“Everybody should enjoy ‘The Real Housewives of Atlanta,’” said Porsha Williams, the doe-eyed star of same, whose comedic verve and penchant for interpersonal chaos have made her one of the most popular cast members on one of the most popular shows on television.
“This is what I don’t like when it would come to one of our viewers: If they felt like Black Lives Matter was anti-white, or us saying ‘Black lives matter’ excludes them in any type of way.”
Ms. Williams, 39, was casually resplendent on Zoom, in a black T-shirt and hot pink leggings among cream cushions in her Atlanta home. Printed in an emphatic column down the front of her shirt: “BREONNA TAYLOR BREONNA TAYLOR BREONNA TAYLOR” — the name of the 26-year-old emergency medical technician whom Louisville, Ky., police officers shot and killed after bursting into her apartment shortly after midnight on March 13.
Three days before this interview in July, Ms. Williams had been among 87 protesters arrested outside the home of Kentucky’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, while calling on him to file criminal charges against those officers. She was charged with criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct and intimidating a participant in a legal process (a felony, later dropped).
“I think it’s really important,” she said, “for people to see themselves in the movement and know that you have a place. You’ve played a part, you have a place, and you can also be a catalyst for change.”
“We are having a fight for ourselves, but it’s also really important for whites to say, ‘I’m not going to take it anymore.’”
On Bravo, where blond network stars outnumber cast members of color, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” stands out for its all-Black female cast, and for its ratings.
If sized proportionately to each show’s reach, the quasi-Renaissance iconography that pervades “Real Housewives” opening credit sequences (in Orange County, the women clutch oranges; in New York City: apples), every peach held aloft by an Atlanta cast member would resemble the monstrous stone fruit envisioned by Roald Dahl. “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” is not just the No. 1 show in the “Real Housewives” franchise, or on Bravo; according to Nielsen it is one of the most-watched unscripted shows on all of cable.
“Real Housewives” cameras documented Ms. Williams’s existence over the past year as she vacationed in Greece, navigated a fraught romantic relationship and told her castmate Eva she looked like a thumb. The show’s 12th season concluded on May 24 with the third installment of a reunion special filmed remotely. The next day, George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis.
On May 27, Ms. Williams shared his image on Instagram. In an emotional caption, she wrote to her nearly six million followers that it had taken her “all day to build up the courage,” to watch the almost-nine-minute video of Derek Chauvin, the police officer, kneeling on his neck.
“I have cried and I’ve been hurt most of the day and even still tonight!” Ms. Williams wrote.
Two days later, on his own Instagram account, Andy Cohen, a “Real Housewives” executive producer, reposted a fan’s video of Ms. Williams being interviewed at an Atlanta protest against police brutality.
“We are not going to sit at home,” Ms. Williams said through a mask on the local news. “We’re going to march. We’re going to lift our voice, and we are going to be heard.”
“Making Hosea proud,” Mr. Cohen wrote in the caption of his post. (Mr. Cohen, who on camera functions as both a Bravo viewer surrogate and the personification of network authority, rarely shares photos or videos of individual “Housewives” on his personal account, perhaps to avoid appearances of favoritism; he is the referee of cast reunion shows.)
“Hosea” is the Rev. Hosea Williams, Ms. Williams’s grandfather and a prominent civil rights activist, who died in 2000. In 1965, alongside future Congressman John Lewis, he tried to conduct a crowd of 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Some two decades later, Ms. Williams, age 5, accompanied her grandfather on her first march, in Cumming, Ga., in a demonstration against continuing segregation.
“I’m singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and I’m seeing my grandfather be the leader of this march, this protest,” Ms. Williams recalled. The Ku Klux Klan met the demonstrators.
“And the K.K.K. started to throw rocks at us. They called us the N-word over and over.” In her memory, the peaceful scene became “chaotic,” as marchers rushed back to the buses that had transported them from Atlanta. The New York Times reported in a front-page article that Sunday that counterprotesters were arrested on charges of possession of weapons including “bows and arrows.”
“My feelings were so hurt that anybody — well, I just didn’t understand why they hated us,” Ms. Williams said. “I didn’t even really understand what the word meant, but I know that the way that it was said to me, it was with such hate.”
“As I got older, of course — and I’m not talking, like, a teenager, I mean, like, 10, 11,” her parents told her, “‘People are going to mistreat you because of the color of your skin.’ But then they also told me what the color of my skin meant: I am a queen, my brothers are kings,” Ms. Williams said. “My family taught us that this is something that’s important to them, and that is what they were fighting for.”
Like many millennials who grew up supporting civil rights habitually, if less assertively than the legends of the 1960s (whose exalted peerlessness became, over time, a self-fulfilling reputation), Ms. Williams felt a radical urgency and responsibility to act after Mr. Floyd’s death.
