Category Archives: Television

On J. August Richards’ Webseries, ‘The Hypnotist’: Black People and Science Fiction

I’m struck by the fact that the great J. August Richards is developing a sci-fi webseries, The Hypnotist, featuring black people that seems to center blackness.

“…African hypnosis. It was essentially lost during the slave trade, but goes back thousands of years.”

I’ve had many a conversation about why it is so uncommon for Black folks who have money to explore science fiction; and how this limits the kinds of stories that black people have access to and how it limits black people’s ability to see themselves as expansively as they could. There has yet to be an adaptation of an Octavia Butler or Tananarive Due novel and yet we make a fair number of romantic comedies, comedies centered around a black comedian, hood tales, and Black American historical epics.

The Hypnotist posterSo good on J. that The Hypnotist seems to not only be a science fiction story but one that plays with blackness and Africanness. This is a teaser so one can’t know how deeply these themes will be explored, but I’m struck by the fact that this 50-second trailer so forthrightly names blackness, Africanness, and slavery. That. is. just. dope.

The question then is: how will this all work?

I’m wondering if The Hypnotist will be a play on Egyptian doctor Imhotep’s “temple sleep” and if part of what is explored is this notion of reconnecting to that subconscious Africanness that was erased by white supremacy and centuries in North America. There is a lot of subtextual room to play here that I think could give the show some deeper resonance that is specific to the Black American experience and psyche.

These are big questions, to be sure. We shall see just what J. has in store.

On Beyoncé’s HBO Documentary, ‘Life Is But A Dream’

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I just finished watching Beyoncé’s documentary, Life Is But A Dream, and I think what I was most struck by is an overwhelming sense that vulnerability is hard for this young woman because she’s trying to live up to an impossible ideal.

I didn’t get the sense that she wasn’t interested in being truly vulnerable so much as unpracticed at  it. I have this profound sense that this is a 31-year old woman who has never allowed herself, or been allowed, to feel deeply.

So this film is an exercise I think in watching Beyoncé learn to be vulnerable. There’s that moment where she says, almost surprising herself, that she can’t do it alone. Or the way she conveyed more deeply the hurt she feels that people would think she would fake a pregnancy than she does relating what it must have been like to have had a miscarriage. 

And then there’s that moment early on when she’s talking about how hard she worked for her father’s approval and how he withheld it, presumably to make her into the very thing she is: this hyper-poised star. This is the most revealing, honest and vulnerable moment in the entire film precisely because I think it cuts to the core, for me, of who Beyoncé is as a figure and a person.

And it helps me understand her vocal approach – the very thing that for me makes her such a frustratingly disappointing artist to listen to. So much talent, but such a profound inability to connect to the emotion of whatever it is she’s singing*. We see her singing “Listen” and “Resentment” and I know it’s supposed to be deep emotion, but it’s not. It’s Beyoncé trying to approximate what she thinks it must feel or sound like, or more accurately, willing herself to get there.

For the first time, I feel genuine empathy and sadness for what it must be like to be Beyoncé. It is just for reasons different than I expected.

 

*There are exceptions of course, “Speechless,” “Lay Up Under Me,” “Crazy Feelings” – and yes through sheer force of will, “Resentment” – chief among them.

Race, Ethnicity, and ‘The Vampire Diaries’

In a fairly inoffensive, if silly, roundtable discussion post on AfterElton about The CW’s brilliant, The Vampire Diaries, this jumped out at me:

There’s yet to be much of a gay presence on the show. (Sorry folks, Caroline’s deceased Dad doesn’t cut it). Do you think a gay vamp making all sorts of snappy one-liners about the pretty boys in Mystic Falls would be a good thing?

Robyn Ross: I love that the show often blissfully ignores race, ethnicity, etc. because these kids have a lot more to worry about than those kinds of social issues. But sexual orientation (and sex in general) is such a huge part of the show that I think taking on a handsome gay vampire could add a lot to the mix. And let’s be honest, the banter between him and Damon would be priceless.

Because race and ethnicity are “social issues” one has to “worry about?” Wait…what?

Race and ethnicity should be central to creating character, particularly if you’re going to have a diverse cast, as The Vampire Diaries does. And so this is the one area of the show that drives me fucking crazy.

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Bonnie, one of the all-powerful Bennett witches

I mean, this is a show that is set in Virginia, with frequent flashbacks to antebellum South and constant celebrations of antebellum Southern culture that conspicuously sidesteps the fact that that period was defined by American chattel slavery. This is a show that nearly always casts black actors to play witches but provides no mythological reason for this even though it’s clear that the producers are consciously deciding to always. every. single. time. cast a black actor as a witch.

Not even for the Bennett witches, who are central to the show’s mythology.

But here’s the thing? The vampire Katherine Pierce, who is also central to the show’s mythology played by lead actress Nina Dobrev, is Bulgarian because Dobrev is Bulgarian and speaks the language fluently.

The show’s producers are aware enough of Dobrev’s ethnicity to not only reference it in the show, but also make use of it (via Dobrev speaking the language in flashbacks), but there can be no indication in the show at all that the black actors are playing black characters with history, ethnicity and perspective.

In other words, race and ethnicity aren’t ignored, blissfully or otherwise. Just blackness.

Best Television of 2012

I haven’t written a round-up on television in 10 years. Which is strange because I watch a fair amount of television. As someone who used to want to be a screenwriter, television has always fascinated me because it provides such ample opportunity to explore humanity. I enjoy tremendously watching characters develop over time.

And even though I remain frustrated with the lack of great roles for black actors on television and with the way diversity on television is horribly superficial and disingenuous (its stupid, insulting emphasis on so-called race-blind casting makes me want to throw my television at the wall) there is still quite a lot to enjoy.

Here are the 11 shows that most thrilled me this year, after the jump.

 

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Grappling with the Challenges of Race and Sexuality: ‘Skin Deep the Series’

I certainly hope this show, Skin Deep The Series, gets produced…

…because there could be real power in a show that forthrightly addresses issues of race, sexuality, and masculinity in a way that forces us to rethink our assumptions and become aware of the contexts in which we live in the United States.

But this promotional video does give me pause because so much of the interaction between the characters is provocative in a way that doesn’t seem to reveal anything beyond the superficial. Obviously, it’s hard to tell anything from a 10-minute promotional video, but with dialogue like “take it” and “wrong color” and (apparently) cliche situations like bashings and thug fetishes this could be terribly exploitative, rather than progressive. There’s an illusion of depth here that suggests that the producers haven’t seriously considered who each of these men are.

Similarly, the additional promotional materials suggest that this show will be set in Atlanta, GA, but this presentation lacks a sense of place. This could be Any Diverse Coastal Town USA. The key then would be for the makers of this show to open up the world of these characters so we can understand where they come from and who they are. Right now – these are just archetypes.

For Skin Deep The Series to truly do what it seems to be setting out to do, it will have to really take seriously the realities and unique circumstances that produced each of these individuals. And that means being really honest rather than just provocative.