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We like to think adversity brings out the best in people, but usually it only brings out the best in the best people. The worst will take any disaster as an excuse to indulge their basest impulses, regardless of the consequences to others. Americans have certainly faced a lot of adversity lately from the devastation of the pandemic to the destructiveness of the looters. Yet, while Americans as a whole may feel their world is suddenly under siege, Black Americans have always felt under siege. A walk in the park, a jog in the neighborhood, a drive to the grocery store — all can end in arrest or death. The pandemic and videos of black people being murdered by police and vigilantes only shines media light on how embedded racism is. Nationwide protests are an effort to keep that light shining until measurable changes are made.
When COVID-19 started to appear in the U.S., President Trump began his five-months-and-counting Campaign of Blame by accusing China of being responsible. The result was a reported rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans to about 100 a day. Worse, the virus itself has had a much greater — and deadlier — impact on the African American, Native American and Latinx communities than on white communities. People of color are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at shockingly higher rates than whites. The coronavirus has revealed more than the weaknesses in our national medical preparedness, it has revealed in bold letters the fatal results of systemic racism.
The pandemic lockdown has isolated people from friends and family, but it has also alienated people of color from mainstream society. The lack of resources being used to address this problem, as well as the problem of police brutality, makes people of color feel even more marginalized and expendable.
Everyone jokes about Netflix-binging during shelter-at-home. But what shows should people of color watch right now to feel less marginalized, less expendable?
Television shows and movies also create public perceptions of anyone different than the viewer. Managing ethnic perceptions is especially important at a time when fear fuels hate and hate fuels violence. Good shows can boost a community’s morale and self-esteem — and make them feel connected to people like them and valued by people not like them.
Fortunately, there are a bunch of shows that feature strong, smart, clever, morally complex characters of color that will inspire people to see themselves and others in a more favorable light. Long gone are the days of Starsky and Hutch‘s Huggy Bear, the impish pimp, or Green Hornet‘s Kato, the Asian American sidekick/valet. Given our voracious consumption of TV shows and movies during our national confinement, the six shows I’ve selected (in no particular order) are both vastly entertaining and also promote a positive sense of ethnic identity about who we are and our importance in society. It is the pop culture vaccine to boost morale and change public perception.
The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
The Good Wife was an excellent show, but this spinoff is even better. The premise is that white, sophisticated attorney Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) loses her money in a financial scam, is forced out of her law firm, and ends up becoming a partner at an African American-owned Chicago law firm. The black attorneys are played by Cush Jumbo, Delroy Lindo, Michael Boatman and Audra McDonald and it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge how amazing they all are. The cases they take are relevant to all Americans, but the show often focuses on cases that are especially close to home for African Americans: police brutality, voter restrictions, slavery reparations. The characters aren’t just lawyers who happen to be black, they are lawyers whose careers and identities are forged in race. Wisely, the show is careful not to present Blacks as a monolithic group. They often argue passionately and intelligently among themselves about various racial issues. One of my favorite characters is a Black Trump-supporting conservative (Boatman), with whom I disagree politically on everything, but who is endearing as he struggles to maintain and fight for his principles.
This astounding British import is a crime drama that takes noir to the next step in its evolution. The title is Japanese for “Duty/Shame” and it explores the meaning of those conflicting ideas as related to cops and gangsters and their families. Usually, this kind of story is very male-centric, but this series is redefining the genre, not just by bouncing back and forth between London and Tokyo and exploring cultural differences, but also by telling the stories of the many women caught up in the violence created by the men. One remarkable episode follows three generations of Japanese women trying to outrun and outwit mobster hitmen. While the series delivers on all the expected cops, crime and violence ingredients, it also delivers on complex characters in search of redemption. What’s especially memorable are the many artistic risks the show takes to elevate the story above its generic roots. A spectacular last-episode climax confrontation by the main characters that becomes a slow-motion ballet is both emotionally moving and visually captivating.
A continuation of the brilliant DC Comics series Watchmen by Alan Moore, this story takes place 34 years after the comic book storyline and follows a black crimefighter, Sister Night (Regina King), as she battles to uncover the nefarious world-threatening plot of a racist Klan-like group. What makes this show so poignant isn’t just that the racism element in futuristic America seems to reflect the current times, but that Sister Night is a powerful, kick-ass black character who risks her life in the pursuit of justice. Equally compelling is the complicated story of Hooded Justice (Jovan Adepo), the first masked hero who is also the inspiration for masked heroes that follow, though he has to keep the fact that he’s black hidden.
Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access)
This incarnation of the Star Trek universe is the most consciously diverse, but it’s also the most creative in terms of story-telling and jaw-dropping plot twists. The Black protagonist (Sonequa Martin-Green) is a daring and sometimes impulsive female science officer whose career is Dickensian in its ups and downs. Add Michelle Yeoh in dual roles — both of them badass — and you have great stories and great role models.
Killing Eve (BBC/AMC)
Sandra Oh stars as Eve Polastri, a British intelligence analyst hunting a ruthless psychopathic assassin (Jodie Comer) working for a secret criminal organization. Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) was head writer for the first season, which remains an astonishing accomplishment of dark humor and gut-wrenching suspense. At the show’s core of twisted romance and even more twisted violence is Sandra Oh’s flawed but compelling character seeking fulfillment in ways she’d never thought herself capable. It’s basically a sexier, funnier more violent take on Joseph Conrad’s classic story “The Secret Sharer.”
Penny Dreadful: City of Angeles (Showtime)
Set in Los Angeles in 1938, this spinoff from the original Penny Dreadful series blends Mexican folklore, supernatural beings and crime noir. There’s a Nazi plot, of course, and a vicious demon (Natalie Dormer) bent on proving how worthless humans are (a familiar trope that has never made any sense since the story of Job). But the beating heart of the story is the struggle of newly appointed Mexican-American detective Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovtto) as he struggles to deal with prejudice in the police force as well as the attempts to destroy his Mexican-American community for a freeway. Nathan Lane as Vega’s grizzled, seen-it-all partner brings just the right mixture of humor and world-weary gravitas. Oh, yeah, it’s also a murder mystery.
Watching these shows won’t bring about mass social justice or inspire the Trump administration to devote more money and medical assistance to devastated Black and Latinx communities, but it will make those of us who see our people portrayed in these shows feel better about ourselves and remind us of our valued place in society. And it might persuade those who have been self-isolating their whole lives when it comes to people of color that maybe we really are all in this together.
A version of this story appears in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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