Claiming the Future of Black TV

After a banner year for African Americans on television in 2016, can the industry normalize this success?  

Myles Aronowitz / Dave King / Netflix / Guy D'Alema / FX / HBO / Kelsey McNeal / Eric McCandless / ABC / OWN / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

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.

This past summer, the British director Amma Assante tweeted an interesting question in response to another study that noted the lack of black female directors: “Is a [woman of color] even ‘allowed’ to be named an ‘auteur’?” She wasn’t asking whether women of color have the artistry and work ethic necessary to become auteurs. Instead, she seemed to be alluding to how female directors of color (and minority filmmakers as a whole) usually don’t have the opportunity to create a body of work that can vault them from being generally admired to being considered vital. Auteurs are studied, revered, and most importantly, funded; when black creatives are hired or given big projects, it can open the door for others like them in the process.

Unsurprisingly, most of the creators and writers behind 2016’s biggest black-led shows have discussed the TV industry’s barriers to entry at length. Issa Rae, the creator and star of HBO’s Insecure, has discussed the catch-22 for minority creatives who are unable to get into TV due to a lack of experience. “‘There are no writers of color in the room because they don’t have experience’ is an excuse, because how can they get experience if [networks] won’t hire them?” Rae said. Donald Glover, who created and starred in Atlanta, touched on a similar idea when discussing how he formed the writer’s room for his show.

But perhaps the most high-profile example of a show breaking the inexperience cycle is Queen Sugar, the adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s novel, for which Selma’s Ava DuVernay was an executive producer, showrunner, co-writer, and occasional director. DuVernay hired all female directors for the first season’s 13 episodes—a monumental move that spurred Jessica Jones to follow suit in its second season. Many of these women (most of whom were black) had never helmed an episode of TV despite success working on independent movies. “We just never had the opportunity,” Tina Mabry, one of the directors DuVernay hired, said.  “And that is something that Ava provided all of us with. That opportunity to actually showcase the skill that she knew we already had but had not gotten the chance to due to our industry, which struggles with inclusiveness.” The same logic applies to handing more ambitious projects to black showrunners and directors, and other networks would be wise to take note of Queen Sugar’s example.

This degree of behind-the-scenes diversity on black TV shows simply didn’t exist in the ’90s. That’s in part because many of these newer series sought talent from outside the traditional TV-network system, whether through independent film or music videos. Social media and sites such as YouTube, in particular, allow marginalized artists to tap directly into an audience that networks might not be paying attention to, or even know how to appeal to. The success of Glover and Rae, both of whom got their starts on YouTube and built notable followings, serves as a reminder that black stories aren’t niche.

Still, recent triumphs shouldn’t overshadow the ways in which artists and writers still have room to grow, innovate, and fill in the missing pieces of the black experience on TV. Even the well-received shows aren’t often as nuanced and forward-thinking as they might seem on the surface. Luke Cage, for instance, was heralded as an important turning point for Marvel and predominately white, male superhero projects in general. But the show, which follows a bulletproof superhero saving modern Harlem from criminals, feels like a relic from another era. In the comics, Luke Cage was inspired by the Blaxploitation film trend of the 1970s. In an effort to put a new spin on the character and perhaps adjust his inauthentic beginnings, the writers course-corrected too far, making his character feel so upstanding he was not only one-note but also an emblem of respectability politics.

Moving forward, TV could use more black stories in a wider variety of genres. When looking at the recent series that have garnered acclaim, they primarily operate within the realms of drama, nighttime soap operas, and sitcoms. When black characters do appear in science fiction, fantasy, noir, and other genre fare, they often exist in the margins and are poorly developed, which can be partially attributed to the shows’ predominantly non-black writing staffs. Black female characters on genre shows are particularly prone to this even when they are the lead, as the controversy around Nicole Beharie’s mistreatment and exit on Sleepy Hollow demonstrates. Other series like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and The Flash suggest this isn’t an isolated problem.

When a friend recently asked me if I felt television was going through a black revolution, I hesitated. For all the considerable strides forward, I still didn’t see many aspects of my own life—especially issues of wide relevance—reflected on television. For one, there’s geography: Save for a couple of shows like Queen Sugar, most black series are still set in coastal cities and feature upwardly mobile professionals. This ignores the rich history of black stories that exist beyond New York and Los Angeles and that take place in other economic strata. Considering 55 percent of black Americans live in the South, it’s hard not to feel like plenty of fascinating storytelling opportunities are being ignored.

Despite the range of complex black characters on TV, mental illness remains a taboo subject in the community, both onscreen and off. When the issue comes up on shows like Being Mary Jane, it’s something a supporting character deals with. When leads like Olivia Pope on Scandal have mental-health problems, they aren’t diagnosed or dealt with in an authentic, engaging way. How to Get Away with Murder is the worst example of this, despite Viola Davis’s great performance as Annalise Keating, a cunning lawyer and law professor in Pennsylvania. After its first season, the show turned her character from a badass to a caricature of mental illness with a backstory of incest and abuse. While these topics are important, the show handles them in a way that further stigmatizes mental illness within a community that desperately needs to see more humane, honest portrayals of it.

Another problem is that today’s black series often don’t touch on the ways different communities of color relate to each other, or on more multicultural black experiences. Blackness is far too often defined in relation to whiteness and little else; Afro-Latinas like myself don’t fit that racial binary. Afro-Latina actors like Gina Torres, Lauren Velez, and Judy Reyes often discuss how they don’t get roles that reflect their cultural experience because of the narrow idea of how Latinas are supposed to look. (Torres, who has played supporting roles in Firefly and Suits, was cast in the lead of a series that would actually have her playing a Cuban American, but the show, described as a Macbeth-esque supernatural revenge drama, didn’t get picked up after pilot season.) Discussing the statistics and dynamics of black representation in comparison to white shows is important but often obscures the need for more nuance when it comes to class, sexuality, and geographic diversity.

Looking forward, 2017 holds more than just the promise of returning series. Star Trek: Discovery marks the first time the storied franchise has a black female lead along with other noteworthy steps forward. Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of American Gods adds another much-needed example of a black character who’s at the center of a fantasy, not a sidekick. Other anticipated series such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Riverdale will have prominent black female characters. All of these series have the potential to push the stories of black characters in bold new directions. But while they may end up featuring diverse writing staffs, none of these shows has a black showrunner.

Of course, we could see hundreds of new black shows and still not see a full spectrum of black experience on television. This doesn’t mean that series like Insecure or Atlanta need to compensate; no one show can speak to all black people nor should they be expected to. But 2016 offers clear lessons for those who don’t want to see the successes of black TV fizzle out: recognize how the “inexperience” excuse ends up hurting people of color, focus diversity behind the scenes, look for talent outside of the industry, and tell a broader range of stories. In recent years, social media has been instrumental in taking to task the failures of showrunners, networks, and the industry as a whole—a pressure that can help reinforce the achievements of Rhimes, DuVernay, Rae, Glover, and their peers. After decades of setbacks, perhaps the notability of seeing black people both in front of and behind the camera on TV will slowly—finally—become a thing of the past.