Whether acting, directing, producing (or even singing – back in the day), Salli Richardson Whitfield subscribes to the philosophy of doing the work. And you can see it in every step this self-described planner has taken on her fascinating, advocacy-driven path to success in an entertainment industry known for incredible creativity and opportunities, but also for discrimination and one-in-a-million chances for success.
As you may have seen in her “Uncensored” on TV-One, Richardson, 54, has had roles in front of and behind the camera of some of the most innovative, engaging and pioneering fare, from starring in “Posse,” “Antwone Fisher,” “Eureka,” “Stitchers,” and “Being Mary Jane,” to directing “Scandal,” “Black-ish,” and “Dear White People,” and executive producing HBO’s hit, “The Gilded Age.”
Here’s how she did it:
Being Intentional From the Start
Richardson chooses her projects strategically and wisely. The Chicago native, who as a young person, took opera, sang in traveling choirs, and performed in musicals and an eighties cover band, always had a plan – even when she was accepting almost any directing opportunity that came her way as she began transitioning from acting to directing about six years ago. From directing episodes of the television series “Underground” to “Chicago Med,” “Star,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “All American,” she kept her emphasis on doing projects that were diverse across genres and filming styles.
“In the beginning, it was more like my university. I wanted to learn,” said Richardson, who admits to missing acting, having only had a handful of roles in the last four years, but believes she made the right choice choosing directing for her future. “When you think about where you want your career to go, you know, I never wanted to be up for a job and they say, ‘Yeah, but has she ever done action? Has she ever done a medical show? Has she ever done comedy, visual effects or period pieces? So early on, I knew that it was very important for me to know that – on paper – I can do any genre.”
Another director who has conquered a wide range of film styles was instrumental in Richardson’s pivot to directing. Her memories of working with Ava DuVernay on the set of her first feature film, “I Will Follow,” in which Richardson starred with Omari Hardwick, are foundational to her current path.
“I think maybe she saw me as someone who was bossy…Listen, I had been around the camera much more than she had and I think I probably gave my little two cents a few too many times,” said Richardson, who has directed episodes of DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar.” “So she was probably like, ‘Listen lady, just act and be quiet, you know?’ But instead, she was like, ‘I think you just don’t know what’s in you’….For me, she’s someone who helped me in the beginning and I know that people probably still call her about me and she’s always there to continue to support me.”
Prioritizing Black Storytelling as a Brand
Richardson has also been intentional about advancing equity in the business. “In the beginning, it was very important for me to do things with visual effects and action, because that’s a lane that most women are not allowed into – and black women are almost nonexistent,” said Richarson, adding her belief that her work directing episodes of “Shadow Hunter” and “Magicians” set her up for getting to direct “American Gods,” which she says led to her opportunity with “The Wheel of Time.”
“I think at the end of the day, really what I want my brand to probably be – I don’t have a particular genre – but I wanna do projects where we see people of color where we know they existed and lived, but other people don’t – and putting it there authentically. As much fun as I love that Bridgeton is, and kudos to Shonda [Rhimes], because it is more of a fantasy, people can dismiss it: ‘Well, oh, they didn’t even exist then. You know, none of that’s real.’
In “The Gilded Age,” the character Peggy Scott, an African American woman, is a budding journalist, who supports herself initially by unexpectedly being invited to work as a live-in secretary to Christine Baranski’s character, an older wealthy white widow for New York City’s high society in the 1880s. Played by Denée Benton, the Scott character is based on a composite of real life trailblazers, including Julia C. Collins, author of the 1856 novel, “The Curse of Caste” or “The Slave Bride,” often cited as the first novel written by an African American woman.
“We attacked the Peggy storyline in a way that I was like, ‘this always has to feel true because then, people are learning something without even knowing they’re learning something and they feel the authenticity of it.’ So we can’t have Peggy here and people not acknowledge that she’s Black because that makes no sense,” said Richardson.
“I think it’s why [Peggy’s storyline] resonates so much with really everyone that I bump into in the Black community and even those not in my community – because people are intrigued by the storyline because they don’t think it’s a fantasy. They go, ‘Oh, oh my God. I never knew.’ And they love it. And we did it with dignity.”
Creating Safe Spaces on Set
When Richardson is at the helm, directing and/or producing, particularly in productions that feature diverse casts, and more specifically Black women, she keeps the framework and messaging of her storytelling focused on quality and respect.
“I just wanna always make sure that we’re not doing anything stereotypical and that we give our character dignity no matter the situation. Even what I’m doing on the Lakers show, “The Winning Time [:The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty],” there is some storyline that we get to where there’s really a kind of a sensitive subject with some of our Black male leads,” said Richardson.
“I can’t say too much because it’s the finale, but I was there to not only protect that Black male character, but also I felt like I was there to make sure our actor, Wood Harris, felt safe so that he could really jump into this character because it just was a very sensitive subject. You’re surrounded by a room of mostly people who don’t look like you and I’m your safe space. I’m there to make sure that everyone is sensitive.”
While she was responsible for more than the Black storyline in ‘Gilded,’ she had taken a similar approach directing and executive producing the show that grew from one million to 8.5 million viewers in its first season, with her directing four episodes and executive producing nine. From working on the script to editing color, deciding about casting and looking at the wardrobe, Richardson was all in, knowing that it was important for HBO and show creator and executive producer Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) to get ‘Gilded’ right. She, series writer and co-executive producer Sonja Warfield (“Will & Grace,” “The Game”) and historical consultant Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University specializing in African American women’s history, were the Black women on set protecting the storyline and ensuring the nuance of educated Black Americans in the 1880s New York was accurate and incorporated.
“I always say what I loved about the experience at ‘Gilded,’ working as a producer behind the scenes, is that one voice is never enough. My Black experience is different from someone else’s. You need different perspectives,” said Richardson, who says she hasn’t regretted any production she’s participated in because she can always find a lesson to learn. “There are things that I wouldn’t see. And then Erica would go, ‘Well, what about this and this?’ And this I’d be like, ‘Oh girl, you are absolutely right. We definitely need this.’ You know, you need to be reminded.”
After 30 years in Hollywood, Richardson’s memories of her start and lessons from her transitions seem to always be right beneath the surface, informing her path forward as she continues to lead larger and larger productions.
“Don’t be afraid to pivot and don’t be afraid of things that you’re scared of that make you feel uncomfortable. That just means maybe that you’re on the right track,” she advises. “Because if it’s easy, then you’re gonna stay where you are. Only by living in a challenge can you grow.”