Have you noticed there are more Black faces on our TV screens? Especially on US programmes?
On 29th July the BBC aired the documentary; “TV’s Black Renaissance: Reggie Yates in Hollywood”. Presented by Yates himself and Produced and Directed by Yemi Bamiro. Yates is a British actor, television presenter and radio DJ.
The documentary set out to inform the British audience of today’s changing Black representation on television (TV). An emerging version of “blackness” that is varied and honest. A change that reflects our changed attitude to TV, encouraged by streaming platforms, affording Black artists opportunities to help tire racist caricatures we have been so accustomed.
The positivity felt by the presenter was obvious, like an excited kid, and we were right there with him, Yates headed to Hollywood. There, artists, and especially Black British artists like himself are finding opportunities.
Those influencing the changing Black image
The documentary is effectively presented in a series of conversations with guests comprising of actors, including Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali (True Detective), Casting Director Alexa Fogel (The Wire), and screenwriters that include Justin Simien (Dear White People) and Lena Waithe (Master of None).
Giving an intimate insight into how Black artists are experiencing this moment in Hollywood. This is emphasised by the use of different settings which provided a sense of informality. Settings perhaps chosen to fit different sides of “blackness“. For example, Yates met Terry Crews in a bowling alley, suitable for the light-hearted representations we have grown to expect from him.
Such as his characters in comedies: Everybody Hates Chris, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and White Chicks, a film which we learn presented a significant moment in both Crews’ career and the image of Black men in Hollywood. This is the scene where Crews’ character sings along to Venessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles. The Taylor Swift of 2009. This image of a muscular Black man and a pop song was a split from the rigid stereotype. The impact of this is better understood when we see how Black people have been portrayed by white dominance in the past.
How Hollywood dehumanised Black people
We are informed the first Black character on screen appeared in 1907, a cartoon called coon. As in racoon. An image that presented Black people as more animal than human. An image that didn’t change much in the 1930s and throughout the 50s.
The 80s and 90s provided a more positive image of Black people but, were restricted to comedy. The pivotal one being The Cosby Show. This is explained as the proof white Americans needed to counter the inhuman stereotype widely accepted. The image of this Black family was welcomed into white homes because it was perceived unthreatening. Lena Waithe going as far as to say, that family image allowed America to have its First Black family, the Obamas.
The makings of a new Black image
The documentary argues today’s changes are expressed by the varied representations of Black people and from an honest perspective. Shows like Insecure and Atlanta not only fill our screens with more Black faces, offer storylines about everyday concerns, but Black voices too. This has impacted the culture behind the scenes. Justin Simien, creator of Netflix’s Dear White People, describes his previous experience working on TV productions as isolating, due to the dominant white culture.
This power dynamic has altered, we are told, with more Black talent behind the scenes. Simien implying this has allowed him room to be himself, to respond openly to wider political issues such police violence on Black. Whereas before, he might have been required to suppress this to avoid the risk of making his white colleagues uncomfortable.
But what has prompted these changes? How have we come to have more Black representations in front and behind the screen?
A combination of different transformations
The documentary points to a number of changes but doesn’t clarify what came first or what has had the biggest impact. Leaving us to speculate it’s likely the accumulation of various shifts. Which include the role of:
- STREAMING platforms like Netflix in changing our watching behaviour. Able to reach a much wider audience, it provides content that might not have found a place on traditional TV.
- COMPLEXITY of characters. Alexa Fogel, Casting Director for The Wire, explained having more Black characters was driven by the writing. While the show stuck with the stereotype, Black people as drug dealers, it gave a more rounded portrayal. Adding depth and complexity to characters in a way unseen before. It’s success, in a way, legitimised Black representation on mainstream shows.
- “AUTHENTICITY” being a driver for Black artists along with the audience’s interest for “realer” characters. Reflecting on Black people’s inferiority complex, a legacy of white dominance, Simien speaks of his intention; “not doing it fake anymore”. A confidence demonstrated by the topics explored in shows like his, which confront racial tensions, challenging topics like Black face parties and police brutality. Explaining, social awareness is a fundamental skill for Black people’s survival, so it makes sense that their work is “socially informative”. But even more telling, shows like Atlanta focus more on the “absurdity of real life”. Showing Black characters “going about their business”.
These changes do not however mean “every single version of blackness is getting its moment in the sun“.
As put forward by Yates. Mahershala Ali shades light on the difficulties faced by Black talent in Hollywood still. He quietly describes his early days as “finding little space to exist honestly”, and having to adopt to Hollywood’s narrow version of black. This has changed only marginally. Even with two Academy Awards and having played the only lead for True Detective. This success only makes it “easier to ask” for parts and “harder for them to say no”.
A view supported by Lena Waithe who comments, Black people still have to prove themselves. There has never been a Black studio president, meaning, power remains in the hands of white men. Men who decide what versions of black appear on our screens. Men like Netflix’s ex PR Chief, Jonathan Friedland, who was fired last year after using the “N-word in a meeting”. Twice.
From our feminist perspective, the documentary itself omits a key area which exposes the limited progress in Black representation. The views it presents are dominantly male. Only hearing from two women, leaving Waithe to represent the Black woman’s experience in Hollywood today. Which might explain why Bill Crosby’s decades of abuse of power was glossed over.
We are witnessing Black people just starting to be human.
A view supported by Waithe and Ali who conclude; colour is still a too dominant factor in Black representations, real change will be when this becomes a “footnote”. And when Black artists are allowed to be as ordinary as their white counterparts. Leaving the strong impression, the progress we are seeing is fragile. For Waithe, empowering future talent is key to establishing a sustainable place for Black talent in Hollywood.
Talents like 17-year-old Caleb MacLaughlin, (Stranger Things), who speaks about his ambition to create his own content. His logic being; “people write based on their own lives”, “white people see white, and Black people see black.”
What the documentary successfully reveals is that Black people are feeling more empowered to assert their humanity. To create powerful images of Black that reflect a lived experience.