Fox is changing the landscape for black men on TV

Fox is changing the landscape for black men on TV

“I can honestly say I hate being a black male,” wrote Orville Lloyd Douglas in The Guardian recently. “There is nothing special or wonderful about being a black male—it is a life of misery and shame.” He discusses the roots of his “self-hatred”—a stigma that stems from how black men are denied three-dimensionality by the world around them, which then transfers to their own self-perception.

Much of Douglas’ essay touches on an issue with the way black masculinity, in particular, is portrayed in mainstream culture: Black men have categories within their stereotypes, which provides a narrow scope of expression: “I hate rap music, I hate most sports, and I like listening to rock music such as PJ Harvey, Morrissey, and Tracy Chapman. I have nothing in common with the archetypes about the black male.”

Elsewhere, other writers have written about the constrictions of the socially accepted roles for black men. In fact, earlier this year, British author Lee Pinkerton published a controversial book, The Problem With Black Men, arguing that black men are “over-represented in all the places we don’t want to be,” such as prisons, and “under-represented in all the places we should be,” like educational institutions. And last month, blogger Jenn at The Nerds Of Color pointed out that AMC’s The Walking Dead has a profound problem with its black male characters: 

After three seasons, this weird pattern borders on the comedic cliché and show in-joke: a central Black male character can only be introduced if the show’s previous Black man is bumped off, a pattern I (and others) have dubbed the “One Black Man at a Time” rule. The Rule has come into effect no less than three times over the course of The Walking Dead.

As she chronicles, the phenomenon is so widely acknowledged that it has sparked memes.

While the opinions of all the writers I’ve mentioned are subjective, there is a theme: Black men—and by extension black actors—often feel hamstrung by the roles available to them in American culture. And television is a powerful tool for shaping perceived identity. Professor J. Fred MacDonald, a former professor, published a book in the 1990s, Blacks And White TV, arguing that the “golden age” of black actors on television was in the 1960s. In his last chapter, he asks:

Must all positive black characters be clones of Dr. Cliff Huxtable, or can television respectfully create and audiences maturely accept a wide range of black personalities? Can satire, that subtlest of comedy forms, be widely understood as contemptuous parody instead of self-defeating confirmation for white bigots? Can drama portray distressing black realities without inviting racial insult?

Despite broadening diversity of casts on almost all of the major networks—and significant milestones on cable—there’s still a paucity of roles available for black men, and even fewer that aren’t convenient well-worn stereotypes like “cop,” “criminal,” or “comic-relief sidekick.” There may be more black people on broadcast television than ever before, but if that’s the case, it would be largely because reality series often cast more diversely than scripted shows. (And, as the article points out, shows with all-black casts have declined.)

But then, there’s Fox.

Fox has managed to quietly introduce some of the most well-rounded roles for black men in the last decade—and this year’s slate of new shows goes even further. Outside of Shonda Rhimes’ deliberately diverse casting on ABC, Fox is the least whitewashed broadcast network of the four heavyweight media giants, and it hasn’t stopped there. The network has been doing some socially revolutionary casting work, creating some of the strongest and most nuanced roles for black men on television. And in the process, Fox is producing critically acclaimed shows that are garnering viewers and accolades for their focus on authenticity and character—an openly acknowledged business decision, as NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans reports, to hire more diverse casts.

This is not, strictly speaking, news. Fox managed to create a few compelling roles for black men even when its most popular shows focused on families that were white, shows like The O.C. or Malcolm In The Middle. Malcolm had a black best friend, Stevie, who was a recurring character—not a regular one, but who was still granted some complexity. Omar Epps was a founding cast member of the popular medical series House, which ran for eight seasons. The David E. Kelley shows Ally McBeal and Boston Public were markedly diverse—Boston Public’s main character, Steven Harper, is a black man, played by first-billed Chi McBride. Fox’s animated hour included The Cleveland Show until this past season. And Dennis Haysbert began portraying a black president on 24 in 2002, a full six years before the election of Barack Obama.

What’s also notable about Fox’s current run of multi-faceted black characters is that they are characters built from different material than their counterparts from 10 years ago. Whereas House’s Dr. Foreman, Boston Public’s Principal Harper, and 24’s President Palmer are all professionals in ostensibly dramatic shows, Fox’s newest crop are in genre shows and sitcoms—sillier, broader, and holding down roles that could just as easily have gone to white actors. It’s diversity within diversity: By expanding the available roles for black actors beyond certain stereotypes, Fox is helping to broaden the mainstream TV audiences’ idea of what it means to be a black man.

It also helps to make great characters, with a complexity that audiences have warmed to. Fox’s endeavors are neither complete nor perfect, but it’s miles farther than what any other network is doing. (Even Shonda Rhimes’ work has thus far been squarely in one format—the nighttime soap.)

