Where Are the Black Romeos?

In primetime broadcast time slots Black men can be handsome, tall, strong and protective, and they can be either wealthy or successful and affluent. But they cannot endear themselves to the Black female lead or American audiences. In the supposed Golden Age of television, when networks are at least trying to heed relentless calls for inclusion and the writing has arguably never been finer, it seems like the one segment of society that broadcast networks resist affirming is that of a likable Black man who is in love a desirable Black woman.

Roscalus

Shondaland thought that his attempt at reconciliation was an excellent time for her to turn cold and all but fall out of love with him.

In their quest to create programming that appeals to diverse audiences, broadcast network show runners are showing us plenty of Black women swirlers, gay and lesbian domesticity – trans are not far behind, to be sure. This should not be mistaken for forward thinking, because television entertainment, though it is entering a new Golden Age, is not a thought leader or breaker of barriers. TV doesn’t quite lead the charge for social justice, it makes the safe and rational choice of echoing conversations already being had in America. And sometimes it is so cluelessly confident in its own grasp of social issues that it makes baffling and disgraceful errors in casting judgment (peer Bachelorette Season 13 and Bachelor in Paradise Season 4).

So why don’t network television executives care about affirming the Black men who provide for, protect and affirm the Black women they love?

Yes, yes, I hear the counter punchers now, ticking off the network sitcoms anchored by Black couples. If you go back far enough in TV’s sitcom track record, you will find a handful. But when it comes to dramas, the ratings and revenue heavyweights of broadcast TV, Black power couples are glaringly scarce. If a recent crop of cancellations is any indication, the opportunities to see couples like this will remain thin.

Real Fam - Lincoln Heights

The Suttons were a pillar in their community of Lincoln Heights — but they were on Freeform (formerly ABC Family), a daughter cable network.

“Still Star-Crossed,” ABC’s lush drama set in Renaissance Italy and sumptuously shot in Spain, was the latest example. It was created by Heather Mitchell, a writer on “Scandal,” another Shondaland production. The glaring biases were laid bare and old patterns repeated as “Still Star-Crossed,” unfolded. Ultimately canceled — and precariously named — the show is based on a fanfiction novel that imagined events that took place in Verona after the death of Romeo and Juliet. The female lead, Rosaline Capulet (Lashana Lynch), was a highly intelligent, compassionate, beautiful and loyal noblewoman, a prize for any young man of sizeable fortune in want of a wife. Sounds like she would make an excellent first lady to Prince Escalus, who had just returned to “fair Verona” from his banishment/education in Venice to inherit the throne. Escalus had to rule a city so distracted by never-ending Montague-Capulet strife that it is vulnerable to invasion from other principalities. His Grace has some political savvy — although not as much as his sister, who has been at her father’s feet and holding things down in his absence — and he is a visual feast, not just a snack like his supposed rival for Rosaline, Benvolio Montague. The latter is white, blue-eyed and set up as the misunderstood bad boy who was often drunk and whoring around. But there’s a reason for that, and it’s deliciously tragic! He is the orphan nephew treated as a dispensable spare heir of a nakedly ambitious and scheming Montague. Who wouldn’t fall for the defenseless lamb? Not this grinch, I tell you!

Benvolio is rendered good enough for Rosaline, because the writers needlessly inserted cookie-cutter rich douchebag tendencies in Escalus, some of which he inflicts on our dear Rosaline. What is a well brought up girl who is fit to be a princess supposed to do? Well, get over her love for Escalus, of course, and move on to the contrived competition, a white nobleman dithering in bars and brothels, getting into street fights while teaching himself to sketch on the side. Shondaland needed to endear audiences this man somehow, so Benvolio is falsely accused of murder and only the angelic Rosaline passionately believes in his innocence.

Maybe I’ve aged out of the core demographic for this overwrought nonsense, but the whole thing was so eye rollingly cheesy, even for TV. One would think that Rosaline could understand why young Prince Escalus, trying to prove himself under the relentless pressures of court intrigue, surrounded by deceptive schemers, and trying to preserve his principality from being overrun by outside invaders, might be gruff from time to time and require something radical, like proof, before he goes absolves a man accused of murder. Granted, Rosaline bore the brunt of some ungentlemanly name-calling from Escalus, and he deserved to be slapped for it. But practically writing him as the villain? Please.

