Is this a golden age for black TV makers or another false dawn?

With the success of shows such as Atlanta, Empire and Queen Sugar, diversity on TV is supposedly finally here, but history has provided plenty of false starts

I doubt Im the only one disappointed in The Wire creator David Simons decision to use the N-word in the context of a joke about Donald Trump choosing Sean Hannity to moderate a town hall focused on black issues. You would think that the man responsible for the greatest black drama in television history would be more aware of the fact that black folks dont like white folks using that word under any circumstances. Of course, thats sort of the problem here, isnt it? Isnt it peculiar that the best black TV show of all time was created by a white man?

According to an investigation conducted by Variety, 90% of the showrunners hired for new series in the 2016-17 season by broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, The CW) are white. Only four of the 50 new showrunners are black. David Simons place at the head of the black drama table is not just because his show was fantastic. Its also because of a sheer lack of competition. Its been three years since Fox debuted Lee Daniels and Danny Strongs Empire and the networks still lag behind cable the format that incubated The Wire and streaming giants Netflix and Amazon.

The most exciting African American series to hit since Empire is FXs Atlanta, Donald Glovers ode to black Americas capital city and a critical look at the modern infantile man. Glover plays Earnest Marks, an aspiring music manager struggling to provide for his estranged girlfriend and young daughter. Theres a casualness of tone to Atlanta thats rare in prestige black TV. Empire exists in a heightened reality where people poison each other and push their pregnant rivals down the stairs. Dramatic reveals of long-lost mothers come and go without much fanfare, primarily because outrageous plot twists are commonplace. It dulls the senses to the point where nothing is shocking any more.

In Atlanta, the southern black experience is treated as matter-of-fact and generally unremarkable. The stakes are small and intimate. Earns cousin, the underground rapper Paper Boi tragically unrelated to the Paperboy responsible for the song Ditty sells drugs. He carries a gun. He goes to jail for shooting a guy over a broken rear-view mirror. No white character shows up to question the validity of this lifestyle. Its treated as merely the world in which these people live. Of course, this is part of the surrealist, comedic aspects of Atlanta the underplaying of outrageous situations like a drug dealer shooting a man in the back with a hunting rifle or an inmate drinking toilet water while amused onlookers cheer him on but its also a true joy and a sign of black creatives behind the scenes that blackness is not seen as an impenetrable other. Its not exotic or beguiling. Its not mysterious. It just is.

The emergence of black creatives behind the scenes of black entertainment has been slow. There have been numerous stops and starts since groundbreaking series like I, Spy and Star Trek made African American faces on TV more acceptable to white audiences. The success of the Wayans brothers sketch series In Living Color led to numerous black comedies, many of them on the then fledgling Fox network: Living Single, Roc, Martin, True Colors. They often had black writers and felt authentic to the experience, though within the limiting confines of network TV.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Michael K Williams as Omar Little in The Wire. Photograph: HBO

Hope comes in the form of shows such as Marvels upcoming Netflix superhero tale Luke Cage run by black screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker and Ava DuVernays Queen Sugar, a domestic drama about a family that inherits a sugarcane farm. This is as far away from the urban blight and shoot-em-up nature of the typical black series, typified by the Starz networks Power. Power set, like Empire, in the music industry suffers from the bleak, violent posturing that has come to define the African American experience on screen and in the media. Much has been made of Queen Sugar challenging black ideas of masculinity through a five-year-old boy character named Blue who carries around a doll. Combine that with Atlantas ineffectual protagonist and his rapper cousins questioning of hip-hop bravado and you have the makings of a trend.This also extends to film, as the upcoming Moonlight chronicles the struggles of a black man to come out a story rarely told.

It is not a coincidence that these refreshingly complex visions of blackness come from series fronted by black writers. Its not that white writers are incapable of telling black stories. Simons work on The Wire is a prime example of when that scenario works. The Wire challenged our perception of what a prestige drama could be at a time when they were uniformly white stories of upper middle class suburban angst. What a white writer can miss is the subtle nuance of the experience of living in this world as a black person. When Simon excused his use of the N-word by saying he was employing the version with the suffix a as opposed to er, he thought he was playing within the boundaries of taste. The truth was that he was far from it, as he found out when numerous prominent black voices such as Jezebels Kara R Brown, the Undefeateds Clinton Yates, the New York Times Greg Howard, and New York magazines Rembert Browne piped up with their displeasure.

One can only know what its like to be black in America by being black in America. The murder of Terence Crutcher by Tulsa police officers can hurt an empathetic, concerned white person, but can it ever hurt as much as someone who fears for their safety because of the color of their skin? In order to understand our plight, you need to hear our story. And you need to let us tell it.

Empire season three starts Wednesday 9pm ET on ABC

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