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Racial violence is all over our TV screens. Nightly newscasts tell story after story of police shootings and civilian retaliation. Anti-Muslim rhetoric is an everyday feature on the presidential campaign trail. Amid the controversy and challenging conversations, the 2015-16 TV season offered several shows that turned out to be timelier than expected, offering debate and sometimes resolution on stories of racial divide. A closer examination of the limited series category, in particular, reads like a college course on race in America. In one way or another, all of the nominees managed to deal with everything from the African-American community’s distrust of the police to the dangers of rich white privilege. Some were direct in their approach, such as History’s reworking of the 1977 miniseries Roots and FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Meanwhile, ABC’s American Crime and FX’s Fargo slid in the topic of racial politics as part of broader narrative arcs. Even AMC’s The Night Manager, about an international arms dealer, gets at the paranoia and drive to violence fueled by fear of terrorism.
“I think we’re making a difference in that our show prides itself on taking conversations that used to be had behind closed doors and bringing them into people’s living rooms,” says American Crime executive producer Michael McDonald. “We’re dealing with stuff that polite society still isn’t comfortable talking about. When scripted television can reflect what’s happening in America, that can help bring about changes.”
Adds Anthony Hemingway, a director and co-executive producer on The People v. O.J. Simpson: “As we realize the sad time we’re in right now, we all need to help and positively impact and shift the conversation. All of us need to see things differently; it’s time to let go of our old ways. And because of The People v. O.J. Simpson, I’ve heard about how we helped people communicate what’s actually going on, which ultimately helps to overcome any obstacle.”
Hemingway has come a long way from his first impressions of the series. Before production began, he admits he “wasn’t sure where we were going with the story and if it was part of the right intent.” The director spent a lot of time talking with the series’ writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, to make sure The People v. O.J. Simpson focused on what he wanted it to depict: the roles race and privilege play in the criminal justice system. Once Hemingway read the scene in which Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) tells Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), “You wanted a black face and not a black voice,” he knew he wanted to stick with the project.
“I think we succeeded in showing that what made the case important is that it was ultimately about race and privilege,” says Hemingway. “The story demonstrated that even as time passed after the trial, little has changed in the climate of America, with the hate crimes and tragedies. We are all starving for a hearing, for better, for change. From my side of the fence as a young black male, I appreciate being able to use my artistry to contribute to that discussion.”
Even though LeVar Burton had a better idea of what to expect from the new version of Roots, having starred as main character Kunta Kinte in the original, he admits he was unsure how relevant it would seem to the current discussion of race in American society. He insisted the production capitalize on “the updated scholarship that has really expanded the breadth and depth of the conversation about race,” he says. That meant spending more time on Kinte’s origin story to explore “what he and we as a people were losing in his enslavement.”
“The original Roots changed the way the country thought about slavery and became a very critical and important piece of this nation’s cosmology,” says Burton. “I believe that, once more, this series proved itself to be a critical piece of storytelling to help us deal with conflicts in our culture based on race right now. I’d say the presence of both Roots and The People v. O.J. Simpson this year spoke very clearly to our real need to figure things out. Television really can make a difference.”
Burton has watched as the issues Roots initially explored nearly 40 years ago “continue to play out in public discourse. There’s the Black Lives Matter movement; there’s an awareness of the proliferation of men of color being incarcerated,” he says. “Why is that? What are the causes? These are not new problems, but with some of the programming on television now, they are being presented in a new way for people to understand.”
That desire to be involved in the conversation was part of the inspiration behind American Crime, says McDonald. The first season, for instance, was a response to the 2012 shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
“What is happening in the world around us informs what we do with the show, and we are able to reflect what’s going on as it’s happening,” says McDonald. “Because all of these shootings and protests are in the news so much, you’re naturally going to see more people talking about what’s going on in a creative space. There’s a freedom we feel because people see what’s happening on the nightly news, and we get to acknowledge it now.”
The second season of American Crime, which centered on a sexual assault involving high school students, contrasted the white victim’s lower-middle-class background with the wealthy African-American family of one of the accused assailants — all as a way to play with the audience’s expectations and give, as McDonald explains, “a personal exposure to what it’s like to be a black family of means and education. I’m not sure that’s ever been portrayed in this way. There were the Huxtables, but they didn’t talk about race.”
The Hollywood community experiences the same conflicts and issues, notes McDonald. “I’ve talked to writers and directors and actors who are black and successful yet still deal with racial backlash,” he says. “Their race is how they’re first defined when they walk into a room. And that is something worth exploring.”
American Crime takes place in present America, giving it a feeling of currency and urgency. And although the events in Roots and The People v. O.J. Simpson unfold in the past, the racial divide they highlight remains relevant in 2016. Even Night Manager, based on a 1993 John le Carre novel, was updated so its story would feel more contemporary.
Season two of Fargo, however, is set during the late 1970s, and most of the story takes place in a very white Midwestern world. At first glance it seemed an unlikely vehicle to explore any racial issues, let alone those relevant in 2016. However, according to executive producer Warren Littlefield, series creators hoped to “tap into the idea that 1979 was an era of change, where people who hadn’t had a seat at the table before were now fighting for that opportunity.” That notion inspired the character Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), an African-American trying to move up the ladder within a white-led criminal organization.
“It was very much in [creator] Noah Hawley’s mind to take advantage of this time period and look at the changes that were upon our nation then,” says Littlefield. “Mike Milligan was definitely part of that. We had a much larger canvas to work on in season two, which allowed a story like his to have some relevancy to who we are as a country. We didn’t have the sort of throughline that The People v. O.J. Simpson had because our stories were broader, and exploring that territory scared everyone. Would it resonate? Would it have weight? We just hoped that it would have some impact on the conversation about race today. And just because a show isn’t set in present day, that doesn’t mean it can’t be relevant in present day.”
Despite the differences among the stories they tell, the limited series nominees have one thing in common: Their creators feel an obligation to “open the conversation about race and privilege,” as Littlefield says. “Millions of people are watching the content we make, so we have the ability to get people talking at dinner tables and in bars. That can only lead to better things.”
Adds McDonald: “We’re given this opportunity to be on the greatest stage, where you have a reach across the world, and when you are given that opportunity, I truly believe that as a citizen of the world you must take advantage of it. Maybe you can make the world just a little bit better — you can change the conversation we’re having about race or any issue. I can’t be a cop or a soldier, but that doesn’t mean I can’t expand the important discussions we need to have.”
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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