"So simple it’s revolutionary": On the increased variety of black male characters on TV

The number of varied, nuanced depictions of black men has increased. But there's still lots of work to be done

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 1, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

This Is Us; Atlanta; American Gods; Queen Sugar (NBC/FX/Starz/OWN)
This Is Us; Atlanta; American Gods; Queen Sugar (NBC/FX/Starz/OWN)

Sterling K. Brown, the Emmy-nominated star of NBC’s hit drama “This Is Us,” is reaping the rewards of a long career climb that has at times been unsteady. This will be his second run at Emmy gold in two years; his portrayal of Christopher Darden in FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” secured him a statue for outstanding supporting actor in a limited series or a movie last year.

But these plums are the sweet spot of a career spanning 15 years, which hasn’t always presented him with award-worthy opportunities. “I’ve done doctor, lawyer, cop, criminal, more times than I can count,” Brown said in a recent conversation with Salon. “I've died on screen about four or five times. I've been beheaded. I've gone to the gas chamber ... That was my wheelhouse, if you will."

Now, Brown embodies a character who is successful in business, “but it's also sort of tangential to who he is as a man and the relationships that he values and cultivates in his life, as a son, as a husband, and as a father and as a brother,” Brown continued. “I love Randall and I love that he gets a chance to come into people's homes on a weekly basis because he's such a loving, caring individual who tries his best at everything that he does, sometimes even to his own detriment.

Omar Dorsey, meanwhile, has played an assortment of heavies ranging from the nameless — he’s listed on IMDb as “Thug #1” on an episode of “Entourage” — to the prominent, including the part of Cookie Brown on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.”

When “Queen Sugar” executive producer Ava DuVernay asked Dorsey to read for the character he now plays on the show, “I was like, ‘I've never done this’ ...  it's a character that we never really see on television, you know, but it's a character that as a black man, has been part of my whole life. You know, a hard-working brother who loves his family, loves his wife. He has no anger issues. There's nothing negative about him. He's just a regular man. And so, I was just so proud.”

The predominant options for up-and-coming black male actors working in television, an industry with an endless array of procedurals, tend to be cops and criminals, with the occasional member of a professional class — lawyer, doctor or judge — thrown in for good measure. Paint-by-numbers roles that pay the rent, unless one happens to be a comedian with a recognizable name, whose fame smooths mainstream acceptance to the idea that such a man might have somewhat normal family life.

In that case, you might get a sitcom.

But during the 2016-17 season Brown and Dorsey, as well as Dorsey’s co-star Dondre Whitfield, received the opportunity to show viewers very different depictions of the black male experience in America. Brown’s Randall Pearson, the adopted son of white parents on “This Is Us,” is at the center of one of the most talked about story lines on television. He’s a loving family man who reconnects with his birth father in the final months of his father's life, holds a high-powered corporate job and enjoys nurturing relationship with his wife and children.

On OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” resuming its second season Tuesday, Oct. 3, Dorsey portrays Hollywood Desonier, a devoted, supportive partner to Tina Lifford’s Violet Bordelon, and a man ministering to a family member with mental health issues. “Queen Sugar” embraces a number of expansively written black male characters, foremost being Kofi Siriboe’s Ralph Angel, a former convict building a new life for himself by caring for his family’s farm.

If these characters sound distinctly ordinary, and if their challenges mirror those of ordinary people, that’s the point.

The actors interviewed for this story are regulars on four different series, including a comedy and three dramas. The time they spent working in the industry ranges from a few years to more than three decades. That honor goes to Whitfield: His first professional credit came in 1986 with a guest appearance on “Diff’rent Strokes,” according to IMDb.

Indeed, the last few television seasons have featured more complexly rendered black male characters reflecting a multitude of social or economic levels -- more than we’ve seen in many years. These are men whose characters are granted deep development and complicated backstories, who aren’t connected to some fantastical version of fame and don’t have supernatural abilities.

Don’t get us wrong, there’s much to appreciate about Mike Colter’s work in “Marvel’s Luke Cage” and Terrence Howard's operatic fire in “Empire.” But there are many more men whose lives and concerns more closely align with those of Hollywood Desonier, Randall Pearson, Ralph Angel and Remy.

