Critic's Notebook: In Praise of the New Wave of TV Casting Inclusivity

Shows like 'Queen Sugar,' 'Greenleaf,' 'Underground,' 'Roots,' 'Insecure,' 'Atlanta' and 'Luke Cage' are exposing how much talent is out there.
Netflix; HBO; OWN
From left: Mike Colter of 'Marvel's Luke Cage,' Issa Rae of 'Insecure' and Lynn Whitfield of 'Greenleaf'
A few isolated Twitter accusations that Marvel's Luke Cage is racist for its lack of well-rounded white characters are the stuff of clickbait articles that I want no part of. 
 
Complaining that one or two (or even five or 10) current shows have become the inversion of the sort of racially imbalanced casting that Hollywood has relied on for over a hundred years on the big screen and for six or seven decades on TV is sadly hilarious and also taking exactly the wrong lessons from a trend I've been happily noticing over recent months. Rather than giving those few Twitter whiners a lecture on hegemony, I want to accentuate the positive.
 
After years of struggles to find even a few actors of color to play leads or even token roles, casting directors have suddenly been able to fill whole, multi-tiered casts with African-American actors, almost as if when the parts are created and suddenly became available, there turned out to be actors capable of filling them. Crazy, right? And it's been practically one new show or miniseries every few weeks, so it's not like the same 15 actors are popping up in everything. In fact, there's almost no overlap at all, either among the actors or the casting directors bringing them together.
 
 
In some cases, it's entirely unknown actors getting their first shots at regular TV work. In other cases, it's veteran character actors reveling in the most substantive ongoing work of their careers. Sometimes the actors have been brought over from across the pond, but mostly they're being found in our own domestic production backyards, the places you tend to find actors who want to work.
 
We/I write so much about struggles and failures of inclusivity in TV casting that I wanted to write something in praise of the stars and casting directors on such TV vehicles as:
 
Roots — None of its individual stars were nominated for Emmys, which says more about the depth of the limited series/miniseries category than anything else, but the casting team (led by Victoria Thomas, Leo Davis and Lissy Holm) got a well-earned Emmy. Whether they're new discoveries or just under-recognized actors getting a big and visible platform, performers like Malachi Kirby, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Emyri Crutchfield, Regé-Jean Page, Michael James Shaw and many more should get a huge career boost from their Roots work. 
 
Underground — WGN America's antebellum series is all historical, so it may have scared away big audiences, but what if I tell you that it's just a great action series that happens to use the Underground Railroad as a backdrop? Giving Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who look and act like they ought to be A-listers but "somehow" aren't, the kind of lead roles they've long deserved is one of the show's big achievements, but all additional exposure for actors like Johnny Ray Gill, Alano Miller, Chris Chalk, Amirah Vann and more is a plus, so kudos to casting directors Kim Coleman, Eric Dawson, Carol Kritzer and Robert J. Ulrich. 
 
Greenleaf OWN's summer sleeper hit got a boost from a recurring turn from Oprah Winfrey, but the show should be hailed for giving Keith David and Lynn Whitfield some of the best material of their careers as well as a supporting cast of less familiar actors culled by casting directors Craig Fincannon, Lisa Mae Fincannon and Kim Coleman.
 
Queen Sugar — Hail director and creator Ava DuVernay and also casting director Aisha Coley, because this OWN drama should provide breakouts for the likes of Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Dondre Whitfield and particularly Kofi Siriboe, as well as the myriad writers and directors given opportunities to shine here.
 
Luke Cage — Sure, you probably knew Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard before this Marvel drama, but part of casting is taking actors people know and giving them roles that define or redefine what we know about them. Simone Missick, Erik LaRay Harvey and fall TV's stealth MVP Ron Cephas Jones also will get boosts, thanks to the work of casting directors Laray Mayfield and Julie Schubert. And while I'm talking about Netflix shows, it's actors like Justice Smith, Shameik Moore, Herizen F. Guardiola, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Mamoudou Athie who make The Get Down work to the degree it does, so give a nod to casting directors Rori Bergman and Ronna Kress.
 
 
And it's not just dramas. The ensemble cast of Atlanta around star and creator Donald Glover is only beginning to get the recognition it deserves, including Brian Tyree Henry, the scene-stealing Keith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz, who nailed her big showcase episode this week. And Issa Rae may be the creator and star of Insecure, but you'll also come away paying attention to Yvonne Orji, Jay Ellis, Natasha Rothwell and Y'lan Noel.
 
