Leona’s Love Quest : In Defense of Television

Vintage Television

This is a little weird for me, but I’m stepping away from my Love Quest this month to speak about another topic that is near and dear to my heart: television. Alright, maybe not television so much as the art and craft of storytelling and the representation of black people working in the field of entertainment. I actually don’t watch very much TV; I would guess no more than probably 1-3 hours a week at most. I curse the Comcast conglomerate every day with the white hot heat of a thousand suns for the monopoly they created to charge customers for the excessive amount of channels nobody watches and their subpar customer service. Nonetheless, since I don’t have time to binge watch several seasons of series on Netflix and Comcast charges nearly the same amount just to install internet without the bundle, for now at least I continue to pay them. I’ll try to explain why.

I began my career as a costume designer in Washington, DC at Arena Stage when I was accepted into the Allen Lee Hughes fellowship program created for minorities wishing to pursue careers in theater design. Allen Lee Hughes is a Tony nominated African-American lighting designer who still often works at that theater and whose career now spans over 40 years. After my fellowship ended I quickly became a primary go-to costume designer for any and all shows about the black experience. I was for a few years the resident costume designer for the African Continuum Theater, the only theater in DC dedicated solely to promoting black theater artists and their work. I learned from this experience that we are not a happy people. In all fairness, the world hasn’t given us a lot of reasons to tell too many happy stories. With the notable exception of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, (widely regarded as one of the best plays ever written by anyone of any color) most of our stories are full of death, tragedy, and a general sense of hopelessness. After years of scavenging vintage clothing from the 1950s and 60s or distressing drab cotton dresses and work clothes for plays set in the post-slavery era, I was more than ready to get out. I was begging to work on a musical that required bright colors, tap shoes, and sequins.

However, I learned a lot about the art of storytelling and gained a healthy respect for the playwrights, actors, directors and designers who worked hard to bring these plays to life with the kind of excellence they rightly deserved. When placed in the right hands, I believe our stories can be just as powerfully and emotionally moving than those belonging to any other race, if not more so. Indeed, the best stories are always the ones that can transcend color by tapping in a universal connection with the human experience.  (If you haven’t seen the movie Whiplash yet, I beg you to. I don’t regularly listen to jazz and I have no idea what it’s like to be white, male college student who plays the drums, but I guarantee you it’s one of the best stories you’ve probably seen in years.)

I agree, there is a problem with the images of black people we seen on TV, but the programming is systemic of a much larger problem we can’t solve by trying to shame it’s viewers or refusing to watch. The problem is there are too few black directors and producers that manage to break their way into the Hollywood machine. According to 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report despite the fact that films and television with relatively diverse casts maintain the highest return on investment, “the gatekeepers and decision-makers, who are typically white men . . . want to keep their jobs. They want to succeed. And they feel that their best chance for success is by surrounding themselves with other white males, basically.”

As you can see from this shameful article posted on Deadline.com , as soon as we start to see a little color in TV and films, there’s going to be a backlash. You see it’s perfectly OK to pass over actors of color for roles even when they have little relevance in terms of race, but when it starts happening to white actors, there’s going to be a problem.

There are shows that I refuse to watch, not only on principle, but because of a general lack of interest. The typical ratchet reality shows do nothing for me in terms of entertainment or good storytelling. They simply find someone who is willing to exploit the worst representation of our race for money. I won’t condemn anyone for watching them, but I think it’s a waste of money and energy that could be put towards supporting trained actors and balancing the representation of negative stereotypes on TV.  I don’t particularly enjoy most of Tyler Perry’s work either, but I have to admire his business acumen and his recognition of an audience that was sick and tired of the usual “oh Lawsy, being black is so hard” material. I do watch Suits on the USA network, an excellent drama which is being largely ignored by critics. Gina Torres as Jessica Pearson is killing it on that show (in some serious designer apparel, no less) as the head of her law firm. One of the lead characters, Mike Ross, just got engaged asked his biracial girlfriend to marry him. I’m of mixed opinion about Empire, but at least it’s making an attempt to tackle relevant topics like homophobia, mental illness, and interracial marriage in an unaccepting black community, if not always delivering with the grace and dignity it deserves. There is, however, a marked difference between creating a melodrama that uses exaggerated, fictional characters and situations to create tension and suspense and Reality TV which exploits “real” people and their supposedly “real” situations when most of it is actually scripted or devised. I celebrate when this nonsense gets nipped in the bud before it even reaches the screen.

I agree that if the stories on TV don’t appeal to you for any reason, there is no reason you should watch them. But when you say you don’t support our more successful directors and producers like Shondra Rhimes, Lee Daniels, and Ava DuVernay don’t expect our representation in TV and films to get any better. The only thing that will happen is that black people will continue to disappear from film and TV outside from menial roles because the people in charge will feel twice as justified in refusing to change the demographic. Those men in their leadership positions will only be happy to claim a hesitancy to promote diverse programming because we’re all too quick to get offended even when the shows succeed. It’s not that I abide by the “it’s just entertainment” excuse either, but we can’t expect excellence as long as we don’t have proper representation.

So yes, I am supporting TV and movies back by the actors, directors, and producers whose training and talent deserve to be recognized. I support them because I believe they are capable opening the way to better programming once they get their foot in the very small opening of a very large and influential door. I support them when I enjoy the storytelling.

The entire Comcast Corporation, however, they can go straight to hell.

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