"Negotiated Authenticity" and the Precarious Position of Black Creators in Television HistoryBreaking News
tags: Hollywood, African American history, popular culture, cultural history, television, media history, mass culture, entertainment
The nature of the “negotiation” that Black writers must conduct has shifted over the years. Half a century ago, just getting Black characters on TV was a hurdle, and Black screenwriters were few. Today, as more networks and streaming platforms advertise the Black shows they’ve lined up—you’d be forgiven for thinking that every month is Black History Month—it is tempting to believe that Black performers and writers now have a wealth of opportunities, including wide creative latitude for those who make it to the top. This era of “peak TV,” in which the entertainment landscape is saturated with more high-quality series than ever before, has been a boon in some respects. According to data collected in UCLA’s 2020 “Hollywood Diversity Report,” an annual study of the entertainment industry’s progress, or lack of it, nearly 10 percent of lead roles on TV were filled by Black actors, likely the closest the industry has ever come to proportional representation (which would be about 13 percent). Shonda Rhimes, as titanic as any creative figure in the industry, is the force behind several of the most successful series in recent memory, ratings juggernauts such as Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish, has produced comedic series that take on deadly serious issues of race while appealing to a diverse group of viewers.
Yet for all the strides that figures like Rhimes and Barris have made, the power in the television industry still rests mostly in the hands of white executives. The UCLA diversity report revealed that less than 11 percent of broadcast scripted-show creators, less than 15 percent of cable scripted-show creators, and less than 11 percent of digital scripted-show creators come from any underrepresented racial group. (These groups, taken together, make up roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population.) At Netflix, for which Rhimes produces shows and Barris did until recently, only 12 percent of scripted-series creators are people of color—this from a study commissioned by Netflix itself. According to a 2017 survey of the industry as a whole, 91 percent of shows are led by white showrunners. Too often, as Henderson put it to me, “it’s still white people determining what the Black experience is and then hiring Black writers to ‘authenticate’ it.”
Since its invention, television has shaped this country’s self-image. To the extent that we share notions of “normal,” “acceptable,” “funny,” “wrong,” and even “American,” television has helped define them. For decades, Black writers were shut out of the rooms in which those notions were scripted, and even today, they must navigate a set of implicit rules established by white executives—all while fighting for the power to write rules of their own.
the history of significant black representation on television is a short one. The medium’s racial progress has been like that of most other American industries: slow, cyclical, uneven. In the early years, Black Americans turned on their TV sets and found themselves written out of the American story—or, worse, appearing only as caricatures. Not long ago, I came across a photograph of the 1963 March on Washington that made clear how starved Black audiences were to see their lives depicted on TV. In the photo, a protest sign, referring to the popular program Lassie, reads: LOOK MOM! DOGS HAVE TV SHOWS. NEGROES DON'T!!
That wasn’t completely true. In the 1950s and ’60s, African Americans like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. headlined variety shows. But the discontent expressed in messages like that March on Washington sign spoke to something bigger than token representation: a belief, at least among the middle class, that most existing television shows didn’t account for the political or cultural interests of Black people. At the time, comedies and dramas with Black writers and actors were virtually nonexistent. The few early roles available for actors of color drew on offensive stereotypes and outright minstrelsy—Amos ’n’ Andy, which aired from 1951 to 1953, was the most notorious example. White television executives were reluctant to sign off on story lines that featured Black people in complex roles or depicted them as a central part of American society. TV advertising was aimed at the white middle class.
In 1968, NBC debuted Julia, starring Diahann Carroll as a single mother raising a son while working as a nurse. Julia was the first middle-class Black woman to be featured as the lead character in a prime-time series, and given the show’s conceit—she had been widowed when her husband was killed in Vietnam—it might have offered a pointed commentary on the politics of the moment. In practice, however, the series stuck to easy laughs about family life, rarely touching on race except to make jokes that Carroll in a memoir characterized as “warm and genteel and ‘nice.’ ” The show’s creator, Hal Kanter, was white, and as he told Ebony in 1968, he wanted “entertainment,” not “agony.” In a cover interview for TV Guide, published eight months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Carroll acknowledged the show’s shortcomings. “At the moment,” she said, “we’re presenting the white Negro. And he has very little Negro-ness.” She would later tell Kanter that the stress of playing a role so far removed from the Black life she knew had made her physically ill.