I recently got my hands on a DVD copy of the BBC’s acclaimed 2010 legal drama, Accused. The six-part series features the stories of six separate characters who have, through various circumstances, found themselves entangled in the criminal justice system, sitting in a courtroom, awaiting their individual fates. Throughout each episode, viewers learn how they ended up there in the first place.
Episode six of the series is titled “Alison’s Story”, and features black actress Naomie Harris in the lead role as schoolteacher Alison Wade. Alison is married to unemployed David Wade, played by white actor Warren Brown. There’s nothing odd about that, obviously. But It got me thinking about a a trend, of sorts, that I’ve noticed with regard to the casting of black actors in lead TV roles.
Just a few weeks before I watched Accused, I watched the BBC mini-series, The Shadow Line, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor in a lead role as DI Jonah Gabriel. Like Harris’ Alison Wade, Ejiofor’s Jonah Gabriel is depicted as having a white spouse, along with a white mistress.
Again, this isn’t abnormal, and by no means am I intending to imply that it is. What strikes me as odd, is that the race of the characters had no effect on the stories being told (they weren’t even mentioned), yet the producers of each program chose to depict these lead black characters in interracial relationships, as opposed to the same-race relationships typically seen with white lead actors.
The more I thought about it, I realized that this might be a trend in television casting. For every recent TV role I could think of that featured a lead black actor as a character who held some sort of position of power, that character seemed to be paired with a non-black romantic partner. Not convinced that this is a deliberate trend? Then let’s keep looking.
Not only is the wife of Idris Elba’s John Luther, of the BBC’s Luther, portrayed by an actress of Indian and Swiss descent, but his stalker/friend, with whom he shares an illicit sexual tension, is white.
Could it be that in order for TV networks to give the greenlight on casting black actors in lead roles– specifically roles of authority– that the compromise is the interracial coupling of the character– to ease the blow, so to speak? Does the interracial coupling of a black lead character make that character less threatening in the role of authority that he/she portrays? If that is the case, then it’s certainly not a new idea.
From 2004 – 2005, actor Don Gilet (pictured above) starred in the BBC series 55 Degrees North as DS Nicky Cole, a black detecive from London who, very conveniently, is transferred to a more rural work location, devoid of much ethnic or cultural diversity. Fittingly, DS Cole ends up becoming romantically involved with a pregnant white colleague.
And before anybody says, “Oh, those are British shows. That’s a British thing.”, let me divert your attention to a few examples of the trend’s presence here on U.S. television.
When Blair Underwood was cast as an Afro-Latino U.S. president in NBC’s The Event, the role of the First Lady could just as well have gone to a black actress, whether she was depicted as Latino or otherwise. Some may even argue that chosen actress Lisa Vidal’s Puerto Rican ancestry made her an ambiguously ideal choice for the role. But given Hollywood’s penchant for pairing Underwood in interracial relationships, on shows such as Sex and The City and The New Adventures of Old Christine, it’s hard to imagine that this wasn’t the case with The Event.
When Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy premiered on ABC in 2005, when Isaiah Washington was cast as fictional Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital’s Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery, an authoritative position of power in its own right, he was romantically paired with Korean-Canadian actress Sandra Oh.
Rhimes’ Grey’s spin-off, Private Practice, fared no better than its predecessor. Taye Diggs and Audra McDonald were cast as two successful doctors who were not able to make their love last. Fortunately, the daughter (pictured below) produced by their own failed same-race union was able to show them how it’s done.
I want to again state that I am not opposed to the depiction of interracial relationships on television. I believe that true love knows no color. As a matter of fact, the depiction of interracial love on television offers a closer look at the actual world we live in than what most other programs offer, in my opinion. I just want to know what the motivation of the networks is. What makes them favor pairing black lead characters in interracial relationships, as opposed to same-race relationships, when they are casting these shows?
Am I correct in my assessment that when it comes to casting black actors in lead roles on television, there’s a required compromise to be made? Is it fair to say that in order for some networks to be comfortable with depicting black characters in a position of authority, or with any semblance of power, that interracial coupling is a given? And if so, is the intent to soften the blow of daring to depict such a character on television, even in the year 2011?