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TV Is Unwhitewashing History One Character, Period, and Genre at a Time

From “Les Miserables” and “Harlots” to “The Spanish Princess” and “The Terror,” TV producers are restoring the historical narratives of people of color.

Chantel Riley of "Frankie Drake Mysteries," David Oyelowo of "Les Miserables," and Rosalind Eleazar of "Harlots"

Chantel Riley of “Frankie Drake Mysteries,” David Oyelowo of “Les Miserables,” and Rosalind Eleazar of “Harlots”

Ovation, PBS/BBC, Hulu

Currently, there aren’t many period shows by people of color about people of color on TV. John Singleton’s “Snowfall” on FX is set in Los Angeles during the 1980s crack epidemic and was renewed for a third season.

Over on broadcast, the late 1990s-set comedy “Fresh Off the Boat,” based on the memoir of Eddie Huang and created by Nahnatchka Khan, a queer woman of Iranian descent, is currently in its fifth season. It’s the first TV show with an Asian cast in over 20 years — since Margaret Cho’s short-lived “All American Girl” — and stars Randall Park and Constance Wu as the Huangs, who had relocated to the Florida suburbs with their family. Khan had to make a case for why the show had to remain in the ‘90s to replicate the real-life Huangs’ feelings of alienation.

“I remember having a creative discussion with 20th [Century Fox] at the very beginning about them asking me, ‘Why does it have to be set in the ‘90s?’” she said. “For me it was creating a sense of isolation with the family. They moved to Orlando in the middle of the white suburbs and they don’t know anybody. But in the present day, you can get online and talk to your friends and you can text people. You have a connection outside of your everyday life, even if it’s virtual.”

Randall Park and Constance Wu, "Fresh Off the Boat"

Randall Park and Constance Wu, “Fresh Off the Boat”


Other than those, “Underground” was the last period show about people of color by a creator of color, Misha Green. WGN’s critically acclaimed slavery-era period drama lasted two seasons and was canceled shortly after Sinclair Media Group announced it would purchase Tribune Media, which owns WGN.

Fortunately, this scarcity won’t last for long. Many period shows that feature significant narratives for people of color are on the horizon. Green has teamed up with Jordan Peele for the HBO drama horror “Lovecraft Country,” which takes place on a road trip during 1950s Jim Crow America. Barry Jenkins executive produces and directs the upcoming Amazon series “The Underground Railroad,” an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s book. Justin Lin and Jonathan Tropper’s “Warrior” premieres April 5 on Cinemax and is based on Bruce Lee’s original concept about a Chinese immigrant who becomes a hatchet man for the most powerful tong in late 1800s Chinatown in San Francisco.

One other upcoming series explores a new genre for the period TV show that adds a provocative take on a historical event. In its second season, AMC’s anthology series “The Terror” explores the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II through the lens of Japanese horror. Actor George Takei, who experienced internment, acts as a consultant and series regular.

“We’re telling the story of a very underserved piece of American history using the vocabulary of Japanese-style horror as an analog for the terror of the actual historical event,” said co-creator and showrunner Alexander Woo.

“I don’t want the audience to feel removed from the events that are happening on screen. What a horror movie or horror series does is it makes you feel viscerally in the shoes of the person who’s trapped in the house or the person who’s running away from the monster or whatever it is. So we’re using that style, that language, to make you really feel how terrifying the experience of the Japanese Americans who lived through this terrible experience.”

While the Japanese ghost story trappings fits the tone of the narrative in “The Terror: Infamy,” Woo acknowledges that the genre twist might have helped pitching the show.

“We’re in an era of so much content and a period of such creative power, we have more sophisticated viewers that will hopefully appreciate a period drama told in a specific style,” he said. “Those two things used to not mix. That was not something that you would want to try because it might seem complicated or it might seem challenging, which I think now, in this time, that sounds very appealing… It’s also a terrific lens for us to understand things that are happening in the present. The story of internment is obviously relevant in a host of ways to the present day, so I think it’s a valuable story and has to be told now.”

While these more inclusive narratives continue to be discovered and told, inevitably people used to the status quo will resist and deny those stories. It’s the very reason that these stories haven’t been told in the first place.

“The more recent phenomenon of whitewashing, a political tool of the imperialists, dates back only a few hundred years,” said Sapiani. “I am so proud to see, and be a part of this change towards a more accurate and frankly more interesting dramatized interpretation of our world history. Needless to say, there is so much further to go.”

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