The third episode of Shots Fired a new 10-part drama that examines the intersection of race and the criminal justice system aired this past Wednesday night. The series revolves around Ashe Akino, a seasoned female African-American investigator supporting a young male African American special prosecutor. Well played by Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James, the roles are nuanced and complex. The story lines give the viewer a window into the multi-layered world of two African Americans struggling to make the criminal justice system work for people it was not designed to serve.
The series is good on many levels. I would recommend it to anyone who is tired of the usual murder investigation drama. Even though the plot begins with a scenario we are all too familiar with—a police shooting—it quickly veers off in an unpredictable direction. The writers have infused the story with subtle conflicts not generally seen on network television, especially with black characters. For example, when the pastor, masterfully played by Aisha Hinds, gets into a prayer tug-of-war with a rival pastor, I found myself thinking “Oh no, they didn't.” I knew I was watching something written by someone who has connections to or is a part of my community. I also knew I'd be anxiously awaiting next Wednesday's episode.
The writers have infused the story with subtle conflicts not generally seen on network television, especially with black characters.
I'm an African American woman. Not long ago, finding primetime network television dramas that featured characters resembling anyone in my world was impossible. Seeing a black woman in a leading role was almost unheard of. When Kerry Washington debuted as Olivia Pope on ABC's Scandal in 2012, it had been 40 years since an African American woman played a leading role in a network television drama. Not since the late Terresa Graves graced the small screen in 1974's Get Christie Love! had the networks seen fit to place a black woman front and center. Truth is, since its inception, television has not been a welcoming place for blacks or other people of color.
In an industry where positions of power are dominated by white men, the lack of black and particularly black female leads on TV has been a telling indicator of how the intersection of race and gender continues to impact decisions that produce outcomes that don't favor black women, not just in Hollywood but across American society.
But since Scandal's commercial success and after having a beautiful black FLOTUS in the White House for eight years, there was a shift; several shows featuring African American women in leading roles were given the green light. Today, after a 40-year dearth, shows like Shots Fired, How to Get Away with Murder, Underground, Empire, Pitch, and Blackish have African American women at the helm—playing roles that come through as more convincingly black than the few released by the Hollywood of yesteryear—2016/2017 is proving to be a season of unprecedented diversity.
But how will a country that historically has been slow to embrace diversity—and still struggles with race—take to the sudden appearance of so many dramas featuring black women? Does America have a sufficient appetite for several on-air leading black females in a single season—or has the steady, 40-year diet, comprised exclusively of leading white women conditioned the nation's palate. According to an IndieWire piece written by Andre Seewood entitled, "Why White People Don't Like Black Movies," the answer to that question is not easy to hear.
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Seewood argues that based on research of what has come to be known as the "Racial Empathy Gap", the vast majority of white people do not like movies that have a majority black cast. Maintaining that the "Racial Empathy Gap" doesn't necessarily indicate a racist attitude, Seeward says that his observation is that some whites—no matter how tolerant—are unwilling or unable to overcome their Racial Empathy Gap and watch a drama with a majority African American cast. (I don't really buy that racism isn't at the heart of the matter, but that's what Seewood says.)
Perhaps this explains the snail-paced evolution of black characters written for the drama genre on network TV. Considering this Racial Empathy Gap along with the continued racial and ethnic tensions in America, particularly in the era of a Trump administration, perhaps slow incremental change is the best we can hope for.
In the late 60's and 70's, the only black female lead roles I remember in a drama are Christie played by Terresa Graves and Julia Baker, the character portrayed by Diahann Carroll on ABC's "Julia." Historically, the sitcom has been the place you'd find people of color on television—if at all—oftentimes in roles that bordered on the offensive.
Since the 60's, there's been a slow evolution of the portrayals of blacks and especially black female characters. I liken this evolution to the evolution I witnessed with Mattel's Barbie doll. I'm dating myself but I can remember when the first black Barbie doll hit the retail market. Back then, the only difference between the black Barbie and the white Barbie was the color of the skin and hair. The manufacturer obviously used the same mold for both dolls. But as a black kid hungry for a doll that even vaguely looked like me, I begged my mother to get me one. Over the years, black Barbie's facial features changed. And, in time, the hair used for black Barbies differed in style and texture.
It was a slow evolution but today Barbie dolls come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. There is even Becky Barbie who comes with her own wheelchair. Although they have yet to add a senior citizen Barbie to the collection, the decision-makers at Mattel clearly addressed a need that ultimately made good business sense. Having a broad selection of Barbie dolls to choose from has hurt neither the brand nor its bottom line, judging from the continued popularity of the more diverse array of Barbies.
But maybe my comparison is flawed. Perhaps a more telling metric would be the difference between the percentage of white families who purchase black Barbies for their children and the percentage of black families purchasing white Barbies.
But flawed analogies aside, racial and ethnic tensions in America continue to be an issue our political leaders avoid and one that is short on remedies. This is where Hollywood can help to change perceptions and nudge the general public towards possible solutions.
Changing perceptions and paving a road for greater cross-racial, cross-ethnic dialog and empathy is a stated goal of Shots Fired creators, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. I'd say they have produced a product that successfully does what they set out to do. Let's see if the American audience has a mature enough palate to appreciate it.
Publisher, Hollywood Progressive