Written By: Brianna Moran
Black people in America have been historically underrepresented in media, especially in television. Throughout television history, black people have been infamously misrepresented with shows that feature predominantly white people. When black people are featured in television, they are usually represented in one of two ways; in a way that makes them seem like a stereotype, or in some sort of “black sitcom” written by a predominantly white writing staff. According to a recent study from the University of Southern California, 73% of 30,000 film actors in 2014 were white. While we have made a significant amount of progress in terms of equal representation for black Americans since then, especially with movements like Black Lives Matter, television is still coming up short. The 2016-2017 primetime lineup for new shows remains to be 90% white across the board, with a mere five people of color as showrunners out of the fifty total between all 38 shows. In spite of this, 2016 granted us with the gift of Issa Rae’s and Donald Glover’s racially-motivated creative brainchildren in their shows “Insecure” and “Atlanta,” respectively.
From the madcap mind of Donald Glover, we have FX’s “Atlanta” which takes commentary about the black perspective a little bit further. Glover is known to be a person who “lives in his imagination,” which he has expressed in a multitude of ways, ranging from comedy, to his music career as Childish Gambino, and even a director of his wildly visionary short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. “Atlanta” certainly delivers in terms of sheer entertainment, but also offers a frank and forthright pers
pective on the black experience, as written by a black person himself. The series follows a down-on-his-luck young black man living in Atlanta, working as a promoter for his cousin, rap artist Paper Boi. It follows his character, Earn, as he tries to make a name for himself, and also make rent, in the social setting of current day Atlanta, Georgia.
Donald Glover’s FX show “Atlanta” showcases a similar attitude about being black, but in a theatrical and metaphorical way. The show uses fantastical situations to make a point about racially charged issues. In one episode, for example, Glover plays with the stigmas around race by depicting Justin Bieber as a black teenager. In this farcical representation, the young black Beiber is shown as a rambunctious renegade, knocking over a refreshment table and getting into fights. As noted by Lanre Bakare in a Guardian article, the point of this goofy narrative is to show that “ a black entertainer who acted like Bieber would not have a career, and rappers are pigeonholed regardless of who they are.” The show also features an entire episode that is a mock BET show called “Montague.” In the episode, Paper Boi is interviewed by host, Montague, and the topic of conversation for the episode is about “transracialism.” The show features the case of a fictional black teenager who identifies as a “35 year old white man” with a “transracial” identity. The segment is hysterical; watching a black teenage boy explain that he realized he identifies as a 35 year old white man named Harrison because he likes to dress nice, go to the farmer’s market, and play golf, all while an acoustic guitar strums happily in the background is comical. This is a comparison to the transgender movement that is currently happening. Glover is able to make a point about race when comparing it to a movement that is controversial, but taken seriously. With the aid of social movements, we are now in a culture that is more accepting of the intricate nature of gender identities. We, as a society, are coming to accept the idea that both sexuality and gender exist on a spectrum. By comparing race to this phenomenon, Glover is able to poke fun at how seriously we still take race. We are able to accept transexuality, but there is still a stigma around being black. Glover is able to make light of racial issues in an indirect and fantastical way by creating dramatic alternate realities to prove a point.
Issa Rae’s “Insec
ure” offers a fresh perspective of what it is like to be a black woman, through the eyes of someone who is actually a black woman. Rae addresses her own personal experiences, and the experiences drawn from her brilliant writing staff. In a Huffington Post interview, Rae noted that the show’s writers all have “a piece or a morsel or a chunk of their life in [the script] and we’re all from different backgrounds.” Blending these perspectives with her own, the writers are able to craft a world that is both unique to black people, and relatable to all human beings on a primal level.
The show features Issa and her best friend Molly trying to navigate themselves in a complex, convoluted era of love. Both women are stumbling through their youth trying to figure out how to function successfully as adults in both life and love. Issa struggles in her monogamous relationship with her long-time boyfriend, Lawrence, while Molly is fumbling and flailing her in single life. She depicts vulnerable and intimate issues in relationships by addressing issues like cheating, financial struggles, and the complications of that arise from long-term monogamy. Issa, for example, cheats on Lawrence with an old flame, Daniel. We see Daniel in the very first episode when he messages her to wish her a happy birthday. The tension between her and Daniel builds throughout the season, while the flame between her and Lawrence simultaneously burns out. Issa often contemplates her feelings in the show by freestyling to herself in the mirror as a way to cope with her feelings. These intimate and personal accounts were a way of showcasing what it means to be a black woman in today’s romantic landscape. The New York Times notes that in the first episode of Insecure, Issa states that “Black women aren’t bitter, they’re just tired of being expected to settle for less.” In an interview with Vox magazine, Rae noted that she wanted the show to be about “flawed, regular, human black person… a regular story about black people.” Her perspective as a young black woman not only shines a light on what it means to be all those things in modern America, but what it means to simply be a human being living in today’s social climate, in an effortless way that only someone with her voice and comedic caliber could master.
Both “Insecure” and “Atlanta” give a voice to black people in a way that humanizes the plight of being a modern-day black person. They are both able to provide an accurate and brutally honest depiction of what it means to be black in our current social climate. Both shows are incredibly refreshing, in that they are actually written by black people, as many black characters in television are written by white writers. In a television market that is dominated by white voices, Issa Rae and Donald Glover add a narrative that is stimulating and entertaining, while offering a genuine understanding of what it means to be black. Rae offers a narrative that betters our understanding of what it means to be both black and a woman, all while reminding us of what it means to be a human being. Glover makes more aggressive and edgy statements about blackness through fantastical farces that force us to consider the racial stigmas that still exists in our culture. “Insecure” and “Atlanta” are both incredibly refreshing sources of comedy that are delightful to sit and binge watch for hours, while also provoking serious questions about racial ambiguities that still exist in our modern day society.