In 2008, after eight seasons in her breakout role as the star of “Girlfriends,” what Tracee Ellis Ross really wanted was to do it all over again. Fourteen years later, she has — and with more freedom than ever.
As the 2022 Emmy campaigns ramp up, Ross reflected on the legacy of “Black-ish,” the ABC sitcom that she starred in as Dr. Rainbow Johnson from September 2014 until April. Like “Girlfriends,” the show ran for eight seasons, but “Black-ish” got the privilege of a proper goodbye.
Viewers never got closure on the stories of Joan Carol Clayton (Ross) and her friends, who were then some of the few Black female characters on primetime television as the CW canceled “Girlfriends” before a finale was even shot. The experience left Ross unsure about her next steps.
“When I was on ‘Girlfriends,’ Christina Applegate and Julia Louis-Dreyfus were the two sitcom actresses that had two long-running shows,” she says. “I was like, ‘I want to be the Black woman who joins the ranks of Christina Applegate and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.’”
“As a Black woman, there’s not a lot of those examples,” Ross continues. “I couldn’t point to Phylicia Rashad [as someone with a] second show.” Though the ’80s saw Rashad become one of the most prominent Black actors on TV for her work in “The Cosby Show,” there still wasn’t a lot of room for series featuring Black stories, or centering on Black women, until the 2000s.
Ross became the kind of example her younger self was looking for — or one of them, anyway. “I know that I am a light-skinned woman, and I don’t represent the breadth and the beauty and the power of all of us,” she says. “We are not a monolith. But I have taken [my career] with great responsibility. I think of ‘Girlfriends’ and ‘Black-ish’ and the many times that I have fought and said, ‘No. As a Black woman, I will not.’”
Ross says her work on those shows has been nothing less than the “honor” of her life.
“It literally makes my lungs expand,” she says, and is almost instantly moved to tears as she considers the combined 16 years of her life archived within them. Still, she is frank that both experiences were imperfect. Even now that she’s left those roles behind, she speaks with immediacy about the instances in which she confronted writers and producers about their portrayals of Black women: “You’re not gonna get me to do that,” “You can’t give me a good enough explanation [as to] why this makes sense,” “My inner compass says this is not right.”
“I often shift my idea of what is appropriate for a scene or an episode if I look at the larger landscape [of television] and have issues with perpetuating images that don’t work for me,” Ross says. “Because one of my missions in life is expanding our real estate as Black women. Less important to me is how others see us, but how we see ourselves. And how we get reflected back to each other.”
Ross has spoken publicly about what she calls “lady chores” in “Black-ish” scripts. Beginning with the pilot episode, she noticed that Bow was often written with a laundry basket in her arms as she entered a room or chopping vegetables as her husband, Andre (Anthony Anderson), comes home from work. Vehemently opposed to the trope of the sitcom wife who exists to serve her husband and children, Ross asked that these moments be reworked.
“I would say to the writers, ‘This is not me thinking you’re not doing a good job. It’s just that my only job on ‘Black-ish’ is Bow Johnson. So I get to see her from a fuller place than you have access to at times.”
Eventually, these conversations expanded into sitcom structure itself.
“‘Why am I saying this? Is it just so that Bow can set up a joke for Dre? What is Bow’s point of view?’ I’m not trying to make myself the center of the story,” Ross says. “I just want the audience to know that I am a person off-screen, and when I enter the scene, I’m coming with the point of view of the full life of Bow Johnson — not just to set up the world of Dre. I was known [for saying]: ‘You better have an answer for why.’”
The fierceness of Ross’ self-advocacy on set was only matched by her protection of the young actors who played her children.
“I took my role as Mama T, as I was called, very seriously,” Ross says. “Early on, I had many conversations with their parents where I was like, ‘Look. My concern is your child’s well-being. I don’t care about the show.’ I said it. ‘I don’t care if you become famous. I have no investment in you getting an award. I care that you are in a safe environment where you can blossom as a human being.’”
Ross is especially close with Marsai Martin, who played Diane. Martin is now 17 years old with a rapidly rising career — in 2019, she became the youngest person ever to produce a studio film — but when she started on “Black-ish,” she was just 8. “I got to see those tender years of her growth,” Ross says. “Marsai and I had a couple of situations where I noticed she and I both had the same issues with a script. I said, ‘It’s really your character. But I am here. We can have the meeting together, and you can do all the talking. But if you lose your ability to express what you’re trying to express, put your hand on my hand, and I will take over.’”
In 2016, Ross became the first Black woman nominated for the lead comedy actress Emmy since Rashad 30 years before her.
