Reckoning With Flawed Representation

In 2020, Black Lives Matter has become a trendy position to take.

Yara Shahidi, the star of Grown-ish Source: FREEFORM

You are now reading an exclusive piece from the Film Daze Digital Magazine, Issue 5: BLM. Enjoy! – The Film Daze Team

During my freshman year of college, I developed a ritual: on Friday afternoons, following my last class of the day, I would return to my dorm, open my laptop, click on Hulu and let the mystifying tones of Chloe x Halle’s “Grown” fill the room at top volume. Minutes later, Yara Shahidi would appear on the screen, rocking a stunning braided hairstyle while lamenting on whatever social-media fueled issue was the focus of that week’s episode of Grown-ish. A spin-off of ABC’s Black-ish, the series follows Zoey Johnson (Shahidi) and her group of friends as they start college. Watching Zoey navigate her first year while I struggled to find my footing on campus was therapeutic. I eventually adjusted to college life and found new ways to occupy my Friday afternoons, but in the wake of this year’s long-overdue acknowledgment of Black perspectives, Grown-ish has returned to the forefront of my mind.

Over the past few months, Black Lives Matter has become a trendy position to take. Everyone with a platform is scrambling to prove their dedicated allyship — the media industry is no exception. Streaming platforms are highlighting the work of Black filmmakers and creating genre tags to sort them under, while newspapers and magazines are suddenly welcoming Black writers with open arms. Meanwhile, every online publication that even dabbles in listicles has already conjured some version of the same article: “20 MUST-SEE Films/TV Shows from Black Creators.”

Shining a spotlight on Black creators is exciting, but these lists are deeply unsatisfying. Though fueled by the intention to show support and take an anti-racist stance, these lists prioritize a white audience. These articles appear in two forms: the aforementioned must-see works from Black creators, and the transparently named lists of “anti-racist films.” These lists are all the same; they share the same intent and feature the same staple titles (13th, The Hate U Give, Dear White People, Malcolm X, etc.). These are exceptional pieces of work deserving of their individual accolades, but their inevitable appearance on so many of these lists highlights an unfortunate trend: repurposing Black art as an educational tool.

Netflix adds Black Lives Matter collection as a new genre

The articles exclusively highlight films and tv shows that unambiguously tackle racism in its most external forms — subject matter includes slavery, civil rights, and police brutality, with little else in between. Films that fail to provide sufficient educational merit do not make the cut. However, Black art does not exist to educate. Relaying the “Black experience” should not fall on the shoulder of any individual creator, and the insinuation that people are ten movies away from “curing” their racism is reductive. The premise of these lists may argue otherwise, but Black art is not a tool and the history of oppression can not be summarized in a 15-hour binge.

Reducing the work of Black creatives to an anti-racist instruction manual does not sit well, but this was not the sole reason these articles raise questions. While taking note of how interchangeable these lists seem, consider the titles that failed to make an appearance: Grown-ish springs to mind. The reasoning behind its exclusion was easy enough to determine: what lesson could Zoey Johnson’s life possibly teach a white audience? Her pursuit of a fashion degree and relationship drama offered no insight into the complexities of American racism. Sure, Grown-ish centers around a Black girl attending a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) and has its fair share of plotlines that intersect with her racial identity, but it never delves far into these issues.

The cast of Grown-ish Source: FREEFORM

Grown-ish isn’t exactly a pillar of diversity. This show is thoroughly flawed. Casting choices prove that the infuriating trend of colorism in the entertainment industry persists: despite boasting a diverse cast and being a show about Black students, the show lacks even a single dark-skinned woman in its main cast. As for content, when storylines do delve into serious issues, they tend to do so superficially — oversimplifying everything from drug addiction to financial struggle. Whether the baseline is educational merit or good representation, Grown-ish misses the mark.

According to these articles, this means Grown-ish isn’t worth highlighting. But Black-ish does make these lists. An Emmy award-winning series known for its tendency to “get real” about race, this show has a track record of walking viewers through difficult issues ranging from the N-word to police brutality.

Almost a counterpart to Grown-ishDear White People is another staple of these lists. The remake of Justin Simien’s 2014 film of the same name follows a group of Black college students at a PWI, and tackles serious subjects from the get-go, with the first season centering around a blackface party on campus. Logan Browning stars as Samantha White, a “woke” student activist trying to shine a light on the social issues brimming under the school’s surface via protests and public statements. Much like Samantha, Dear White People does not shy away from difficult conversations.

Dear White People Source: Netflix

And yet, despite earning places on multiple “anti-racist shows” lists, where representation is concerned, neither of these shows are without flaws. Episodes of Black-ish are called out for their failure to thoroughly delve into the issues they center around, while the show itself is routinely criticized for perpetuating racial stereotypes. Despite critical acclaim, Dear White People has also come under fire. Particularly in its first season, the show received criticism for not delving deeper into its characters or content matter. The show struggles between being a sitcom about college students and a scornful commentary on race, often allowing the former to hold it back from the depth that its premise can offer.

But where exactly does this leave us? If we push every show that fails to be a perfect example aside, what’s left? Other beloved shows from Black creators spring to mind, like Issa Rae’s Insecure and FX’s Pose — but a cursory google search proves that they’ve received their fair share of backlash as well.

These lists are dangerous enough for devaluing the work of Black creators and have the additional consequence of sending us down a spiral of critiquing Black art as if every flaw diminishes their value. In the case of television and film, I know that not to be the truth; personal experience proves that even the most flawed examples of representation are meaningful. Just as I found refuge in the life of Zoey Johnson, I once took comfort in Glee’s Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley).

Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) in Glee, Source: Fox Network

Mercedes differs from Zoey and Sam in that she did not come from writers of color: a fact that is painfully obvious throughout the show’s duration. Her main character trait is being a loud, sassy, fat Black girl, and it’s easy to believe that her initial character description said nothing more. During her tenure in the Glee club, Mercedes has more than a few one-liners about her weave, requests that the club sings more “black” music, and a memorable plotline where she angrily protests against the school’s tater tot ban and even sings an original song titled “Hell To The No.” Mercedes is coded with so many stereotypes that it’s a miracle Riley manages to rise above them. Mercedes’ attitude is admirable, as is her fashion sense, kindness, and her immense talent. The missteps in the character writing are obvious, but the confident, talented, plus-sized Black woman on-screen made it bearable. Glee is not a shining example of diversity on television, but it would be a lie to say that Mercedes didn’t make an impression on viewers.

Television shows should be critiqued because they’re deserving of criticism. Not pointing out their flaws means we excuse their mistakes. Yet, at the same time, dismissing them completely ignores what they can still provide: whether that be delving into complex issues or simply showing Black life on screen. The need for harsh judgment is recognizable, but just as we criticize their mistakes, we should celebrate where they succeeded.

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