Brow Beat

Deadline Says There Are Not Enough Roles on TV for White People. Poor White People.

Empire. Pictured (L-R): Trai Byers, Taraji Henson, Terrence Howa,Empire. Pictured (L-R): Trai Byers, Taraji Henson, Terrence Howard, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray.
Empire, featuring Trai Byers, Taraji Henson, Terrence Howard, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray.

Photo courtesy Michael Lavine/Fox

Late last year, I, like most reasonable people with even a passing interest in race, gender, television (or all of the above) read Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times piece about Shonda Rhimes with a combined mix of fascination, shock, horror, and disgust. In that infamously tone-deaf piece about the successful showrunner behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, Stanley referred to Rhimes as an “angry black woman” and equated Viola Davis’ age and dark complexion with being “less classically beautiful” than that of the younger, lighter-skinned Kerry Washington.

Stanley’s off-kilter examination was meant to be appreciative of Rhimes’ work, but as Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote: “With compliments like these, who needs insults?

Now, I’ve read Nellie Andreeva’s Deadline article on the uptick in “ethnic casting” in television, and my main reaction is a sense of déjà vu. The headline—“Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of Good Thing?”—is enough to make your eyes roll very far into the back of your head. (Mine did.) Too much of [a] good thing? Really? By posing such a question, one suggests that the scale is suddenly tipping in favor of non-white actors on TV; that the television landscape is suddenly overrun with minorities (it’s not), and that it’s becoming much harder to find white leads on the small screen on a daily basis. (It’s notGLAAD reported that while stats are improving, only 13 percent of characters announced on primetime for the 2014-15 season were black, 8 percent were Latino, and 4 percent were Asian-Pacific Islander, hardly a threat to television’s overall whiteness.) 

At first I thought: The headline could be misleading and inflammatory while not truly representative of the contents—this happens all the time. Andreeva, a rigorous and smart reporter, could have just been saddled with a terrible title for her investigation into the industry’s hot topic du jour: diversity in Hollywood. But, unfortunately, the piece bears out all of the fears that its headline promises, and then some.

The subject at the core of the article is intriguing: Andreeva speaks to several sources about what the “explosion” of “ethnic casting” has looked like for some actors and talent agents within the industry, most notably, those who are white. It seems that more and more pilots this year are open to “all ethnicities,” but with a greater emphasis on casting non-whites: “Basically 50 percent of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic, and the mandate goes all the way down to guest parts,” one talent representative tells Andreeva. She also breaks down the many TV roles that have been specifically designated for non-white actors in recent years, like Morris Chestnut in Rosewood and the black-cast TV series adaptation of Uncle Buck.

It’s an interesting breakdown of what Hollywood’s new diversity push looks like on the ground. But where the piece takes a wrong turn is when Andreeva spins her reporting into a queasy critique of TV’s interest in providing a larger array of perspectives and faces in lead roles. At one point, she refers to a couple of show pilots based on real-life white people (The Advocate and Broad Squad) that have cast non-white actors in some of the roles. This could be a bad sign, she says: “Replacing one set of rigid rules with another by imposing a quota of ethnic talent on each show might not be the answer.” She goes on to point to the success of all-white shows and all-black shows like Seinfeld and The Cosby Show, which were hits “based on the strength of their premise, execution and talent performances and chemistry.”

Arguments like these are dangerous because they ignore history—a Hollywood legacy of quite literally white-washing historical figures, systematically denying people of color the chance to tell their own stories, and assuming that there is only ever enough room for one or two non-white faces or entities (Sidney Poitier in the ‘60s, The Cosby Show in the ‘80s, and so on) to capture the world’s attention. Referring to the casting uptick as a “pendulum” that may have “swung too far” to the other side, even while admitting that diversifying Hollywood is “long overdue,” as Andreeva does, reinforces the idea that diversifying TV—or rather “normalizing” it, as Shonda Rhimes has astutely said—is equal to white actors getting the raw end of the deal. (This is not much different from those who suggest that leveling the playing field for all means the “downfall” of the white heterosexual male.)

What Andreeva appears to not have done—beyond quoting one talent agent at the beginning who expressed satisfaction at no longer having to call casting agents for their non-white clients ahead of time to see if they are considering non-whites for a role—is talk to many people of color to see what it’s like for them. She notes that actors of color like Viola Davis and Halle Berry who are getting lead roles “not earmarked as ethnic” are doing so based on their star power (she deems this the “organic” way, a rather squeamish term). This reads to me as a nicer way of saying, regarding incredibly successful people of color, that oft-repeated post-racial phrase: “They aren’t asking for handouts, they worked hard to get where they are.” But the odds of breaking into the business and becoming a successful, consistently working actor as a person of color are still far smaller than they are for these actors’ white counterparts. And Davis, as well as other established black actors like Angela Bassett and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, continue to speak openly about their difficulties getting work, decades into their careers.

 Andreeva rounds out her piece with this:

While they are among the most voracious and loyal TV viewers, African-Americans still represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now, with shows as Empire, Black-ish, Scandal and HTGAWM on broadcast, Tyler Perry’s fare on OWN and Mara Brock Akil’s series on BET, they have scripted choices, so the growth in that fraction of the TV audience might have reached its peak.

It’s the fulfillment of the awful promise of that headline, an acknowledgment that non-whites continue to be seen, in many ways, as the “other”—the exception and not part of the rule. Such a statement would surely never be made about a white audience (who, it should be noted, are also watching shows like Scandal, HTGAWM, and Empire in droves). And that’s what ultimately makes this piece even more dangerous than Stanley’s New York Times story on Rhimes—the latter was poorly executed, misguided criticism, but it was framed as criticism nonetheless. The Deadline article is poorly executed, misguided criticism wrapped around smart, fascinating reporting, and that’s a scary combination.