The Black Characters I Wish I Saw More Of

We’re finally seeing amazing diversity in Hollywood. One-dimensional, stereotypical portrayals have given way to strong characters who drive compelling narratives. That’s because women, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and people of color spent decades demanding to be included in every stage of the storytelling process.

But this diversity could still use some diversifying.

I’m often confronted with two kinds of black people on TV. Criminal masterminds who dominate industries stereotypically associated with black people (music, drugs, basketball). Or black people who live and work in white communities without any racism. Neither captures the realities of race in America.

Hollywood needs to show a multiplicity of experiences within marginalized communities. For example, you can find nerds in the hood. I grew up in the South Side of Chicago and know a lot of them. You can also find people from the hood thriving in nerdy settings like a corporate boardroom. Both can be true at the same time.

To get more of this authenticity, Hollywood has to stop obsessing over colorblindness. Too often, we’ll see black characters who diversify the cast, but not necessarily the story. That happens in “The Bold Type,” on the Freeform channel, which explores the friendship and love lives of three women — one black and two white — who work in digital media and live in New York. It’s an update to “Sex and the City” for the “woke” millennial woman.

Kat is the diversity catchall. She is a queer, black, biracial woman. But her racial back story is one of identity suppression. Nothing about her role speaks to her race or cultural experience. She has assimilated with her mostly white peers because she lacks a connection to a broader black culture.

This was noticeable when her love interest, a Muslim immigrant, had to explain to Kat why she was wary of the police. Any black person living in America would have already known why. It’s clear that Kat is there to check off the diversity box, but her character was written in a way that erased her blackness.

Another example of racial erasure is in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” on Netflix. There are interesting, black supporting characters in the magical town of Greendale and the Satanist Church of Night. But none of them is afforded a broader black community. There is no hair braider, no hip-hop — not even an offhand comment about how white the town is.

The only racial back story we see on the show is a fraught relationship between a character and her father, a black pastor. (How novel.) And when the show addressed transphobia in its first season, race was conveniently erased.

It’s not all bad, though. A few shows do wink at different kinds of blackness, offering a better way forward.

On Freeform’s “Grown-ish,” a spinoff of ABC’s “Black-ish,” Zoey is the face of Generation Z college students. She is surrounded by students of different socioeconomic classes, ethnicities and sexualities. The show is a multicultural utopia, but she still gets to keep her blackness.

And “Grown-ish” focuses on issues important to black women, like colorism, black male sexism and athleticism. For example, the twins Jaz and Skylar Forester are on athletic scholarships, and it’s clear how important their success is to their family and friends back home. Aaron is a woke “blacktivist” who is criticized for his male privilege and affinity for lighter-skinned women.

On Showtime’s “The Chi,” Lena Waithe’s ode to the very black South Side of Chicago, the black characters create a collage of diversity even within the same racial demographic, as the show focuses on the implications of violence and near constant police surveillance. Ms. Waithe is successful at this because the ensemble cast is so enormous.

We’re seeing similar progress in films. “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, gives viewers an unflinching look at the impact of the racist criminal justice system on black families. It does that through the love story of the two main characters — not violence or vilification.

Donald Glover’s “Guava Island,” filmed in Cuba, imagines a black island community uniting against corporate greed. The movie isn’t based in America, but it introduces viewers to Afro-Caribbean communities that thrive here.

Over the history of our big and small screens, audiences have been treated to thousands of variations of whiteness. White people have stood in as the face of humanity’s fullness and complexity. We’ve watched white people traverse the boundaries of class, history, sexuality, gender, disease, fame and technology.

We deserve an era of equally unapologetic blackness. We’re not there yet. But the finish line is in sight.

Written by: Sesali Bowen

Sesali Bowen (@BadFatBlackGirl) is the senior entertainment editor at Nylon.

First published 08.06.19:

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