By Shane Thomas
Over the last few months, the lack of racial diversity on our TV screens has once again become a hot topic. In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a few successful television programmes become lightning rods for a particular type of criticism. Not so much to do with the basic form and content, but more to do with their breadth of representation.
Simply put, shows like Girls, Mad Men, Homeland, Doctor Who, and Saturday Night Live are primarily lodestars for white talent. While the quality of said programmes are subjective, the lack of diversity in them has been a much warranted point of contention.
These are valid critiques, as it’s not just about branching out the casts and crew along the sectors of race, sexuality, gender, disability, class, or body image. The wider problem is that they are part of a paradigm where televisual representations are so narrow, a show like Girls gets lauded as being revolutionary, when – for now, at least – it depicts a very restricted aspect of womanhood.
And there seems to be a worrying trend for ill-conceived responses to these sideswipes. When Girls was called out for its lack of racial inclusion, the second season of the show opened with lead actor/showrunner, Lena Dunham astride Donald Glover, which unwittingly became a microcosm of the “I can’t be racist – my partner is Black” argument.
When Homeland was branded by some as Islamophobic (especially season 2), the show added Nazanin Boniadi to the cast as a Muslim CIA analyst, complete with hijab (just to make it clear that she’s a Muslim).
Mad Men takes place during 1960’s America, and as the battle for civil right rages on, they finally included a regular(ish) member of the cast in Teyonah Parris, who plays Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) secretary. However, in the past season she only had one episode which explored her conflicted feelings about trying to make a living in a white-dominant society. With Mad Men entering its final season, Parris doesn’t have many further chances to show she can be anything more than a glorified extra.
And lest we forget the merited firestorm that erupted concerning Saturday Night Live’s lack of black women on their cast, this has been recently rectified with the casting of Sasheer Zamata, who made her debut on the 18th January edition of the show. And with Girls now adding a black woman (Danielle Brooks) to their cast, I guess that makes it a tokenism full house.
For clarity’s sake, having these shows add people of colour to their casts is no bad thing, in and of itself. And I certainly aim no shade towards the actors who have been given these jobs – after all, it’s difficult enough for actors of colour to find work.
The problem is that once these programmes cast a person of colour – and it often tends to be person rather than people – it’s as if the creators then have an attitude of, “Right, that’s that taken care of. We’ve given them an ethnic. They can’t complain now.”
So often, diversity of casting germinates not from a genuine commitment to inclusivity, and is instead used as a reactive deflector, after one is called out for cultivating a singular racial monoculture in their work. However, if you’re using people of colour solely to be shields from accusations of racism, then you’ve probably – and unintentionally – inculcated racist thinking.
To expatiate on this, Chris Rock once mentioned that Black people often experience an overreaction to their presence – one way or another.
I worry that rather than be seen as nothing more than an overdue start, Parris, Boniadi, Zamata and Brooks are expected to represent an entire race (or religion in Boniadi’s case) and not be given the same latitude as white performers, simply because white is still regarded as humanity’s default ethnicity.
It’s common to hear dissenting voices state that things have improved, often invoking programmes such as Luther, Top Boy, or the casting of Freema Agyeman and Noel Clarke in Doctor Who. While this isn’t incorrect, Agyeman and Clarke didn’t precipitate a rise in more actors of colour getting featured roles in the show – and the wait for a person of colour to control the Tardis goes on.
Top Boy is a programme with a lot to like about it, although it’s disconcerting that the only drama on television with more than a token black presence, is one that’s based around poverty and criminality, and depicts the British working-class presence through a cis-hetero male prism.
Idris Elba’s eponymous role in Luther is a superbly-written protagonist, but the question has to be asked that even though his character is one of a damaged loner, when he does interact with others, it’s never with other black people. In fact, the only time we see a second black character in the show (Nikki Amuka-Bird), it is in opposition to John Luther.
I am a big fan of the show, but wonder if Luther embodies Chris Rock’s statement about the intermixing of races; “All my Black friends have a bunch of white friends, and all my white friends have one Black friend.”
Part of the problem is that shows like Top Boy, Doctor Who and Luther (well-written, though they are) are all penned by white writers. As tough as it is for actors of colour to find work, it’s a difficulty that is even more acute for writers of colour.
In America, Issa Rae created the web-series, The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, and now has been commissioned to write a series – with Larry Willmore – for HBO. It begs the question, why any of the major British channels are yet to give a similar opportunity to the creators of web-series such as All About The Mckenzies or The Ryan Sisters?
The fact that Kerry Washington’s lead role in Scandal remains a cultural touchstone illustrates just how lacking television is in centering stories from the perspective of people of colour. White people may be the populus majority in Britain, but they aren’t the only ones who watch and enjoy television. And marginalised groups hunger for more panoramic depictions of us on screen. So far, all we are getting is scraps. As Oliver Twist once memorably said, “Please sir, I want some more.”
 – They also exist along kyriarchal lines where issues of LGBTQ and disability representation are concerned.
 – For the record, I am a huge fan of both Doctor Who and Mad Men, and think the first season of Girls was decent work. The first two seasons of Homeland were also quite good.
 – Although I’ll give credit for a scene that addressed the maddening “I don’t see colour” idiom.
 – In the season 3 premiere, Brooks’ character receives an apology from Jessa (Jemima Kirke). Bit of a wild theory, but I wonder if Dunham intended the scene to be a microcosm of her apologising to the black community? If it was, the subsequent scene between the two probably undid that contrition.
 – If the hiring of Zamata doesn’t work for SNL, do you think they’ll be in a hurry to hire another black woman?
 The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith spoke on the irrelevance of stating how things are better than they used to be.
 – Especially a channel like Sky Atlantic, which appears to be less in hock to ratings that its competitors at ITV or Channel 4.