“Why is that? It’s not because the work isn’t there,” she says. “It’s not because the talent isn’t there, or the stories don’t exist. Because everywhere I look, Black women are the leads of their lives.”
Though she’s been nominated four more times since — and Issa Rae has been nominated twice — she holds onto that statistic as a reminder that awards do not often reflect the value that actors from marginalized backgrounds bring to television.
“I was like, ‘Something about the stories that are getting produced [does not reflect] the reality of who we are,” she says. “And that really brought into focus for me the importance of making deliberate and conscious decisions about who Bow was.”
Thinking about awards in this way also made Ross zoom out and think more deeply about the sheer financial power Black artists bring to the entertainment industry, for better or for worse.
“When we were getting shuffled around when ‘Empire’ was on, when we somehow were on the same time slot as ‘This Is Us,’ it started to dawn on me,” she says. “There’s no other Black shows. Why are they programming all of us against each other?”
“And often think about the cultural value that ‘Black-ish’ brought to Disney,” she continues. “To the landscape of television, but to Disney [in particular]. In terms of the viability of seeing an American family that is a Black family — that doesn’t happen to be Black, but that is Black. And that we were still identifiable across all races. People saw themselves in us.”
Instead of coveting trophies, Ross has decided to “dream new dreams,” advice given to her by her manager after her 2017 Golden Globe win. “I realized I had had the same dreams for so long that they were no longer choices,” she says. “They were just where I was headed.”
Now, she dreams of producing.
“When ‘Mixed-ish’ happened, I loved being a part of the development of that,” Ross says, referring to the “Black-ish” spinoff that premiered in 2019 and ran for two seasons. “The creation. The casting. Building the world both in front of and behind the camera, that would feed those stories, not just from a perspective of the acting.”
Though “Mixed-ish” was short-lived, it gave Ross the skills she applies to the current slate of projects she is producing, which range widely in subject matter and format. There’s “Jodie,” a spinoff of the animated cult classic “Daria” which Ross will also star in, as well as docuseries “The Hair Tales” about Black beauty and identity and “I Am America,” a podcast about “hidden angels” who make change in their communities.
Even as she sets her sights elsewhere, there are parts of awards season that make Ross smile. “I’ll be honest, my favorite part of awards is getting dressed. I love pretty clothes,” she laughs.
“I got clear early on that the best part of winning awards is being able to stand on a stage and publicly thank all of the many people that it takes to make it happen,” she continues. “And to utilize that platform to say something important — whether that is the honesty about the moment and how wonderful it feels, or to name the truth of a narrative that does not usually get spoken. It allows that narrative to be etched in stone.”
Win or lose, nominated or passed on, Ross is cognizant that attention is a privilege. While “Girlfriends” was fiercely loved by its core viewers, the show was not often a part of mainstream conversations about influential media while it was on the air — whereas “Black-ish” is regularly lauded for re-introducing Black television to a wider audience.
“There was no awards circuit,” Ross says of her time on the former. “I had never been to the Emmys, the Golden Globes, nothing. There were no interviews about, ‘What do we feel about the end of ‘Girlfriends’ and this era of [of television] you ushered in?’”
“But now, what I’m experiencing in this wave is like taking stock. It’s like having a birthday and being able to look back, but it’s one of the big ones — like a 50! As you walk towards it, the month before, you’re constantly talking about it. The Emmys will be like the 50th birthday.”
Ross herself will turn 50 on Oct. 29 — a month after the ceremony. Unsurprisingly, she is the type to relish the process of getting older, grinning widely at the “whopper gift” it is to have wrapped “Black-ish” right before this milestone.
“Almost 20 years of my life was dedicated to these incredible roles. Bow Johnson and Joan Carol Clayton. It literally makes my lungs expand,” she says. “I feel amazing about it.”
The “Black-ish” series finale saw the Johnsons release their years-long struggle to assimilate. They sell their house in Sherman Oaks in favor of a Black neighborhood, and Dre quits his job to spend more time with their youngest son, Devante (August and Berlin Gross). Naturally, the move is Bow’s idea.
“Can you imagine if Devante got to grow up around successful Black men and women who were not in his family?” she says. The line also seems to wink at the audience, who have a much wider variety of successful Black television to look to than they did when “Black-ish” premiered in 2014.
Ross hopes that the legacy of the series will serve as “a promise” to the industry about the room there is for Black people to thrive.
“There shouldn’t be just one here and there. Our stories need to be told from a very diverse perspective that really reflects the world that we live in. Across the board from age to gender to all of it. We need to see the deep breadth of who we are as humans, and not just through one limited lens.”