After the death of Undercovers and Outlaw, can actors of color top big network TV shows?
There may be no one may be more conflicted about the role of race in Hollywood than actors of color, who can never really be sure why they lose roles or see setbacks while trying to break new ground on network TV.
I saw that firsthand when talking to Blair Underwood, a successful leading man on network and cable TV for decades. sitting on a couch during a press party for NBC's new season, he confided that he spent most of 2009 jobless -- unable to land roles in four projects that later went to actors who seemed to have a more comedic type.
He wondered briefly; had Hollywood suddenly decided that the clean cut, accomplished black man he often played on TV -- academics who study media call such character types "supernegros" for their amazing levels of competence and attractiveness -- was no longer needed?
“We’re all marketing archetypes, and whatever archetype I might be, in 2009 they weren’t buying it,” noted the actor, who said he didn’t work at all in 2009. “At least four times, there would be conversations about a role, and they’d tell me ‘We want to go more character-y.’ And every time I looked at the actors in the cast, there was somebody overweight and comedic in type.”
His fear: that Hollywood had decided they no longer had any use for the kind of character he plays best, a clean-cut, articulate accomplished black man. Even as Barack Obama was completing his first year in office, the actor who made a 25-year career playing characters just like him – the two met, in fact, while he was at Harvard researching his breakthrough role as attorney Jonathan Rollins on L.A. Law – considered quitting. Then he landed on NBC's The Event, a Lost-style adventure/mystery in which he plays an afro-Cuban president struggling with holding a number of extra terrestrials -- who of course, look just like humans -- in a Guantanamo-type camp.
Now that NBC's ambitious spy drama Undercovers has been canceled, I thought it was time to take a look at some of the odd discussions involving race behind some of the network's new fall shows. On the surface, this is the most diverse development season in years on screen; but almost all of the new characters of color are parts of ensembles, sidekicks or co-stars. Excepting the CW's Nikita, there a no series starring people of color as the sole stars of a show (I'm not counting CSI's Laurence Fishburne, for example, because that show has become much more of an ensemble since he took over for William Peterson.) Click here to read my Sunday Floridian column on the issue.
Undercovers star Boris Kodjoe remains a little mystified by America's twisted racial angst; a native of Austria, he grew up in a village he describes as "straight form the Sound of Music," unable to speak English fluently until he came here on a tennis scholarship. It's an enduring irony that the two black people hailed for earning lead roles in one of NBC's most-anticipated new shows are not African American -- Kodjoe's partner, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is British.
Tired of going on casting calls where he'd get close and lose the role to a white actor, Kodjoe had to be prodded into talking with producers for Undercovers. Once he did, the actor said co-creator J.J. Abrams told him of attending the Emmy awards and seeing no people of color there; he hoped to create a series which might help change that.
Unfortunately, Undercovers was scheduled in a tough time slot, had a serious lack of star power and struggled to find its way creatively. As one of the first series canceled by NBC -- along with Outlaw, starring Jimmy Smits, who is Hispanic -- Undercovers suddenly becomes an example of how good intentions can backfire, if Hollywood takes as its lesson than viewers have a tough time bonding with lead actors of color.
Executive producer Kathleen McGhee-Anderson saw how the dynamic worked firsthand when her show Lincoln Heights aired on ABC Family. Centered on a black family who moves back into the rough Los Angeles neighborhood where the father (now a police officer) grew up, Lincoln Heights drew critical raves after its 2007 debut.
The early attention may have helped, but as the years passed, ABC Family became a tightly-focused tween magnet, with shows centered on white characters such as The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Make it or Break It, Pretty Little Liars and Melissa and Joey. The show was canceled early this year.
“After a while, I don’t think Lincoln Heights was the face of ABC Family,” said McGhee-Anderson, who still remembers an executive telling her as the show started its first season that mainstream audiences wouldn’t identify with a black family.
Still the producer, whose past credits include Showtime’s Soul Food and Lifetime’s Any Day Now, remains hopeful that her work will inspire a new generation to take more chances in challenging audiences with characters of color in central roles.
“The work we were able to do influences a generation; they are going to want to see a series that doesn’t have African Americans as sidekicks,” she said. “Attitudes behind the scenes in networks can be old school – they’re young, but clinging to an old ideology. But it’s time for those old school attitudes to be knocked down.”