Updated: Feb 16
We often are quick to give harsh criticism to mainstream media when it comes to the subject of diversity because it lacks representation, misses cultural elements, or does a poor job at elevating a person of color’s character in the storyline. Hollywood is guilty of supporting the stereotypical roles for minorities and people of color. In action movies, the antagonist many times are men of color. Latinx actors in films or movies often play characters with a heavy accent and broken English. As an audience, we are conditioned on these portrayals - it is the norm, and we do not blink an eye. Netflix’s hit series, the Queen’s Gambit is an example that unsettles me. Let us talk about Jolene’s role in this series. The first time you meet Jolene, she is cursing, loud, and crude. Any coincidence she is a dark-skin Black woman and that is how the film wants to introduce her character to you? The film makes a point to illustrate she is Beth’s best friend. Yet, you only see Jolene in the beginning and end of the series, conveniently there to “save” Beth as a child at the orphanage. And then later as an adult when Jolene uses the money from her law-school fund to pay for Beth’s Russia trip. The Queen’s Gambit fails to materialize Jolene’s character – and its intentional. In fact, all of Beth’s ex-lovers have more screen time and more depth than Jolene. That is why on the opposite side of the coin, a movie like Black Panther was so refreshing to watch. It offered black pride and empowerment. The film provides a different twist we are not accustom to, respecting and honoring black culture.
But sometimes a TV series gets it and does it right. They understand the importance of capturing the passion points and ethnic nuances. It goes beyond having one minority and tokenizing a character. This brings me to the series, Madam Secretary (TV series 2014-2019). The storyline is about Elizabeth McCord (played by Tea Leoni) and her political rise as Secretary of State for the United States. What draws you in and even inspires you throughout the series, is that Secretary McCord leads with empathy, loyalty, transparency, and a strong moral compass that is not seen too often in politics. She is never interested in compromising her values and understands her responsibility in serving and protecting the American people. In some episodes she fights against discrimination, sexism, gender roles, while tacking topics like nationalism, racism, and nuclear war. The TV series does a phenomenal job on displaying the pressures of being a powerful working woman but also a present and loving mother to her three children. On top of this all, she has what I believe is the best television marriage in quite some time. Her marriage to Henry McCord (played by Tim Daly) is a relationship filled with humor, love, and honor. They are supportive of each other and their careers. They make decisions together as a team.
The other layer to this amazing series is the cast that is around Leoni. I cannot think of another show in recent times that does a better job in promoting and celebrating diversity. Secretary McCord’s cabinet is filled with people of diverse backgrounds. Jason Whitman (played by Sebastian Arcelus) is the Secretary’s Policy Advisor and later becomes her Chief of Staff. In real life and in the show, he is of Uruguayan descent and his character allows him to speak Spanish numerous times. Blake Moran (played by Erich Bergen) is McCord’s Executive Assistant. On the surface, he is a tall young white attractive male, yet he has the lowest title in her cabinet. In the later seasons, it is revealed he is bi-sexual and had a serious long-term relationship with another man during college. Daisy Grant (played by Patina Miller) is the Press Director. As a black woman the show reveals the challenges she overcame to be successful. As her character matures, she later becomes a single mother raising her daughter which further humanizes her character. Matt Mahoney (played by Geoffrey Arend) is Elizabeth’s Speech Writer. In the series, he plays a Pakistani man whose religious practice is Muslim. This becomes a huge factor for many episodes in the series. In Season 3, a coffee shop in Illinois is blown up by an Islamic Terrorist. Matt is pressured to make a public statement because the incident was in his hometown. But he refuses in what is one of the more powerful scenes – “when a white man shoots up a black church, no one demands white men across the county must denounce the attack. It is understood every American decries the tragedy. But somehow when an Islamic Extremist commits an atrocity, every Muslim is implicated.” The series admirably brings attention on current issues like fear, corruption, and systemic racism. Yet, balances these heavy subjects with appropriate comic relief and satire but still giving you a teary eye every now and then.
Then, there are films that are so bold, provocative, and filled with raw emotion that it hits you in your core. The recently released movie, American Skin (Directed by Nate Parker, Jan 2021 --- FYI Spoiler Alert!!) is about a black father named Lincoln who was racially profiled in his car and stopped by the police. There is an altercation, and his teen son is shot and killed. The District Attorney decides there is no wrongdoing in the case and no charges are placed on the police officer. The grieving father decides to take justice into his own hands. He and a group of friends storm the police station with guns and hold the station hostage. Lincoln is finally face to face with the cop that murdered his son. As he seeks justice, Lincoln creates a court trial with Black and Hispanic prisoners from the police station that act as jurors. This is quite a twist as all the officers are in disbelief, thinking and feeling that it will not be a fair trial. The elements of biases and past experiences show on all their faces. The irony the film points out is that most minorities feel exactly that same way in real life when they are faced with a jury who will determine their fate. A jury that all too often do not have members that share similar backgrounds as the defendant.
As the movie progresses, there are numerous uncomfortable racial scenes that are discussed. For example, the officer is asked why they even pulled over the father and son the evening of the shooting. To which he replies, “for speeding.” But when pressed on what is the speed limit in that white neighborhood and how fast were they going or if they had a radar gun… the officers were stumped and were not able to respond. Per police guidelines, officers must go straight home after a shooting and wait to hear back from their union rep. One juror asked why the officer even had to go home as it did not make sense. A white woman juror tried to justify that by responding saying that it must be traumatic for officers to experience a shooting. Which was then followed by another juror stating how traumatic it must be for a father to watch his son get shot and die in his arms. The big reveal is when there is a deep and open conversation between cops and blacks. Anger, fear, frustration, disrespect, and stereotypes oozed out in this scene. It is so real and the tension in the room is so thick, it truly takes your breath away. The takeaway message is the power of having genuine and honest conversations. Diversity and equality are a big and complex puzzle. And we are not making it any easier by avoiding these issues and dusting them under the rug. Though it may seem impossible to bridge these topics its only impossible if you do not try.
"If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound."
- Malcolm X