by KJ Ward
Walking down Sunset Boulevard I came across a sidewalk advertisement for a new television series – Reign: The Rise of Mary Queen of Scots. There was a time when my gut reaction to finding out about a new series of this sort would have been “Cool! Complex history through the lens of Hollywood’s creativity!” I might even have thrown in a “And this looks like it might be a move beyond the flat portrayals of women like in Cleopatra and the hyper focus on male figures like in Ben Hur.” That time was about 20 years ago. My first response now? “Really?! Another show implying history’s total whiteness?!”
We can set our DVRs for the weekly airing of any number of television dramas about 19th-century white American “settlers” and British nobility or 1960s white flight attendants and ad execs? The Playboy Club, Downton Abbey (love it, by the way), Spartacus, Mad Men, and Copper – the period piece obsession has certainly been revived, and it’s pretty white. Period.
Hollywood seems hell-bent on presenting the drama of recent history as the domain of whiteness. And before you rack your brain to come up with the one character of color in some of these series, I’m not talking about the ridiculous characterization of a single American Indian in the “manifest destiny” narrative of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. I’m talking about a story based on a historical, non-white figure or event – a period piece rooted in the richness of a time and place in which a white person may (or may not) play an important but non-central role.
I’m also not talking about documentaries. The National Geographic, History, and Science channels do a mediocre job of presenting the diversity of global history, but at least they do it. You can’t throw a rock inside of the Discovery Channel’s studios without hitting an editor who’s working on a program about the prowess of the Egyptians, the demise of the Mayans, or the undoing of the Rapa Nui. All of these programs present, albeit thinly, ancient histories beyond Europe. And, maybe it is precisely the ancientness of these non-Western stories that gets them on television in the first place. Histories outside of Europe get presented insofar as sufficient time and space stand between them and us. In documentary form, all of these stories intend to turn our living rooms into classrooms in which we learn about (and mythologize) ancient civilizations. They touch on the colonialism that forever changed these societies but somehow get away with ignoring the living links between them and their descendants who live in these “post-colonial” empires.
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Hollwood’s period pieces, on the other hand, focus on more recent histories, and maybe this is where the discomfort lies. Maybe it’s that stories that can’t be viewed from the safety of three centuries hit a little too close to home and compel a reckoning unsuited for the “entertainment-only” space of our living rooms. The ancient histories of peoples of color can be studied and examined in basic cable documentaries, but there is no room for the stories of our most recent generations in the primetime lineup.
Imagine, just for a moment, a very different list of the new Fall shows. I would cast Adam Beach as Russell Means in the series A.I.M. Do you know how much riveting primetime-esque drama there is in sovereignty movements? Or, what about a show set in early 1900s Oklahoma called Black Wall Street – the at-once inspiring and horrifying dramatic account of Greenwood, America’s wealthiest and most successful African-American community – before the whole community was burned to the ground? I could hand over a list right now of actors, cultural expert advisors, and writers who would be ready to bring Haudenosaunee to television and tell the truly epic history of the Iroquois Confederacy and North America’s first democracy – yes, first – in full eye-opening and compelling drama. The keepers and tellers of our stories live, and (though you’d never know it from NBC’s prime time line-up) writers and actors from our communities exist.
For better or worse, television is our most accessible portal to the stories of the world and its peoples. It’s also our most accessible form of entertainment. The importance of greater media representation and the harm of its absence are not insignificant. Even grown-up, self-actualized people of color feel the effects of not being celebrated in the studios of the world’s biggest entertainment industry. Invisibility sucks no matter your age. So, when a young person of color – still forming her identity in a society that says in big and small ways that she doesn’t really exist – turns on the TV to see that it’s only the faces and stories of others that are worth celebrating, a tiny piece of her is silenced. On the other hand, when young, white, middle class kids only see a sliver of human history in prime time, a self-supremacy is taught and reinforced.
The day after I saw the Reign billboard I saw one for Masters of Sex – a fictional chronicling of the life and times of the legendary sexuality researchers Masters and Johnson. It may very well be in my Netflix queue someday, but I’m waiting for Masters of Media – the rise of an African American media lifestyle empire, featuring another famous Johnson: Ebony and Jet mogul John H. Johnson. I can assure you that there’s lots of gripping drama to be written in the fictionalized account of this major piece of American history.
It’s been a very long time since Roots and Queen, Hollywood. Let’s get it together.
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