Thursday, July 5, 2007

Washington Does About-Face on Race Role in "Grey's" Firing

[NOTE: The following article will also appear in my regular television column for WILDsound.]

My mistake was thinking black people get second chances. ... Well, it didn't help me on the set that I was a black man who wasn't a mush-mouth Negro walking around with his head in his hands all the time. I didn't speak like I'd just left the plantation and that can be a problem for people sometime.
- Isaiah Washington in a June 28, 2007 Yahoo!/AP article entitled "Ex-'Grey's' star cites racism for firing"

Larry King: Do you think, Isaiah, there's anything racist in this? If you were a white member of the cast, do you think it would have been different?
Isaiah Washington: I don't know.
- Isaiah Washington in his July 2, 2007 appearance on "CNN Larry King Live" (click here for a full transcript of the interview)

What a difference four days makes. Maybe it was the intervention of a publicist, an agent, or common sense, but after initially blaming race for his ouster from the hit show "Grey's Anatomy" in a June 28, 2007, interview with the AP, Isaiah Washington backed off that claim four days later in his sit-down with CNN's puffball-question master Larry King. Of course, King did not follow up and ask Washington about his earlier statement. Hell, King didn't even try to hide his lack of research for the interview, failing to even recognize the name of "Grey's" creator and executive producer Shonda Rimes when Washington mentioned her.

For those of you who may not be up on the Washington to-do, in October 2006, it leaked out that Washington used the word "faggot" during an on-set bust-up with co-star Patrick Dempsey. Another actor on the show, T.R. Knight, then came out to People magazine, later telling Ellen DeGeneres that Washington directed the word at him. Washington later said the "F" word again at the Golden Globes in January, denying he said it to Knight. Finally, in early June, Washington was fired, with ABC declining to pick up his option for next year. (This MSNBC article gives a short description of the chain of events.)

When I read Washington's June 28 comments, I was incensed, for the simple reason that he had devalued a legitimate problem, the lack of diversity on network television. There are too few parts for African-American actors, and the parts that are available are too limited in scope (too many characters like the caricatures on "House of Payne," not enough parts as professionals on shows like "Brothers and Sisters" and "Boston Legal," which feature almost exclusively white faces).

But, "Grey's Anatomy" is a sea of diversity in an ocean of homogeneousness. When the show launched in early 2005, of the four residents and attending physicians featured in the fictional Seattle Grace Hospital, three were African-American (including the chief of surgery), and of the five main interns, three were female and one was Asian- American. Two of the three surgeons added during the show's run were women, one of whom was Latin-American. Without ever talking about it, "Grey's Anatomy" made a powerful statement about American culture, telling the world that top surgeons did not have to be white males.

Okay, you might argue, that's in front of the camera, but everyone knows that the true power (and money) in television is controlled by the people who pull the strings behind the scenes. Well, in that arena, "Grey's" was groundbreaking, too. Rimes, the show's mastermind, is one of the few African-American women to run a network show. And, not just any show, but one of the biggest hits on network television at a time when executives have watched ratings crash faster than approval ratings in Washington, D.C. It is important to note that Rimes did not gain her position by winning a contest, pulling a sword out of a stone or being a friend of the President's from Texas. No, Disney gets some of the credit for recognizing her talent and hiring her.

So, it would seem that from the bottom to the top, from the supporting players to the mega-studio who produces "Grey's Anatomy," the show is a shining example of how network television should (and could) be. The show is not just diverse to get publicity. This is a top-rated program that is also critically respected.

There are legitimate potshots to be taken at "Grey's" plot lines: The show has a habit of going for the spectacular on a regular basis (I've been to Seattle, and it didn't seem exciting enough to have that many disasters), including sensationally complicating the lives of their main characters (short of being the guy in the blue shirt on an away team in a "Star Trek" episode, it would seem that being a parent of one of the main characters on "Grey's" is the most dangerous job in television history), and I know I'm not the only man in America wondering why anyone would choose the aptly named, dull, sullen, whiny, mousy, self-involved drama queen Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) over the smart, beautiful and interesting Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh). In the scheme of things, these are quibbles. The scripts are smart, clever and, when needed, tense.

But, the show's pedigree in racial diversity should be beyond question. For Washington, who played a top cardiothoracic surgeon dating an Asian-American surgical intern without his race (or that of his girlfriend) treated as an issue in the show, to inject race into his dismissal is a disgrace.

What seems lost in all of this is that Washington used the word "faggot" as an epithet in a work environment. He can parse the issue all he wants by saying he was not directing it at T.R. Knight, but that does not change the fact that he used the word as an insult. Even in the Larry King interview, where he states multiple times that he is not homophobic, he admits that he used the word as a synonym for "weak." (Washington said: "The 'F' word to me, at that particular time, before this took off in this other direction, in terms of sexual orientation, it meant something -- it meant, to me, someone who is being weak -- a person who is not being treated -- is not deserving of respect.")

Had someone used the "N" word, even if it was not directed at Washington or any of the other African-American actors, or the "S" word, even if it was not directed at cast member Sara Ramirez, or the "K" word, even if it was not directed at a Jewish person on the cast or crew, that individual would have been (and should be) dealt with harshly. For Washington to use the "F" word is no different.

If you watched (or, thanks to the transcripts available on, read) Washington's interview with King, it is clear that between June 28 and July 2, he shifted his argument from race to office politics. As the quotes above illustrate, when King gave him a chance to blame race, Washington responded with an "I don't know," a substantial shift from the unequivocal playing of the race card in the June 28 AP interview. It is not unusual for pettiness and competitiveness amongst cast members to creep into a successful show. I have no doubt that stars Dempsey and Knight, along with Washington, were locked in a pissing contest over the size of their roles and their influence in the show. Nobody reading the interview (and watching how things unfolded in the months after the original incident in October) can deny that Washington was the victim of at least some maneuvering by Knight.

Again, though, it is important to note that Washington's use of a person's sexual orientation as an insult, and as a synonym for weakness, is what got him into the mess in the first place. Maybe others were opportunistic, and maybe others were unprofessional, but it was Washington and only Washington responsible for the use of the "F" word. For him to try and explain it away as being a way of calling someone weak does not help matters (as he seems to think), but only makes things worse.

Washington may have been a victim of office politics and a rabid media frenzy, and he very well may have been unfairly dismissed by his employers. And, I have no doubt that other cast members on "Grey's Anatomy" probably should have faced some discipline for their roles in inflating the original incident from a shocking on-set event into a giant media storm. But any sympathy I had for Washington vanished with his initial playing of the race card, and his subsequent diminution of his actions that put him in his precarious position in the first place. His charges are an insult to the historical way in which "Grey's" was constructed, to the executives at Disney who were smart enough to give Rimes the chance, and to Rimes who put together a talented and diverse cast.

Like most media storms, this one will blow over, and both Washington and "Grey's" will go on. Both will be dented, but, hopefully, they can escape with minor damages and get back on the road. Television can use more shows like "Grey's Anatomy."