Alex Yarde thinks resting upon our laurels cost us progress for blacks in television.
Mr. Kia Makarechi’s Huffington Post article ‘Hollywood’s ‘Race Problem’ Is Worse Than You Think’ is worth reading. His article addresses the state of work for black actors in the movies today. One of his important insights is that “[i]n bleak situations, incremental improvements can be mistaken for big time progress.” Mr.Makarechi goes on to write in reference to critical consensus suggesting four 2013 Best Actor nominees may be black, makes the assertion that, “Generally [black actors] are only rewarded for roles that literally could not have been given to white actors” and that “A study of the roles that have earned black men Best Actor nominations reveals that this is a historical problem. Sidney Poitier won in 1963 for playing a black itinerant worker in Lilies of the Field, a movie based on a novel by the same name. Jamie Foxx won in 2004 for playing Ray Charles in Ray, and Forest Whitaker won in 2006 for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.”The only black man to win Best Actor for a role that could have been played by a white actor is Denzel Washington, who won in 2001 for his turn as a LAPD detective in Training Day. That’s one man in 85 years. I would add that today in television there have been few black actors cast in roles that can be played by anyone.
The use of black actors on television, unfortunately, seemed to peak about 50 years ago, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In the ’60s over 40 shows featured not only black stars (Julia ’68-’71, Bill Cosby Show ’69-’71), co-stars (I Spy ’65-’68, The Outcasts ’68-’69), and important recurring characters (Star Trek ’66-’69, Mission:Impossible ’66-’73) but also many non race specific roles that could also be played by non-white actors. This did not happen by accident. Folks running television networks made this happen. Speaking in July 1964, Frank Stanton, president of CBS, called upon broadcasters to launch a “mighty and continuing editorial crusade” in support of civil rights. Stanton spoke of the need for television to utilize its “editorial strength boldly, imaginatively and with insight and wisdom” at this “pivotal point in our history.”
The first network drama with an African-American star, I Spy, was a landmark program. Bill Cosby’s Agent Alexander Scott served his country well beyond its borders. He’d jet set around the globe. For black and white viewers, it was an educational experience to see an African-American hero operating abroad in the service of the United States. Cosby’s dashing character was always on equal footing with foreign dignitaries, femme fatales or assassins. Unlike Shaft and Slaughter of the “blaxploitation” films of the early ’70s, Cosby’s character was adult, relatable & charming, Agent Scott expressed emotions forbidden to black characters historically. Scott’s seduction of a Japanese woman on the series went well beyond historic parameters for blacks in television.
Fast forward to today, aside from ABC’s popular Scandal, or crime procedurals like Fox’s Almost Human (you can read my review here) how many prime time shows can you name that feature a black lead character that could be played by anyone? The fact that black leads are still considered such a gamble on network TV these days highlights the noticeable shift in programming during the last 25 years. Following the success of NBC’s The Cosby Show (Bill Cosby’s lifetime of positive influence in television is immeasurable), Fox was responsible for an influx of black programming during the 1980s and 1990s: Living Color, Martin and Living Single prime examples.
Here are some depressing numbers for you. In the early 2000s, blacks played 15% of roles in film and TV. Today, it has fallen to 13% and black directors make up only 4% of the DGA. (Directors Guild of America) Do you know how many black women cast members SNL, has had in its history? Four, you read that right, four in its 38 year history: Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorne, and Maya Rudolph. By anyone’s standard one black woman per decade is abysmal. It’s so ridiculous the very same star of ABC’s Scandal Kerry Washington hosted and performed in an uncomfortably true to life skit where she had to play every female black celebrity. It’s so bad Keenan Thompson has already stated, to his credit, that he refuses to play black females anymore. This is a huge backslide from the era of Star Trek when Nichelle Nichols (encouraged by Dr.Martin Luther King to accept the role of Lt.Uhura as a positive role model for African American women) and William Shatner shared televisions first interracial kiss and executives like Mr. Stanton were bold enough to feel a moral imperative to be proactive in reflecting blacks on television equally.
Incremental improvements may make members of dominant cultures feel good and even prompt them to opine that one need not dwell on unfortunate past practices as we live in a post racial society. This is a dangerous mind set because the demons of centuries of institutionalized racism are very much alive. From the gutting of the 1964 Voting Rights Act to New York’s Stop and Frisk Laws and the tragedy of Trayvon Martin. The entertainment industry as a purveyor of ideas is still an important medium where editorial strength can be used to fight societal injustice by reaching hearts and minds as the Golden Age of Blacks on Television once did.