered to you. So I guess that’s part of everything that I’ve hoped for while I’ve been working,” she said. “And continue to hone your craft. Never stop. Never stop learning.”
Thank you, Ms. Carroll. We never will.