Television: A Barometer For Views On Race

“The Hollywood Reporter,” the movie industry daily trade magazine, featured an interesting column this week regarding Black leads being absent from network dramas. The column made the point that comedies were different for viewers since they were laughing with or at the characters and therefore, I suppose, people could accept black leads in those situations. But dramas were a different matter since they were more like real life. There were three interesting quotes in the article that I think say a lot about the state of “race” relations in this country.

The first quote is from a TV historian, Tim Brooks:

There is a feeling that the vast majority of the audience is not black, and
having a black lead dominating the show makes most viewers feel shut out since
they don’t work with an African-American in a dominant position in their daily
life.


The next quote is from David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire” which does have a largely black cast:

There s a certain portion of the audience that will change the channel…Not in any grandly venal, racist way, but there are a lot of people that are going to look at that many black faces looking at them, and they’re going to say, “This is not my story.”

And the last quote I want to reference is again from the TV historian, Brooks:

…for a series, it’s about characters you want in your home on a weekly basis. It’s a very intimate, casual viewing experience, and you tend not to invite somebody into your home who you wouldn’t mix with socially.

There you have it. Taken together this is a pretty sad commentary on the openness of the majority, in this case they would be referring to the majority being white homes. But you know what? And keep in mind, this inability to relate to others in leading roles on television shows (and movies) is not just a black and white issue. How many Hispanics do we see leading TV dramas? How many Asians or Middle-Easterners? Ironically, I have to say that minorities are better at accepting whites in leading dramatic roles. But that would have to be because if we didn’t we wouldn’t have much to watch on TV.

Unfortunately this is indeed mainly an issue that we have to get the white majority to get over somehow. And this does not just apply to television. My wife and I have experienced where a movie we were working on was considered a “black movie” simply because the majority of the cast is black, though nothing about being black ever comes up in the movie at all. Again, it is that unfortunate act of labelling that is so prevalent in our society. It makes me think of how in Buddhist training the emphasis of getting beyond labels is greatly stressed because the labels trap us. Once I identify you by a label, I have already made a decision about how you and I relate. Which cannot help us ever truly connect since our connection or interaction is based on labels and our perceptions of those labels.

If these television experts are correct in their analysis, it means we minorities had better be patient about securing our equality and goal of being judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin. Because for now it seems, for the majority, all it takes is seeing the color of the leads on a television show to decide that there is nothing for them to relate to.

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