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Looking back on Diahann Carroll's groundbreaking career
Today we lost a legend, and that legend's name is Diahann Carroll. Though she lived to the ripe age of 86, it's never easy to let go of a celebrity whose work has been so meaningful, both in front of the camera and out in the real world. When it comes to impactful careers, Carroll's was a doozy, and not only due to her prominent TV and film appearances. She was a rare example of a celebrity who put her money where her mouth was with her advocacy work.
In short, Diahann Carroll was a star, and the world was a little bit brighter with her in it.
Carroll started early working in the entertainment industry, scoring her first gig as a teen model for Ebony when she was only 15 years old. Her parents had enrolled her in acting and theater classes early on, so she was a relative pro before she even left high school. She performed on the variety show Chance of a Lifetime at 18, and was booked at nightclubs as a singer due to her show-stopping performance of the song Why Was I Born? She quickly moved on to theatrical roles, and by the time she was 20, she had been cast in the film version of Carmen Jones. Though Jones was a successful musical on Broadway before being filmed and it was backed by the already established Otto Preminger, it still had to be independently produced due to Hollywood's unwillingness to support all-Black casts.
Carmen Jones is regarded today as being a milestone of Black film, but the Preminger follow-up, Porgy and Bess, starring Carroll, is now considered one of Hollywood's lost films. Though it had a large budget, its box office draw was only about half of what was spent. As of right now, it is unknown if there is an available print of the film, or if it has been truly lost to audiences forever.
Regardless, Caroll's career showed no sign of slowing down. She made several appearances on TV variety shows like What's My Line and The Red Skelton Show. In 1962, Carroll became the first Black woman to ever win a Tony award for her performance in the Broadway show No Strings.TV Queen
In the realm of television, Carroll truly shined. She is perhaps best known for the show Julia, which debuted in 1968 and was the first U.S. TV series to feature a Black woman in a role not heavily stereotyped as a servant or maid. There are many comprehensive studies on the challenges faced by Black women in the entertainment industry of the time, and most if not all would cite Julia as a breakthrough for how Black women were viewed and what their career potential could be.
If that weren't enough, Carroll continued to break down walls by starring in the nighttime soap Dynasty as Dominique Deveraux. She noted that soap operas had failed to address racial integration, and began a campaign to get the attention of Aaron Spelling with the intention of becoming the first Black woman to play a no-holds-barred diva on TV. Though it took some time, she eventually scored the part, and soaps were never the same. The story around the creation of Dominique Deveraux could easily be a book in and of itself, but it's yet another time when Carroll made a place for herself rather than waiting on someone to make it for her.
She also appeared on the seminal series A Different World, a spin-off from The Cosby Show that addressed life at a historically Black college. The series was more interested in delving into political subject matter that was avoided by The Cosby Show and its commentary on class and race was hugely impactful for audiences of the late '80s and early '90s.
We have an extra special place in our hearts for Carroll's work on the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special. Though this is not a well-loved appearance in the opinions of most Star Wars fans, for this viewer, Carroll's bizarre appearance is still a highlight. Yes, it is surprisingly sexy for no reason in the middle of a family-oriented holiday special, but that's just the energy Diahann (or, rather, her character Mermeia Holographic Wow) was bringing. In defense of Mermeia, the concept behind her is interesting, and her outfit and voice are incredible. Maybe this song didn't super fit in with the theme — but what was the theme, anyway? People were just winging it through that one.
However, Carroll made an undeniably strong impression in the 1997 Kasi Lemmons film, Eve's Bayou. This is one of those movies that border on being a genre movie due to its focus on the blurred line between truth and fiction. There are witches in this, but they aren't particularly supernatural or magical in nature. Instead, the movie presents us with women who work as low-key therapists and healers for their communities, who might just so happen to be witches. Carroll plays the role of Elzora, the nemesis of the good witch Aunt Mozelle. While Mozelle emphasizes peacefulness and charity, Elzora makes no bones about the fact that she is a capitalist through and through. She plays up to the gimmicks and stereotypes of witches, painting her face white and working to appear more ominous. It is thanks to Carroll's appearance that the character is as scary, memorable, and funny as she is.
Let's face it: Diahann Carroll was the best. She was born in a world where opportunities for Black women were beyond sparse, and she's one of the people that pushed forward and made things better for everyone. Though the struggles she faced in her career were unjust and unfair, she turned lemons into lemonade at every turn and took our breath away just a little bit while she was doing it. Carroll was an incredible performer and advocate, and she will be missed.