“When I saw that video of George Floyd being murdered, I knew that I had to change the way I was moving,” she said. “That meant now I have to sacrifice myself, my finance, my brand, my everything, and put it all on the line for change.”
“I’m in the house trying to save my life and not put myself at risk to get this killer virus,” Ms. Williams said after several months at home. “And then here I am going out of my house again, now, to fight for my life and fight for African-Americans not to be killed in the street.”
The resolve to join in arrived swiftly, she said, “because I have a little girl in the house. And it doesn’t take but a second for a mother to think about the fact that they want their child to be healthy, well and have a good life.” Ms. Williams’s daughter is 16 months old.
A record of Ms. Williams’s snap decision making is preserved in her Instagram comments. She learned of one Atlanta march when a follower shared details in a reply left on a post Ms. Williams had uploaded earlier that day. (“We would love to have your support!!” the follower wrote.)
“Not degrading or putting her down, I love Porsha, but that’s just not her cup of tea,” a fan responded to the thread.
Ms. Williams sent a one-word reply as well: “When.”
“I literally finished what I was doing, and I got in my car, called my sister, called my fiancé, and we met and went to the City Hall protest,” she said. “It can happen just like that.”
In a harrowing video uploaded to her account on June 1, Ms. Williams captured her own dash for safety after she and other demonstrators were hit with tear gas while congregating near the Georgia State Capitol. In the clip, Ms. Williams runs frantically for blocks, screaming as riot-control munitions explode in the distance. She stops only when a stranger catches hold of her to pour milk over her face.
When dressing for protests, Ms. Williams dons two shirts “in case I need to take one off and run, so you can’t identify me,” she said. “I have on two pair of pants in case I want to take a pair off.” She writes telephone numbers on her arm, in case she is jailed.
“And I wear a face covering because we are in a pandemic!”
Other than lip balm (tucked into her waistband) and identification (tucked into her bra) she brings nothing.
“That’s it. And I am ready to go.”
Peaches to Protests
While it is common for “Housewives” to stay for several seasons — a decade or more in some cases — it is the rare cast member who exhibits what may be deemed positive personal growth during her tenure.
Ms. Williams’s trajectory, then, is exceptional. Since entwining her fate with Bravo’s eight years ago, she has left an unhappy marriage; given birth to a longed-for child; become a businesswoman selling both the “highest quality” virgin hair extensions and the “highest quality” bedsheets; and blossomed into a confident, quick-witted screen presence inclined to settle for delight where others find frustration.
Among “Housewives” devotees, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” are widely regarded as the most intentionally funny cast — a distinction bolstered in nearly every episode by Ms. Williams, whose apparently chronic guilelessness is, like that of Lucy Ricardo, no less enjoyable for its comedic convenience. (“I have always made incredible television whether I meant to or not,” Ms. Williams said.)
But when discussing the topic of police brutality in the wake of her arrest in Louisville (she was released from jail around 3 a.m., hours after being taken into custody), Ms. Williams was logical and judicious about what she saw as the highest-priority issues, and her own role in addressing them.
“When I sat on that lawn and knew that those cops — my life was in their hands. They could do anything to me,” she said.
She pointed out that the day before she traveled to Louisville, July 13, was the five-year anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death while in police custody.
“God rest her soul,” Ms. Williams said. “I did not know if I was facing an unfortunate demise like that.”
“When I placed myself on that line, even though I was peaceful, even though I was nonviolent, in the past I’ve protested and been all those things, and I got shot with gas, bullets, et cetera.”
“I’m not going to sit here and say that I wasn’t afraid,” she said, “but I wasn’t nervous because I knew that I was there for a noble cause.”
“I honestly feel like if we don’t get justice for Breonna Taylor, then there is no justice for anyone. All of our rights will be violated in the future,” Ms. Williams said. “We can all expect to possibly be in our home, asleep, in our sanctuary and have our door knocked down and have eight bullets be put into our body and laid to rest without being able to tell our mothers goodbye.”
‘That Doesn’t Make Any Sense’
Outside the realm of Bravo, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” remain conspicuous in the form of reaction GIFs: looping, soundless clips used to express emotions online. While critics have cautioned that, when repurposed by people who are not Black, such contextless visual shorthand can veer into “digital blackface,” Ms. Williams interprets her GIF ubiquity as a sign of pop culture relevance.
“If it’s a white person, they enjoy our show, they enjoy the character, they may think what I said is funny — I personally don’t have an issue with that,” she said.
At the same time, she stressed, she wants white fans to give as much consideration to her off-camera rights and safety as they do her cheeky bons mots. If viewers feel unaligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, Ms. Williams suggested, “I would like them to further educate themselves.”