Three of these characters are on Fox sitcoms. The one that’s been around the longest is Winston, the fourth roommate in New Girl, which is now in its third season. He’s the least fully realized character on the show—which in every other way has prided itself on character—and his inclusion looks a bit like tokenism, especially because he replaced Coach—the only black character from the pilot—with an odd, post-hoc explanation that never quite sat right. But Winston has grown into a goofy character with a brand of humor that stands on its own, compared to the other characters, who often need to play off each other for the best effect. Then a few weeks ago, New Girl reintroduced Coach, played by Damon Wayans Jr., to guest-star through the end of the season—as a love interest for Cece, among other things. The sitcom hasn’t quite figured out what to do with Winston, but it certainly seems committed to investing in its black male characters. New Girl has built its success on character relationships, and Winston’s roundedness is part of that formula.

But New Girl is also 3 years old. Three of Fox’s new shows from this fall are casting black actors in better and better parts. Rookie sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine has the distinction of being a half-hour sitcom with two well-rounded black characters in the regular cast: the buttoned-up, openly gay precinct captain, played by Andre Braugher, and the histrionic, gun-shy father, played by Terry Crews. They are very different characters, which eliminates the sense that other sitcoms evoke that the one character of color might be a token. The show is openly fun, with an Office-like vibe that focuses more on the antics of the co-workers than on any particular cases of the week. Andy Samberg plays the lead, a rebellious yet smart detective with a mouth on him. Braugher plays his superior, and he’s able to play the straight man but isn’t confined to the role; if anything, his barely twitching face is even funnier than Samberg’s goofing off. If he were the only black man on the show, perhaps Braugher would fade into the background as yet another black cop, but he’s joined by Terry Crews’ Jeffords, a physically imposing man who is hilariously afraid of gunfire, drives a minivan, and dotes on his two daughters (twins named Cagney and Lacey) all the while. Neither man is stereotypical, but neither is the project of a social justice graduate thesis, either. Holt and Jeffords are characters with stories that evolve as the show continues. Jeffords has to learn to shoot a gun again without fear, and Holt’s motivation in making Samberg’s Jake Peralta a better officer is to make sure the first precinct headed by a gay black man is beyond reproof.

Then there are two hour-long shows that fall into a harder-to-define category: Almost Human and Sleepy Hollow. Both are crime procedurals, in a sense, but they’re also distinctly tinged with genre elements: Sleepy Hollow has a historical-fantasy bent, with arcane magics and time-traveling; Almost Human is science fiction, where a robot cop and a human cop are teamed up. (Michael Ealy, who is black, plays the android.) Both shows are a reach—the pre-air descriptions of Sleepy Hollow were so convoluted as to be ludicrous—but both have also been critically well-received, primarily for their human grounding within fantastical genre elements. Sleepy Hollow is getting press for Nicole Beharie as the lead detective, but equally interesting is Orlando Jones’ role as her supervisor on the case. Jones is a screen veteran who brings his gravitas to a show with absolutely no gravitas—Sleepy Hollow is too splashy to be taken seriously; half the time, the proceedings onscreen feel like a joke. Jones is the straight man—a detective who isn’t skeptical about magic so much as practical about how it affects him. In the midst of magical drugs, waking dreams, and portals to other eras, Jones serves as the audience’s anchor to the here and now. It says a lot that the show’s casting allowed such a grounding, anchoring character to be a black man. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another black man in a racially diverse show that is permitted to be audience surrogate. The best example might be Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine, with Captain Sisko, which ended almost 15 years ago. 

Almost Human has just debuted, which makes it harder to write about, but unlike Sleepy Hollow it sits squarely in its genre’s tradition, following in the footsteps of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The former’s film adaptation starred Will Smith as the only human in an android rebellion; in Almost Human, Ealy plays an android with feelings, an older model, partnered with a human who hates androids. Why cast a black actor for the role of Dorian? Well, why not? Almost Human is telling a story about discrimination, after all. The new models of androids don’t feel—and are also largely played by white actors. This isn’t just an employment decision on Fox’s part—it’s a creative one as well.

The same goes for each show mentioned. These are characters built with care, where race is not a question to be avoiding but rather a component that makes up the whole person. It’s a business decision, but it’s also paying off. Sleepy Hollow is a sleeper hit and already has a second-season order; Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the best comedies of the fall; getting the coveted post-Super Bowl slot, New Girl is one of Fox’s major successes of the past few years; and Almost Human has been given a lot of hype leading up to its debut. For years, execs have been wary of introducing black characters that might not appeal to white audiences. But Fox’s boldness is producing a brilliant set of shows that makes it feel fresher and more compelling than many other network lineups.

It’s worth pointing out that these casting choices aren’t perfect. Four of the six characters I’ve discussed are in law enforcement, and the other two are former athletes. There’s more to black men than this. And six isn’t very many characters. But it is a start—and if five of those are just from this fall, Fox’s next season could be transformative.

Filed Under: TV

More For Our Consideration