At the risk of starting a whole thing, I was watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine the other day and I realized I was seeing something I’d never seen on television before and it made me really, really sad.
I’ll tell you about the episode—it’s the B-plot to S01E07, “48 Hours.”
Terry Crews’ character, Terry (I get it!) admits to his superior, Capt. Ray Holt (Andre Braugher, who is kind of the best thing going on TV right now) that he’s having “trouble at home.” His brother-in-law is forever teasing him, making him feel small. The gag here, of course, is that Crews is the size of the Incredible Hulk, but of course his brother-in-law is played by Crews’ 6’8" fellow former NFLer, Jamal Duff, who is the size of Giant-Man, if we’re going with an Avengers theme here. Terry won’t go home for two solid days, even though the Captain keeps trying to make him, so eventually the Captain makes Terry look good in front of his brother-in-law by loudly giving him fake orders to take on the Russian Mafia by himself and lets Terry sack out on his couch.
Anyway, it’s a good episode of a great show but it occurred to me about halfway through that due in large part to the mere existence of the show’s half-white, half-nonwhite cast, I was watching a really funny, normal series of gags about annoying relatives and sleep deprivation and authority figures played out exclusively with actors who are enormous black men (let the record show that I am as white as the driven snow and this may not be a novelty to viewers of color who watch different stuff than I watch). I even seized up a little bit when Terry told the Captain there was Trouble At Home. Oh, no, I thought, are his daughters getting into trouble at school? Is there infidelity/domestic abuse or the suspicion of infidelity/domestic abuse in his marriage? How can this possibly be funny? I may be giving myself too much credit but I don’t think this is necessarily because I’m personally a particularly vile racist (I don’t believe I make those assumptions about the actual black men I know); I think I’m just programmed to expect a certain level of stupidity when it comes to the depiction of black men, and particularly, I’m incredibly sorry to say, black men who look like Crews, Braugher and Duff, on television. Guys like these are usually at best cannon fodder for condescending teachable moments who get to learn life lessons while everybody else is off in the background, bein’ wacky. At worst they’re, you know. Muggers or drug dealers or whatever horrible else. Brooklyn Nine-Nine hasn’t done this yet. May it never.
I realized I’d literally never, ever seen anything like this subplot before. Tough, bullet-headed black dudes whose characters are cops with bodybuilder physiques because at least one of them is literally a bodybuilder, all doing Fawlty Towers-esque farce together. Why is this a novelty on broadcast TV in 2014?
Much has been said (and rightly) against the television industry, but it is really, inarguably fantastic at one thing in particular, and that thing is patting itself on the back. Nitwitted musical drama “Glee” garnered award after award for telling us that no one, not even jocks, should be allowed to call attractive young gay men mean names, until eventually critics realized that the show was kind of bad.
Oh, wait, I have literally forgotten until this point in the essay to mention to you that the Andre Braugher character is gay. Scout’s honor; it slipped my mind. But frankly it’s less important that the character is gay—black people are still represented terribly on television and gay people are represented comparatively well. I suppose you could speculate about the relative stations of both groups in the entertainment industry if you thought about this long enough to get bitter, but there’s not a finite amount of whatever it’s called when you treat a person like a person and not some kind of weird performing animal who knows how to roll over, play dead, and teach valuable life lessons.*
Part of the weird racism of the entertainment world is that it’s somehow totally cool in broadcast sitcoms to make racist jokes ironically, even if the only irony is that people think they’re allowed to find them funny because they think they’re progressive, but part of it is also that writers of whatever race tend to refuse to write people as people for broadcast TV. It’s also been really shockingly okay to write awful, awful caricatures in highbrow, prestige-y series like The Sopranos. I mean, people can say whatever they want but it’d be nice if it didn’t always pass without comment when black men specifically were involved. Frequently, it’s only when you get a critical mass of black actors (see also The Wire, among others) that you start to get this kind of less tentative, less nervous writing. Maybe this is a new renaissance of writing competently about a huge segment of the population—I haven’t seen Scandal but people dig it. But it also drives home why people like Tyler Perry have huge audiences and why a bunch of my friends went bonkers when Spider-Man was a Domincan kid for six issues last Fall: people want to see themselves represented. I mean, they’d love to see themselves represented well, but sometimes they don’t have that luxury.
Is this a call for more black writers? Or more black casting? Or better understanding between the races? Uh, sure. Yes. All those things. No problem. But mostly I just wanted to ask this incredibly complex question of why America cannot manage to produce art in which White is supreme, and you can bet I picked that word on purpose, except in the rarest circumstances. I just wanted to ask. You get to answer. I’m watching TV.
*Love? Compassion? This is also your job to figure out.