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.