Well, we lost a real one. Diahann Carroll was a pioneering actress who opened doors for generations of black women, from her groundbreaking role in Julia to her Oscar-nominated turn in Claudine to perhaps her most iconic role: as Dynasty’s Dominique Deveraux, whom Carroll proudly called “the first black bitch on television.”
Carroll died today at age 84 after a battle with cancer. She leaves behind a towering legacy, so first let’s get into that and show some goddamn respect to Ms. Carroll’s bona fides.
She became the first African American to win a Tony Award for a lead role for 1962’s No Strings. In 1968, she became the first black woman to star in a non-stereotypical role (i.e., a domestic worker) in her own series Julia. She earned an Emmy nomination the following year for portraying nurse and single mother Julia Baker. And she became only the third black woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the 1974 romantic dramedy Claudine.
While Julia was monumental for the time, Carroll herself admitted that she was playing a stereotype—“the white Negro”—but in Dynasty she was able to truly break the mold.
Before Dominique Deveraux sashayed onto the wildly popular prime-time soap—mixing it up, fur to fur, with Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins)—a black woman on television wasn’t really allowed to be… a bitch. She had to be maternal, pliable, and uncontroversial. Dominique was none of these things.
She was demanding. She was “ambitious, dedicated, and vain”—as Carroll described herself in her perfectly titled memoir, The Legs Are the Last to Go.
“I’ve never played a role quite this unlikable. And I like that. I like that very much,” Carroll said in a 1984 interview on her first day on the Dynasty set. “I think very often, particularly minorities, it’s almost required of them that they are ’nice people.’ And I don’t want to play a nice person.”
Carroll pursued a role on Dynasty, believing it had dealt with nearly everything on the show—including the then-taboo subject of homosexuality—except racial integration. A chance encounter with Dynasty producer Aaron Spelling, thanks to some meddling from Barbra Streisand, led to Carroll’s casting. And the rest is television herstory.
Carroll came onto Dynasty with her own ideas about Dominique and offered this prescient bit of advice to the writers: “I think the most important thing for us to remember is write for a white male, and you’ll have it. We’ll have the character. Don’t try to write for what you think I am. Write for a white man who wants to be wealthy and powerful.” That, she explained, was the way they found Dominique Deveraux.
Along with Carroll’s trailblazing accomplishments, Dominique Deveraux’s influence is still seen today, both in Taraji P. Henson’s fierce mother Cookie Lyon on Empire and in Dominique Jackson’s even fiercer motha Elektra Abundance on Pose.
So next time you see Cookie throw something perishable at someone’s head or Elektra read someone to filth and back, think of Diahann Carroll and Dominique Deveraux. And pour out some of that burnt champagne in their memory.