I might have overlooked the white faminist writing that put Prince Escalus in such an unflattering light had it not been for the effort to demonize Daniel Reynolds. He was that glorious FBI regional director from season three of “Sleepy Hollow,” now-canceled. One of Reynolds agents is the widely beloved — by fans and critics alike — Abbie Mills. Once again, a superior Black woman’s superior IBM resurfaces, after shippers in the village square had already latched onto the local shiftless white nobleman as her true love match. Danny is immediately portrayed as hostile and suspicious of Ichabod Crane, Abbie’s fellow Witness and defender of humanity from the pending apocalypse. He utter a lot of proxy marriage views for two seasons before taking their undeniable chemistry for granted and then abandoned Abbie without a single word for nine months! Once again, despite his physical glories, intellectual abilities and winning-at-life togetherness, Danny is written as repugnant and emotionally rough with Abbie, who, like Rosaline is an ambassador of heaven. I was rooting for Danabbie, though, because of Dany’s heartbreaking confession that he never got over their romance while at Quantico. Ichabbie had become a never-ending meandering tease, only functioning to prop up a dying show that ultimately failed because of mismanagement of its star, Nicole Beharie, and covert racism behind the scenes.

Danabbie

He saw greatness in her and never got over their breakup. White fangirls interpreted his brusqueness as “abusive.”

White audiences are generally blind and tone deaf to this, and keep up their swirl shipping. But what annoys me are the white fangirls, blogging and wailing about “abuse” from guys like Danny and Escalus. It seems naively frail of them to claim that Danny and Escalus are awful people and systemically toxic to heroines like Abbie or Rosaline. They obviously haven’t dealt with Black male corporate bosses, followed Black male pastors, worked for a Black ward heeler or had to be accountable to any other Black man who has to be a pillar and a leader in some capacity. These men can be gruff and exacting, intolerant of weakness and mistakes, but often are very approachable once you talk to them one on one. And while Black women frequently engage in power skirmishes with guys like that behind the scenes, they overwhelmingly prefer to spar with Black men and be their life partners, rather than be reeled in by someone exotic.

Danabbie2

Abbie Mills once disarmed and tackled this guy, 2x her size. Does she look like the ‘abused’ one in this relationship?

But why am I on this tangent about a couple of TV shows? Well, if networks are making conscious efforts to be inclusive and create more diverse, complex, fleshed-out and sympathetic characters from underrepresented walks of life, it can also be said that certain decision makers are deliberately airing latent grievances against accomplished Black men. Remember, by ‘Black men’ I’m leaving out the crazed hoteps and other scraps of Black society. It’s a compelling question for me: What do successful Black women like Shonda Rhimes, who heads the Shondaland production company, and Channing Dungey, president of ABC Entertainment Group, really think about successful Black men? I understand that Ms. Dungey cannot be in every writer’s room to ensure that the likes of Prince Escalus and Danny Reynolds are endeared to audiences. But as women who control a large part of the American entertainment market, they do follow trends and set agendas. Those messages get trickled down to executive producers and writers, who deliver the images we see every week on shows that ultimately get canceled. Actors routinely speak out about the lack of representation, the narrow, monolithic portrayals of Black people that Hollywood is so comfortable pumping out. Yet here are two women in positions of unprecedented power in American culture, falling back on the time-worn notion that Black men are douchebags whether they wear do-rags or crowns. They’re taking up the more contemporary thinking that Black women are opening up their dating options, which would be fine if they didn’t mingle that with the idea that Black women are better off without Black men entirely. The reality is that real-life accomplished Black women do not agree.

Even “swirlers” like me didn’t plan to marry out, and most of us would have gone with an IBM if the option had been in front of us. Even so, our relationships don’t diminish the respect that we have for Black Love. We saw it in our older siblings, parents and aunts and uncles. Forget what the frail and uninformed white fangirls are wailing about. Understand that when IBMs get ornery, sisters can handle their blustering. And when it gets to be too much, we know how to rein them in and put them back in their place, which is by our side if we have our way. Black Love has its ups and downs, and most Black women believe that the scrapes are worth it. And by scrapes I don’t mean the walking zoo that is Bobby Brown, the wife beater Chris Brown, the serial rapist Bill Cosby or R. Kelly with his proclivities that cannot be aptly described here. That is Blackistan-level foolishness and not what I mean by Black Love.

The OWN gets it: Black couples are everywhere on “Greenleaf,” the Black men are flawed, the couples work it out, and the show dominates its Wednesday night time slot. Black Love is breaking out all over “Queen Sugar”  for Aunt Vi and all the Bordelon siblings. Yes! All we need now is for Pauletta, aka Mary Jane Paul to dump Justin’s is e-e-e-vil ass, and get right with God so that when her Prince Escalus comes along, she will be ready. We’ll have to pray about Lawrence, from HBO’s “Insecure.”

Scoff and even jeer all you want about cable shows targteing Black audiences. They might not be in primetime slots on major networks, but at least they are not testing people’s patience with threadbare tropes and implausible break-ups and make-ups. They are not mishandling fresh TV show concepts then tossing them into the Saturday night slush pile before eventual cancellation.

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