The return of the female action star often left out Black women. Enter Queen Latifah.
As private detective Foxy Brown, Pam Grier was a superstar in the 1970s during the so-called Blaxploitation era, positioned as a counterpart to Black male heroes such as Shaft in such films as "Foxy Brown," "Sheba, Baby" and "Coffy." Another notable female star of the period was Tamara Dobson, as the gun-toting Cleopatra Jones. TV tried to capitalize on the trend too in 1974 with "Get Christie Love!" in which star Teresa Graves delivered the spicy catchphrase, "You're under arrest, sugar."
In more recent years, top actresses including Charlize Theron ("Atomic Blonde"), Angelina Jolie ("Salt"), Jennifer Lawrence ("Red Sparrow"), and Jessica Chastain ("Ava") jumped into the game, beating up bad guys and performing risky stunts in high-profile film and TV projects. But unless they were wearing a superhero's cape or working in the framework of science fiction, Black actresses have largely been missing in action.
That troubling shortfall was turned upside down when CBS unveiled "The Equalizer," a reboot of the 1980s TV drama starring Edward Woodward as former intelligence agent Robert McCall, who becomes a freelance crusader on behalf of victims facing overwhelming odds.
The show stars Queen Latifah, taking on the character most recently portrayed by Denzel Washington in the films "The Equalizer" and "The Equalizer 2," which were heavy on atmosphere and brutal violence.
And like her male predecessors, Robyn McCall is a lethal weapon.
In one scene, the unarmed McCall takes on the kidnappers of a young girl. When one of the bad guys warns her to mind her own business, McCall calmly says, "I tried to mind my own business, but I'm really bad at it. But there are other things I'm really good at. So let the girl go and I'll let you walk out of here." When they refuse and attack McCall, she single-handedly makes them regret it.
"I like the idea of someone who uses their skills to exact justice," Latifah said in a recent interview. "I'm not cynical. I still think there's hope for the world."
She added that she was a fan of the original series and of the films, and felt it would be "cool" to revamp the show with a Black actress. As for the dearth of Black women in lead action roles, Latifah said it is indicative of how Hollywood has treated Black actresses — and women in general.
"The playing field has never been level," said Latifah, who has one of the most varied resumes in the industry. In addition to being an Oscar-nominated actress ("Chicago"), the entertainer has been a rapper, singer, talk show host and producer. She is an executive producer of "The Equalizer," credited as Dana Owens, which is her real name.
"It's been such an uphill battle for a long time," she added. "Black women are not regarded the way we should be. We're not held as the high standard of beauty, capability, wisdom, intelligence and strength that we actually are. So whenever we have an opportunity to show ourselves as we should be seen — that we're not all the same — we should have that opportunity."
Andrew Marlowe, a cocreator and executive producer of "The Equalizer," is excited that viewers will finally be able to root for a Black female action hero again.
"It's long past time to be able to see these characters on TV in these roles," said Marlowe. "It's an exciting cultural moment. We hope that in doing so, the show can find its success and we can normalize it. It's very odd that we haven't been able to see this before. Black women should be portrayed as the interesting, warm, powerful, complicated people that they are."
"Queen Latifah as 'The Equalizer' felt like a natural to us," said Terri Miller, the drama's cocreator and an executive producer. "She is perfect for this role because of who she is and the world she's created for herself."
Close observers of culture are already celebrating the series.
"It's really nice to see Queen Latifah breaking a couple of molds," said Brown. "She's not a sidekick or part of a team. She's also not a 22-year-old ingenue. She's got some gravitas to her as well as acting chops."
Latifah sees "The Equalizer" as an example of what can happen when the entertainment industry becomes more visionary and inclusive.
"I'm here to change things," she said. "That's my job. That's what I want to do."
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