My latest NPR piece: The rise of the Black Best Friend on network TV
The lack of diversity among starring roles on network TV is so pervasive and persistent it seems even TV critics barely notice it anymore.
This season, among 27 new shows which will debut this fall, only a handful even have racial minorities -- African American, Hispanic, Asian or Native American characters -- in the casts at all. By my count, there's about 11 series which fit that bill, with the most visible character being Annie Ilonzeh's Kate Prince on Charlie's Angels.
But there is no new show where a non-white character is the star. There is, however, an area of casting where people of color are doing pretty well:
Playing the Black Best Friend.
You know these people. They are the cool, often-accomplished, world-wise characters who help the confused lead character, who is always white, understand the world and their own troubles. They provide a handy, entertaining way to explain the story, help out the lead character in crucial moments and move the plot along when needed.
What they are not, are characters with their own lives. We rarely see their friends and family. they rarely get storylines of their own. And the viewer is almost never encouraged to see the world through their eyes.
This happens so regularly in films, that academic critics came up with a phrase for it. The Magic Negro.
Think Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. Morgan Freeman in Unforgiven. Wanda Sykes in just about every role she's ever had (Steve Carell in Evan Almighty even had TWO black best friends to help him appreciate life: Sykes and Freeman).
For NPR, I pulled together a cheeky essay on all the Black Best Friends dotting the new crop of fall TV shows, from the black roommate on Fox TV's The New Girl (first played by Damon Wayans Jr., then by Lamorne Morris), to the black partner on NBC's Grimm (played by Russell Hornsby) and the black Playboy bunny on The Playboy Club (played by Naturi Naughton)
Click below to hear the essay, and look below that for a really cool Funny or Die skit which sums up the pervasiveness of the black best friend in another area of entertainment often lacking diversity, the romantic comedy film.