Or, for that matter, Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles on FX’s “Atlanta,” a guy who sells weed but whose character isn’t defined by what he does to pay the rent.  Henry received his big break with a starring role in the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," and also has a guest actor Emmy nomination for his appearance on "This Is Us." He said he was drawn to his “Atlanta” character specifically because Alfred reminds him of people he knows.

“What was most important for me with Alfred was to make sure that his story wasn't lost in whatever microaggressions or stereotypes that people wanted to put on an Atlanta trap rapper. That’s not all of who he is, it’s not all of what he encompasses,” Henry said. “And I really wanted to get to the story of this relationship between these two cousins and what their lives are, traversing this life in Atlanta.”

Over on premium cable channel Starz, “American Gods” affords Orlando Jones the opportunity to don the impeccable threads of  the West African trickster god Anansi, known as Mr. Nancy in the story,  a rare offer for a minority working in the entertainment field.

“My excitement about Mr. Nancy was that I was going to be able to take a character that was born out of Africa and bring that character to light in a way that unapologetically spoke about the truth of our circumstances, and in no way, shape or form saw himself as subservient to any element of this story,” Jones said. “Mr. Nancy is a story of survival. Do not talk to me about the moral line he's walking.  He's attempting to survive and he has figured out a way to do that using his cunning and using his intellect, the very things that we don't get applauded for.”

Jones began his career as a writer for “A Different World” in 1991 and cultivated his own brand in front of the camera, notably as a spokesperson for 7UP between 1999 and 2002. By then he had done 10 movies and carved out a recognizable comedic personality as part of the original cast of “MADtv.” This, in turn, culminated in a short-lived stint as a late-night talk show host for “The Orlando Jones Show,” one of FX’s earliest forays into original programming.

To a certain extent Jones’ familiarity places him among a small pool of actors whose name opened doors and opportunities for him where other players could not gain access. Even so, before his role on “American Gods” he was written off of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” despite his character’s popularity among fans.

And it’s for this reason that Jones cautions against the false idea that this broader range of depictions is indicative of lasting change. “I don't think you can quite get around the fact that these stories are still by and large being told by white people,” he points out, explaining that much of the time thinly written characters are cast with actors of color to allow networks to add points to their diversity columns. “That's not diversity of storytelling. That's not particularly diversity of characters. That's diversity in the 11th hour of casting. We have seen a great deal of that happen.”

From what can be surmised by lists of film credits, the longer an actor of color has consistently appeared on camera and the more familiar his face is, the better chance he has at scoring recurring roles that aren’t qualified by the designation of agent or cop.

Whitfield spent time in ensembles for a number of popular series including “The Cosby Show,” “Another World,” “All My Children” and “Girlfriends” before joining “Queen Sugar.”

What that series and “Atlanta” have in common are producers and/or creators who are African-American and make a point of depicting aspects of the black experience that either have not been seen, or are rarely portrayed.

Hence we have series that examine how African-American men are made to code switch, moving between the realms of community expectation while being keenly aware of the way white people are predisposed to view them and the women in their lives.

“I have the privilege, and we do as the men on ‘Queen Sugar,’ we have the privilege of being able to play men that are fantastic and humanly heroic, despite their flaws,” Whitfield said. “You can be all of that and still be a flawed human being because we all are. And sometimes I think that a lot of these shows have, in the past, featured us in a way that has been very one-dimensional, and some of our [white] counterparts have had the privilege of being able to be all of those things, to be a man who’s valued in that way, and that is heroic in that way, and manly in that way despite his flaws.

“Just because you have a blemish in your character doesn't mean that you have to be a downright dirty dog,” he added. “That's what I love about the men on our show, that the redeeming qualities are so valued despite the flaws.”

That factor is playing out in a significant way on “Insecure” as Jay Ellis’ character, Lawrence, navigates a predominantly white tech-world setting with different expectations about what he represents to his colleagues and to women.

“We’ve gotten to a place where people want to see real worlds. Television for so long was so broad so we could reach the biggest amount of people, but what kind of got lost in that was authenticity,” Ellis tells Salon’s Pete Cooper in an interview conducted in early August.

