Last night, an article on Deadline opined that the “pendulum might have swung too far” in regards to “ethnic” representation on television. Penned by Nellie Andreeva, the TV Editor of the popular digital platform, her article suggests reverse racism is underway in that TV creators are explicitly requesting to cast “ethnic” actors for pilot roles.
Hidden with a bunch of coded language, she speaks from the ever present fear that many white people feel about measures that deliberately work to uplift non-white people.
“Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year …”
As TV Editor, I’m sure she’s familiar with the competitive nature of Hollywood — I’m also sure she’s very much aware of how such a competitive industry routinely disregards actors of colors, in favor of middle-of-the-road, relatable (read: white) actors who appeal to the “traditional American values” sentiment. Andreeva pretty much said so.
“Because of the sudden flood of roles for ethnic actors after years of suppressed opportunities for them, the talent pool of experienced minority performers — especially in the younger range — is pretty limited.”
But what she feels to deeply acknowledge is that one “traditional American value” is to close off Hollywood to people of color. If a Black actor in particular was casted, they were normally confined to the role of a subservient domestic, criminal, sexual deviant, wisecracking mammy, or the Black best friend. The first Black actor to be lauded for such a trope was Hattie McDaniel, whose domestic character Mammy won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Gone With The Wind (1939).
The subservient and criminal tropes are still alive today. When Black actors receive universal and critical acclaim, their portrayals rely on a fixation of the Black underclass. Whether it be Lupita Nyong’o winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the sexually and physically abused slave Patsey in 12 Years A Slave (2013), Mo’Nique winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress after a chilling performance as the sexually and physically abusive, obese mother Mary Lee Johnston in Precious (2009), or Halle Berry as the sexually fetishized single mother Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball (2001).
There’s Denzel Washington who won two Academy Awards — Best Supporting Actor for his role as the slave Private Silas Trip in Glory (1989), and Best Actor for playing a drug-using extortionist Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001). The latter role paired him with the white actor Ethan Hawke, who ultimately emerges as the courageous protagonist whose morality gains respect from the criminal element.
In big budget pictures, Black creativity is rewarded by how well Black actors fulfill common stereotypes. This mentality trickles down to television as well.
In one of my favorite shows The Office, the two prominent Black characters Stanley Hudson and Darryl Philbin — played by Leslie David Baker Craig Robinson, respectively — are the usual targets of Michael Scott’s (Steve Carrell) ignorant racial commentary. Furthermore, Stanley Hudson is depicted as an overweight, indolent, and disrespectful worker, while Darryl Philbin is a warehouse laborer who, when applying for an upper-level management position, was unable to compose a resume and relied on both his relationship with Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and his racial identity to get him the position. He further relied on Jim to get him a job with the startup Athleap which ultimately proved successful.
And God forbid a cast is predominately Black. All of a sudden the movie or show is considered “urban,”and is maligned with a limited budget, restricted promotion, and considered “race-themed.” Or we’re the subject of public humiliation via reality shows like the infamous Love and Hip Hop.
Opportunities are often stolen from Black actors. We saw so in Exodus, when, in response to the growing criticism of the lack of leading Black and Brown actors in the biblical drama set in Egypt and Ethiopia, director Ridley Scott said he couldn’t cast “Muhammad so-and-so from such-and-such” because he wouldn’t receive funding.
Through and through, Black bodies are not intricately represented, even when our faces are there. But the disturbing history of Black misrepresentation doesn’t concern Nellie Andreeva. She only cares that the current fad favors leading Black characters with profundity and depth.
The fad isn’t organic or reflective of moral and cultural shifts. Rather, its the response of the marketability of Black creativity. With the success of shows like Empire, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder, others are trying to replicate the profitable element of diversity. And it wasn’t like these shows were intentional. Scandal was a midseason replacement and surprise hit, while the lead role of Annalise Keating in HTGAWM, was originally supposed to be cast as a non-Black actress.
So Nellie, have several seats. Your poorly composed article smells of fear. Fear that Black characters, after hundreds of years of being marginalized, are finally given the humanization that’s long overdue and well deserved.
*Feature Image Credit: www.variety.com
Suggested Reading: “There is Nothing Bromantic about ‘Get Hard,‘” Stacey Patton, Dame Magazine