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Shonda Rhimes at the NAACP awards.
Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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MAKING HISTORY

Shonda Rhimes is taking on the Great Migration for Netflix

By Dan Kopf

From 1916 to 1970, about 6 million African-Americans moved from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West. While more than 90% of African-Americans lived in the South in in 1910, this was true of only 53% in 1970. Referred to as the Great Migration, it is the largest internal movement of any group in American history.

Due to racism and economic inequality, the Great Migration has been largely ignored in popular American culture—until now. On Friday (July 20), the New York Times reported that television producer Shonda Rhimes is creating a show based on the Great Migration for Netflix (paywall). It is among eight programs being developed by Rhimes for the streaming giant, part of an agreement that will pay her at least $150 million.

Rhimes couldn’t have picked better source material. The show will be based on journalist Isabelle Wilkerson’s nonfiction book The Warmth of Other Suns, and adapted by playwright, actress, and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Anna Deavere Smith.

The Warmth of Other Suns is an astonishing book. Spanning the 20th century, it tells the stories of a young woman who left Mississippi for Chicago, a man who migrated from Florida to New York City, and another who went from Louisiana to Los Angeles. Along with these biographies, Wilkerson’s account is fleshed out with statistical analysis and descriptions of how the major events of the period, like World War II, impacted the migration. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011.

Taking on this subject matter is a departure from Rhimes’ biggest hits such as Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. That’s by design. “I’m not going to make you a second Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes says she told Netflix (paywall) when she signed the deal.

Rhimes’ other seven Netflix shows are excitingly eclectic. One takes place in California when it was still part of Mexico; another is based on the memoirs of the former interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, about her time in Silicon Valley. There’s a drama about the lives of historical White House residents, a documentary about dance, and a comedy about “foul-mouthed teenage girls who are trapped at the end of the world.” Rhimes appears keen to illuminate all parts of American culture, and we will likely be the better for it.