For instance, she said, “Someone gave me a statistic the other day that in America, for 2020, there are 13 percent of African-Americans here, 76 percent of white people. So that’s about a 63 percent difference in how many people are here”; yet, in terms of civilians shot to death by police, “it’s only a 100 person difference.” (As of July 29, Statista calculated that police had fatally shot 111 Black people and 215 white people in 2020.)
“Now, that doesn’t make any sense,” Ms. Williams said. “To me, if white people knew things like that, and they would understand why we say, ‘Black lives matter’ — because Black lives are being murdered at a disproportionate number to white people.”
Ms. Williams said she thinks that every American should take the time to watch the video of George Floyd’s fatal police encounter.
“I think they should not only watch it, I think that they should find out why it happened,” she said.
“You have to understand that this has been systematic oppression. And sometimes we can get into a place and feel complacent. ‘Life is fine. I have Black friends. They seem to be treated well. They make pretty good money.’ But you don’t really understand and feel our pain unless you understand where it comes from.”
“The system has been set up this way,” she said, so that police officers “know that they have this immunity; they know that they are protected; they know that they can say that they feared for their life; they know that they can boldly kill a human being on camera while looking into the lens.”
“We pay these cops,” she added. “There should be no reason that they are out here being the judge, the jury and the executioner.”
With respect to the caliber of its impact, Ms. Williams compared the footage of Mr. Floyd to the photos of civil rights activists being attacked while protesting peacefully in the 1960s.
“Those civil rights activists sacrificed themselves in front of the camera so that America could see its ugly truth,” she said. “If you really don’t see its brutal, ugly, evil truth, and you don’t feel it in your heart, then you won’t truly, truly be able to stand for change.”
“I think that it has been very important for people to see videos such as George Floyd’s, for them to be able to feel our pain and decide that they’re not going to take it anymore.”
Ms. Williams’s hope is that people who consider themselves proud Americans will find the officers’ behavior antithetical to their values, and demand change.
“How can you be proud of a country that is oppressing and snuffing out African-Americans like it is nothing?” she said emphatically. “How can you be proud of where you live, and you have a home, you own it, you raising your kids in a place that could do something so evil?”
In the first few weeks after Mr. Floyd’s death, even as she became more active in protests in Atlanta, Ms. Williams said she felt “almost like I was headed into a depression,” brought on by the distress of the pandemic and the tidal wave of recent stories and videos of police brutality.
“I just was in a very low place. But I decided to channel that energy and become even more active. I said, ‘I need to start going to town hall meetings. I need to start going to public forums. I need to get out there, and do things and talk to other people who are also about change.’”
“I still have to make money, and take care of my daughter and my family,” Ms. Williams said.
But, encouraged by an aunt, she began to view her new habits as a possible calling. The same aunt advised Ms. Williams to evaluate her emotions from a religious perspective.
“She explained to me that the sadness that I was feeling was me being in, also, spiritual warfare because the devil doesn’t want you to do right for God’s people,” Ms. Williams said.
“He wants evil to prevail. He wants white supremacists to continue to oppress African-Americans — although there are amazing white people out there. He wants the ones who are evil to keep this division going.”
Ms. Williams credits her faith with making her feel “empowered” in her aims. She said she has been praying more than usual — “Absolutely!”
The Right Side of History
In June, Bravo invited Ms. Williams and the comedian W. Kamau Bell to join Andy Cohen for a televised conversation about Black Lives Matter. In the days that followed, the network announced a squall of firings of cast members across multiple shows, all stemming from past incidents of racist behavior. On Aug. 9, a mix of Black and white Bravo stars, including Ms. Williams, participated in another Bravo special: a round table discussion of race in America.
“For me, being an African-American woman working for a network, and I’m a part of their No. 1 show, which is African-American women — I am proud of them,” Ms. Williams said of Bravo’s response. Network executives, she added, had phone calls with Black talent “about what’s important to us, and what changes we would like to see.”
“I don’t think anybody needs to question what we are feeling right now, because Bravo has African-American talent to be able to speak to it,” she said.
“I’m so glad that they’ve decided to be on the right side of history.”
Ms. Williams felt, too, that her cast mates’ estimations of her had shifted over the past months.
“I think that I’ve gained more of their respect,” she said. “They can see me sacrificing. They understand that not all brands want to support a cause such as this.” Several co-stars sent texts expressing support and asking how they might help — behavior she said did not surprise her, despite several seasons’ worth of past conflicts.
“I know these Black women. These Black women are strong. These Black women are vocal. And these Black women are able to set aside any differences that we are having,” she said.
She continued with exemplary shade: “So I’m proud of a few of these women and what they are doing, for sure.”
Asked if any white “Housewives” had been helpful, Ms. Williams attempted diplomacy.
“Um, you know …” she began, before breaking into a peal of laughter. “I haven’t really talked to any of the white women!”
“Listen,” she said, and flashed a winning smile, “even though we’ve been in quarantine, I’ve been busy as hell!”