During Black History Month, we are called to reflect upon the legacy of African Americans in shaping this nation’s history. Images of proud women and men — Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X — are emblematic of the black experience for 28 or 29 days each year. But as February fades so too do the variety of representations of black Americans in film and on television.
All too often, depictions of African Americans are monolithic characterizations of our stereotypical selves, with top-notch actors vying for roles as maids, drug dealers, wounded women and crooked cops.
It’s not that Tyler Perry doesn’t occasionally recreate friends from our childhoods or family members we’d sometimes like to forget. And we can always count on at least three network television shows having a black doctor or police detective mixed into the supporting line up. But excepting the likes of True Blood‘s Lafayette or Treme’s Antoine Batiste (both HBO features), characters with depth, whose life circumstances and plotline revolve around being more than a presumed prototype of blackness tends to be lacking. The same holds true for Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans.
We’ve recently witnessed the proven commercial viability of a leading black action cast in Red Tails. Denzel Washington’s new film Safe House has made an incredibly strong showing at the box office. And Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Idris Elba and Morgan Freeman have tasted sweet success at the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes during the first seven weeks of the year. But even as these “victories” inspire hope that Hollywood finally may be taking note of the immense talent readily at its disposal, the reality still is that people of color are usually underrepresented and, at the same time, over-stereotyped by the traditional Hollywood model.
Notwithstanding programming on networks like BET, TVOne, Univision and Telemundo, the casts of colorful characters that more accurately represent the changing face of America is typically missing from the mainstream. But rest assured, Hollywood’s missed opportunity is a veritable gold mine for content creators with an Internet connection, bold enough to imagine people of color as diverse, multi-faceted beings capable of drawing an audience.
Desperately in search of a Liz Lemon archetype who looked like her, Stanford grad Issa Rae created the wildly popular web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Light-skinned, longhaired upwardly mobile doctor or lawyer she is not, but J, played by Issa herself, shines as a humorous and embattled protagonist looking to define herself while navigating through the subtle complexities of life. While her experiences are impacted by her race, J is not defined by her complexion. By the same token, Mixed Blooms features a cast in which three of the lead characters are Asian Americans. Rather than following a plotline about imperial dynasties, geisha girls or martial arts, this web series is a…