As he explains, part of that is exploring an idea that is “so simple it’s revolutionary”: that millions of women and men share existences similar to Lawrence’s but aren’t depicted on television.

The availability and development of these characters is keenly important right now, when racial tension in the United States is spiking once again, when a cop feels comfortable with joking on camera about killing black people. Backing this up is a recent examination by the Marshall Project, which determined that whites can kill a black man and face no legal consequence nearly 17 percent of the time.

Many factors led to these depressing statistics. But surely the flood of negative images of black life and black men on television has something to do with the common view of black male lives as disposable. For years broadcast and cable shows flooded the audience with images of black men as either criminals to be interrogated or arrested in the course of solving the crime of the hour, or as professionals who somehow transcend race, with very few deeply developed characterizations of everyday people in between.

That makes the existence and popularity of Randall, Alfred, Hollywood, Remy and so many others extraordinary in their profound ordinariness.

“lt's nice that we're in a place where the stories of people of color are being recognized for their universal appeal not just to appeal to the demographic that they represent,” Brown observed. “But there's a universality where people recognize the humanity in themselves regardless of their race, creed, culture and background. It's always been my belief that you get to the universal through the specific.”

And he’s right. Even Henry is experiencing that with his work on “Atlanta.”

“I usually get approached by older white ladies of a certain class,  with their pearls and, you know, their Talbots on and everything,  and they're like, ‘We just have to say, we know we're not your demographic but we love Paper Boi, we really love this show and we love what you're doing.’ It’s totally cool.”

Of course, in the larger context of the industry we’re merely at the starting line. A wide gap still exists between where the rate of inclusion should be in Hollywood, and where it currently is. White actors still claim the majority of lead roles on television, playing 76 percent of the 806 scripted roles on broadcast series during 2014-15, the most recent season analyzed in the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report commissioned by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

Minorities accounted for 11.4 percent of lead roles in broadcast scripted programming during that time period, up from 8.1 percent in 2013-14. That number still reflects an underrepresentation, proportionally speaking, since minorities accounted for 38.4 percent of the population in 2015.

And minority actors lost ground on cable series during the same time period, where they accounted for 15.8 percent of lead roles in 2014-15, down a percentage point from 16.6 percent in 2013-14.

During these seasons ABC’s “Black-ish” and Fox’s “Empire” aired on broadcast, with Starz’s “Power” having recently debuted on premium cable and the long-running comedy “The Game” coming to an end on BET. Leap forward a couple of years, and these series have been joined by FX’s award-winning and Emmy nominated comedy “Atlanta,” “Survivor’s Remorse” on Starz, HBO’s “Insecure,” and “Greenleaf” and “Queen Sugar” on OWN, among others.

The success of these shows and the variance within these characters also add to the conversation about who gets to tell these stories. “Insecure” is the creation of an African-American woman, Issa Rae. “Atlanta” was created by Donald Glover, and “Queen Sugar” is steered by Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and Monica Macer.

However, “This Is Us” and Randall came from the mind of Dan Fogelman. “Survivor’s Remorse,” one of the more astute satires about wealth, fame and family on television, follows a pair of black male leads and features a predominantly black cast but was created by actor and writer Mike O’Malley. Both are white.

And “American Gods” is based on a novel by Neil Gaiman and adapted for television by two white executive producers, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green – both of whom made it a priority to adhere to the book’s description of its racially ambiguous main character Shadow Moon by casting Ricky Whittle, a black British actor.

Referring to Fuller and Green, Jones said, “One of the things I'm most proud of is being able to work with creators who actually genuinely appreciate things that many creators just, you know, don't pay any attention to. I mean those guys are incredible artists and absolutely 100 percent woke.  Like, way woke.”

“We don't need to be superheroes,” Whitfield said.  Some people want black and brown folks to be featured as superheroes and that's it. I just want us to be portrayed truthfully. Not one-dimensionally. Not as superheroes. Otherwise I have a problem with that. I just want our stories to be told truthfully and to be a person who has integrity.

“That's what our entire society should be about,” he added.  And we can actually be a catalyst that maybe society will one day reflect. Instead of it being, you know, art mirroring what is going on in life, life will begin to mirror what art is first. Sometimes that's what does help to bring about real change.“

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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