Black TV: After a Banner Year for African-Americans on Television in 2016, Can the Industry Normalize This Success?

In his 1976 book-length essay The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin argued that no black actor has ever lived up to his or her potential on-screen. However famous black performers become, he explained, they are constrained by the limited choices afforded to them by a racist industry. Looking at the history of film and television, the same can be said of black producers, writers, directors, and those on every strata of the studio system. Black creatives must also navigate a minefield of expectations, having to represent both themselves as artists and their entire community.

This past year, though, television seems to have proven that Baldwin’s observation no longer holds true: 2016 was a banner year for black people in front of and behind the camera. The growth hasn’t come out of nowhere; instead it is built on the success that showrunners like the powerhouses Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil have worked for in recent years. When Scandal’s Olivia Pope sauntered onto television screens in 2012, she was the first black female TV lead in almost 40 years. Now, she and her creator, Rhimes, are no longer anomalies at a time when TV is bursting with new and returning black-led series, many of which are also helmed by black showrunners. Last year alone saw the arrival of new shows including Atlanta, Insecure, Queen Sugar, Chewing Gum, and Luke Cage, and the return of others, such as Being Mary Jane, Black-ish, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, Empire, and Power.

Hollywood seems to be evolving for the better in the way it constructs and markets black TV series, and many are taking notice. For Vulture, Dee Lockett wrote, “It’s no coincidence that one of television’s best years was also the year it got noticeably blacker.” Likewise, CNN, Shadow and Act, and MTV News discussed the uptick in diversity in front of and behind the camera to the point that 2016 could be considered a new golden age for black television. But in 2017, the conversation moving forward will be about whether last year was the start of a revolution that will continue to normalize black stories on TV, or whether it was simply another trend that will fizzle out, as the industry saw in the 1990s and early aughts. (The 1970s, too, had many black-led series like Good Times before subsequent decades backtracked on that progress.) In order to secure lasting change, the industry needs to understand why exactly 2016 was so remarkable for black representation and what’s still missing.

As the 1990s demonstrated most recently, gains in representation for black TV audiences are often followed by a disappointing reversal. This decade had shows like the Queen Latifah-led sitcom Living Single; the raunchy Saturday Night Live alternative In Living Color; the heartwarming portrayal of life at an HBCU, A Different World; and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the most audacious entry in the storied franchise featuring its first black captain. But by the early 2000s, this wave fizzled out, and for a number of reasons: There was the loss of the network UPN, which featured several black series, including Girlfriends; the idea that shows and films with black leads didn’t have enough “cross over appeal” to be financially successful (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary); and the critical shift to an interest in “auteur” series.

So-called auteur series, which are considered to have a sole creative voice, became popular in the years following The Sopranos. In addition to having mostly white, male creators, auteur series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad rarely hired black writers or told the stories of black characters. Even two 2000s-era shows often acclaimed for their portrayal of black life—The Wire and Treme—were helmed by the white creator David Simon. This isn’t to say white writers can’t successfully craft black characters. But when it’s mostly white men who are treated as artistic visionaries, it winnows down the kind of prestige television that’s seen as viable—and defines who gets to make such shows. These examples hint at one of the biggest reasons for 2016’s success: the boon in black writers, directors, and showrunners.

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Source: The Atlantic | ANGELICA JADE BASTIÉN