The Disappearing Dark(black)ness Syndrome Persists

From racism to colorism and nepotism, people of color (POC) have long been shut-out, sidelined and minimized in Hollywood, the entertainment business. The current prominence of black creators and performers is reminiscent of the nineties when The Cosby Show, A Different World and Living Single ruled the airways, remember Girlfriends did not air until 2000. The most recent pendulum gives us Shonda Rhimes (Greys Anatomy/Scandal/How to Get Away With Murder), Tyler Perry (The Have and Have Nots/If Loving You Is Wrong), Courtney Kemp Agboh (Power), Lee Daniels (Empire/Star), Kenya Barris (Blackish), Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane), Ava Duvernay (Queen Sugar), Issa Rea (Insecure) and Donald Glover (Atlanta). The existence of the few does not negate the persistence of the  Disappearing Dark(black)ness Syndrome.

people in silhouet

The condition is characterized by a lack of opportunity, consistent casting in underdeveloped or stereotypical roles designed only to highlight the hero/heroine. These characters die early or at disproportinate rates, disappear, or lack story arcs of substance. Undervalued and underserved, these characters while no longer solely the Mamie, pimp or best friend, are easily replaceable and fall in and out of frame like a fashion trend.

It is customary to be labeled over-sensitive or even dim-witted for delving too deep into the meaning of tv deaths. Whether expected, justified or shocking, television deaths give us much insight to not only race relations but the status of equality in the democratic experiment called America. You have to ask yourself, why is it so easy to kill, disappear, cancel or slight the POC that are cast on television. It is no surprise that Hollywood has a diversity problem. TV shows us a distorted vision of  the population, even if the number of POC are increasing. Coupled with the lack of POC in the role of Showrunner, it is amazing if not miraculous that Black Shows Are Winning the Ratings Race & Attracting Non-Black Viewers.

For far too long, the black trope, the tradition, the common joke among POC was, “who is going to die first?” The first character to die in a horror movie was always a POC, specifically a black person. This reality is ingrained in the premise and ultimately the ‘surprising success’ of Jordan Peele’s Get Out.  There was not much ink given to this for decades. It was simply a reality. Black bodies simultaneously riddled our streets and airways.  Two events changed the mainstream media’s volume on this issue. In 2015 when #oscarsowhite emerged, the conversation focused on awards and eventually opportunity. In 2016 in response to the death of a popular lesbian character, Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), on The 100 the disproportionate on-screen deaths of female, LGBTA and minority characters rose in critics’ consciousness. The outrage was prominent. But we have always known the unspoken: white stars sell a series, black stars (POC) prop-up a series.

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On The Walking Dead  the body count is high, but as a horror show this is expected.  From one episode drifters to multiple season characters, the show has had a multitude of POC deaths. The deaths of fan favorites, Tyrees-Noah-Glen-Sasha, are far from trite. The show equally dispenses death in a post apocalyptic world. Lest we forget the many deaths of similarly significant white characters: Shane, Lori, Hershel, Andrea, The Governor, Abraham Ford… So though at the center of the black on-screen death controversy, the show’s black deaths is not disproportionate. To varying extents this is also true of OZ, Orange is the New Black and Dexter. These violent shows are populated with POC and many characters, major and minor, die in the series. It is moving and rewarding when the death of a central character, who happens to be a POC, is killed in an emotionally and story justified manner like Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker), Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson) and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley). This isn’t necessarily true of Person of Interest. Detective Carter’s (Taraji P Henson) death was unexpected and much more questionable.

The fact that POC characters largely reside on violent or post apocalyptic shows is far more worrisome than the aforementioned deaths. Even on ‘black shows’  the deaths of POC have been many and quite notable.  Who could forget Stringer Bell’s (Idris Elba) gruesome mummification on the Wire, Harrison Wright’s (Columbus Short) surprising death on Scandal, Shawn’s (Sinqua Walls) filicide on Power or  the candlestick death of Vernon Turner (Malik Yoba) on Empire. Black shows are not immune from the syndrome. Colorism is real. The darker the character’s pigmentation the more likely s/he is to be killed. Actors’ color should not have to fall on a specific color palette or scheme to remain alive on a show. From high-yellow to tar, all POC deserve equal opportunity.

More insidious are shows with POC who are largely in the role of outsider or powerless authority figures. Predominantly white, these shows dismiss the blind casting premise. Though True Blood was largely composed of ‘monsters’ (vampires, werewolves, fairies…) its POC were generally relegated to the best friend role to be called in times of crisis: Tara (Rutina Wesley), Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), Lettie Mae Daniels (Adina Porter), Luna Garza (Janina Gavankar)

On NCIS, Director Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll) relationship with the lead, Gibbs (Mark Harmon) has gone back and forth from adversarial to collegial. Outside of the cases, Vance’s presence is often brief and inconsequential if not for Carroll’s proud and confidential demeanor. The character’s story arc is slow, with one or two meaningful episodes a year. He is largely sidelined put when he is on, he shines. This was not the case for the first POC on the show. Assistant Medical Examiner Gerald Jackson (Pancho Demmings), the only team member of color before Director Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll) joined in 2008, was shot and later kidnapped twice. Presumably he left the team, as he is not seen again. and was replaced by Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen). The character, Jackson, seemed to be developed as a holding place for Palmer. Jackson was rarely seen and little was known of him. Like Jackson, Deputy FBI Director Jason Atwood’s (Malik Yoba) on Designated Survivor severely traumatized.  His son is kidnapped and killed; he is labeled a terrorist and ultimately killed, all in the first season of the show.

With very few characters of color,  these shows heap the pain and make the most egregious errors. On Z Nation, though an ensemble cast, Lt. Robera Warren (Kellita Smith), is arguably the lead, yet you never see her centered on posters or atop the show’s roster; this is the case with Blood Drive, Hunters, and many more. Though Hawaii Five O prominently featured Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) and Kono Kalakaua (Grace Park) on the show’s posters, they refused to  pay them equal to their white counterparts, causing their departure. On Sleepy Hollow the lead, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), left the show when her storyline was steadily reduced making  Ichbod Crane (Tom Mison) the sole lead. However, the most worrisome is the cancellation of good shows for reasons far beyond ratings. 24 Legacy premiered to excellent ratings after the Super Bowl but aired on Monday’s for the remainder of the season. Underground was cancelled when the network, WGN, changed their direction after acquisition by Sinclair, a right-wing group. Lead by Dennis Haysbert, The Unit was cancelled in 2009 averaging an audience of 9.67 million viewers.

Some shows are more guilty than others but far too many have the Disappearing Dark(black)ness Syndrome embedded in their DNA. In 2017 it is infuriating to watch a show, much less a network which routinely uses POC characters as tropes, i.e. story devices to prop-up characters and storylines. This problem is magnified by the consistent occurrence of underdeveloped characters portrayed by POC. In the hands of talented actors, these characters become compelling, so their disappearance is even more troubling. Is the remedy to this syndrome the development of yet another Racial Bechdel Test? The symptoms are evident. The disease has been diagnosed. We don’t need another test. Tests do not teach humanity, equality, justice. We need awareness, acknowledgement and change. A day of reconciliation would be a place to start. Studios, networks, executives, directors, show runners, creators step-up, air your wrongs, and ask for forgiveness. Then maybe we can begin to really heal and celebrate each other on the big and small screen. This may signal the end of the The Disappearing Dark(black)ness Syndrome, a nice twist on Perfect Sense (2011), instead of losing prespective, we gain it.

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