Some takeaways:
 
1) This is only the tip of the iceberg. Tyler Perry has between 75 and 321 scripted shows on various networks and I confess that most of them exist outside of my purview, which I'm not "proud of," per se. There's just too much TV. I also didn't get to the rare network show in which the cast is almost incidentally predominantly people of color, something like a Lethal Weapon. And I'm sure I didn't mention a slew of other shows that I like and could have mentioned. This is an essay, not a be-all-end-all survey.
 
2) The last thing I want to do is treat these shows like they're the minor leagues and imply movies and network series should pluck out the big stars and actors should be eager to escape an OWN or a WGN America to get called up to ABC or Fox. Roots was a miniseries, so let's get Kirby, Corinealdi, Crutchfield, Shaw and many more into pilot casting rotations. But if somebody like Siriboe has a terrific, multilayered character on OWN, it would be folly to say he'd be better off as the third lead in a bad CBS medical procedural just because CBS has a bigger audience than OWN does.
 
3) It's not like the casting on these shows has been infallible. I don't know how to break this to you, but there are some bad actors on TV and race plays no role in that, nor does nationality. If you watch enough British TV, you're gonna see some bad performances and that's from British actors and every American casting director knows (or thinks) that British actors are better than the rest of us. I reviewed Greenleaf positively and respect the show and its world-building a lot, but part of why I've fallen behind on it is that a lot of the performances from the actors less experienced than David, Whitfield and Oprah are pretty spotty. 
 
This, actually, is a key foundation of what inclusivity is all about, specifically the freedom to have a few failures without penalty. It's having actors of all races who are given as many endless opportunities to fail (or ideally succeed) as CBS gave Alex O'Loughlin or as several sitcom leads with three or four or five bombed shows have gotten. And it's about the idea that one African-American-centric show slightly torpedoed by subpar performances doesn't reflect on the overall state of African-American-centric shows in the slightest. 
 
 
4) These next two are the most important takeaways and I really can't emphasize them enough and it's when I slip from positivity to negativity for a second: THIS CROP OF TERRIFIC ACTORS EXISTED BEFORE 2016, BUT Y'ALL DIDN'T FIND OR EMPLOY THEM.
 
A few of the actors in these shows and miniseries are in their early 20s and were probably in school five years ago, but many or most of them are older and were not. So as networks and shows and casting directors gave mediocre Australian actors two or three or four opportunities at stardom playing racially non-specific roles in shows that didn't last full seasons, there were opportunities that weren't being given, there were boxes that weren't being thought outside of. And there are still boxes that aren't being thought outside of. There are network and cable shows premiering this fall that are fronted by forgettable and bad unknown actors and the frequency with which those unknown actors are minorities is close to nil, regardless of whether the race of the character is relevant in the slightest. Some kinds actors are still given more opportunities to fail than others.
 
It's apparently easier for a casting director to find 12 great relatively unknown African-American actors for a show in which almost all of the characters are written as African-American than it is to find one great relatively unknown African-American actor to play one role on a network show that hasn't specified a minority lead. I understand why that would be and it has to do with the size of the net you cast and where you cast it, but the problem is with the nets and the net-casting and not with the fish.
 
And that brings me to ...
 
5) It's not just black actors who are findable if you look. I'm assuming.
 
If intrepid casting directors have been able to fill literally hundreds of speaking roles this year for African-American actors who may not have had this visibility before this year, you cannot tell me that a multigenerational Latino family drama or an Asian-American superhero show would be unable to populate those worlds with future stars who have been starved for this opportunity. And don't tell me that we've got Fresh Off the Boat and we had Cristela and that One Day at a Time is getting a Latino remake on Netflix as if those are be-all-end-all solutions and answers. They're starts. They're absolutely starts. But comparing the casting of Iron Fist to the casting of Luke Cage illustrates how far things have to go.
 
It has been crucial that the Peak TV landscape has made it possible for shows like Greenleaf and Queen Sugar and Luke Cage and Insecure to exist and in these cases, it has been integral that the inclusivity has started behind the laptop and behind the camera as well. 
 
This is a change that's only in the process of happening and a conversation we're only beginning. Of the 400-plus scripted shows on TV, I'd still estimate the hefty majority still have entirely non-inclusive casts or still nod to diversity only by filling out the fringes of an ensemble with one Indian-American doctor or one black former cop or one Asian-American forensic analyst, non-characters given between two and five lines per episode. And we're still not that many years past FX, a network well and deservedly hailed for its general and specific efforts on this front, surrendering on finding a Middle Eastern (or half Middle Eastern) actor capable of leading Tyrant and going with a British guy who could pass. I'd like to think FX wouldn't do that today, but until I'm confident on that front, the conversation continues. 
 
The conversation continues.
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