On primetime broadcast TV, Black men can be handsome, tall, strong and protective. They can be wealthy and powerful. But they cannot endear themselves to, or win the heart of, the Black female lead.
We are supposed to be witnessing a Golden Age of television. Arguably we have seen a flourishing of excellent TV writing and production, but for all of this progress, it seems like the one segment of society that U.S. broadcast networks resist affirming is that of a likable Black man who is worthy of the desirable Black woman he loves.
What in the Hays Code 2.0 kind of Black Love blocking is this?
But wait … isn’t this a blog about an interracial family? So why call out the dearth of Black lead romances on primetime network TV? As I’ve said before on this blog, I and my family are outliers in the United States, representing perhaps one percent of all marriages. Issues around representation in the media still affect us, however. Single Black women still want Black men, generally, and as long as we have escapist television, they should get the chance to dream a little.
Or, in this case, dream a lot …
Networks are flailing around, trying to heed relentless calls for diversity and inclusion in everything from casting to authentic storylines to costuming and hairstyles. They’re checking boxes, and if they read the right blogs, or talk to the right Black friend before unlocking the escape room, they will not only cast more Blacks in great roles, but render Black relationships and families in believable ways.
Social justice warfare is not what I’m asking for. Television doesn’t quite lead the charge for societal change, anyway. But Black families have been part of the fabric of this country since it was a string of British colonies. There have been intact ones, led by decent Black men who were protective fathers and devoted husbands. Why don’t network television executives care about affirming the Black men who provide for, protect and nurture the Black women they actually love — and not just love until they attain affluence and then
upgrade marry white? It seems like they are doing all of these contortions to pair every kind of body with every other kind of body else except the unit that has been just as much a pillar of American society as white families. We’ve had the Waltons. It’s high time for the Washingtons!
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 good handful. But when it comes to hour-long dramas, the marquis events of broadcast TV, Black power couples are still pitifully scarce, and they are almost never the lead romance. If a recent crop of cancellations is any indication, we’ll have to wait for opportunities to see couples like the Suttons again.
“Still Star-Crossed,” ABC’s lush drama set in Renaissance Italy and shot in Spain with its sumptuous castles, cloisters and costumes (which explains all the pictures here), is the latest example of Black Love on the rocks. 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. Canceled after one season — the title seems so symbolic now — the show is based on a fanfiction novel that imagined events that took place in Verona weeks after Romeo and Juliet died. 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 Princess First Lady to Prince Escalus, who rides into “fair Verona” just in time to swear some kind of deathbed oath to his very good-looking father. Everyone on this show is stunning, BTW.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Escalus has to rule a city being destabilized by the never-ending Montague-Capulet strife, just when outside city-states are building armies and licking their mutton chops to consume the wealthy territory. Critics and viewers point to Princess Isabella as the one more fit to rule, but Escalus should get much more credit for wisely understanding the larger realities that Verona faces. Despite the relentless weight of these domestic and foreign affairs, His Grace always brightens and melts a little when Rosaline comes into the room. She is after all, the girl at court whom he was madly in love with, until his father rather forcefully interrupted the romance by sending him to study in Venice.
Ugh. Then Renaissance loser Benvolio Montague (Wade Briggs), his “rival” for Rosaline’s affection staggers in. With no accomplishments to recommend him, we’re supposed to swoon for white, blue-eyed (OK, good-looking) Benvolio, who is set up as the “he’ll have to do I suppose” Montague heir. Because everyone else is dead. He swigs from a flask in church at his cousin’s secret wedding and knows more about the new girls at his favorite brothel than the family estate that supplies his pocket money. Of course Ben-whore-lio gets a sympathetic backstory, and this contrivance qualifies him to be in the same eligible bachelor runway as Escalus!
Never mind all of His Grace’s winsomeness. He just so happens to be the repugnant rich guy. He just so happens to clumsily toy with Rosaline’s heart. He just so happens to sucker punch Benvolio when he’s handcuffed and emotionally drained. Sigh. Maybe I’ve aged out of the core demographic for this overwrought nonsense, but the whole thing was so lazy, trite and juvenile.
I might have overlooked this white feminist hatchet job on Prince Escalus had it not followed the demonizing of Daniel Reynolds. That character was a glorious FBI regional director from season three of “Sleepy Hollow,” a horror drama that appeared on FOX. Now-canceled, “Sleepy Hollow” followed beloved dynamo Grace Abigail Mills (Nicole Beharie) and man out of time Ichabod Crane as they unraveled weird mysteries and thwarted apocalyptic plots.
We should ask ourselves why casting directors just so happen to think Black men are the reliable fit to play the Black woman’s “abuser,” but scarcely think of them as the right fit to play the honorable man who emotionally nourishes her.
Once again, a Black woman’s superior IBM, who is obviously madly in love with her, is shoved aside because shippers in the village square think the jobless white guy is better. Despite the fact that she always has to rescue this white man in some way, or support him financially and sometimes emotionally.
Once again, despite his physical magnificence, his intellect and winning-at-life togetherness, Director Reynolds is written as abrasive, untrustworthy and borderline emotionally abusive toward Abbie. Yet he thought the world of Abbie. He encouraged her in her chosen dream career, unlike Ichabod who resented the idea that Abbie’s success in the FBI could take her to a post far away. He eventually came onto Team Witness, answering to her.
Once again, Abbie Mills was romantically involved with the superior man, who was Black. I know that we have a phrase “stuck on stupid,” for women who are blind to the evils of a toxic relationship but Danny and Escalus were solid men handling big responsibilities, not self-righteous and abusive.
White audiences — and sometimes nerdy Black girls — are generally blind and tone deaf to these nuances, writing it off as typical of the way TV deals with love rivals. Guys like Escalus and Danny are supposed to be jerks, then become just noble enough to sacrifice their lives to ‘save the city’ and clear a path for the jobless white guy. Or maybe it’s an unavoidable outcome of colorblind casting. But if that is the case, we should ask ourselves why casting directors just so happen to think Black men are the reliable fit to play the Black woman’s “abuser,” but scarcely think of them as the right fit to play the honorable man who emotionally nourishes her.
What annoys me are the white fangirls, blogging and wailing about “abusive” or “toxic” behavior from guys like Danny and Escalus. 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 a lot to deal with. The Escalus and Danny characters were short on patience at times, but not gaslighting, emotionally manipulating tyrants.
Certainly neither one was a wanton killer, or kept company with them, like Fitzwilliam Grant. Oh! Remember when Olivia Pope, the apex of Black womanhood on TV during her heyday, rejected a second marriage proposal from Edison Davis, a prominent Black senator from Florida, because she wanted “painful, difficult, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary love?”
Yeah, the doubles standards are a bit much.
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 and Ms. Rhimes cannot oversee every writer’s room to ensure that the likes of Prince Escalus are made lovable. Yet, here are two women in positions of unprecedented power and influence in American TV, falling back on the time-worn notion that Black men are here to break Black women down. They are reflecting the more contemporary thinking that Black women are opening up their dating options. That 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 might have gone with an IBM if we had encountered them before the white guy. Understand this: when IBMs get ornery, sisters can usually handle their rudeness and blustering. And when it gets to be too much, we know how to manage the situation and put them back in their place — or escape for a girlfriends weekend or night out. Otherwise, we leave them. I know it isn’t always that neat and simple, but Black Love has its ups and downs, and most Black women believe that the great days are worth the scrapes.