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Kristal High


Breaking the Code: Emergence of Digital Hollywood Redefines the Way We See Color

Posted: 02/21/2012 12:01 pm

During Black History Month, we are called to reflect upon the legacy of African Americans in shaping this nation's history. Images of proud women and men -- Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X -- are emblematic of the black experience for 28 or 29 days each year. But as February fades so too do the variety of representations of black Americans in film and on television.

All too often, depictions of African Americans are monolithic characterizations of our stereotypical selves, with top-notch actors vying for roles as maids, drug dealers, wounded women and crooked cops.

It's not that Tyler Perry doesn't occasionally recreate friends from our childhoods or family members we'd sometimes like to forget. And we can always count on at least three network television shows having a black doctor or police detective mixed into the supporting line up. But excepting the likes of True Blood's Lafayette or Treme's Antoine Batiste (both HBO features), characters with depth, whose life circumstances and plotline revolve around being more than a presumed prototype of blackness tends to be lacking. The same holds true for Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans.

We've recently witnessed the proven commercial viability of a leading black action cast in Red Tails. Denzel Washington's new film Safe House has made an incredibly strong showing at the box office. And Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Idris Elba and Morgan Freeman have tasted sweet success at the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes during the first seven weeks of the year. But even as these "victories" inspire hope that Hollywood finally may be taking note of the immense talent readily at its disposal, the reality still is that people of color are usually underrepresented and, at the same time, over-stereotyped by the traditional Hollywood model.

Notwithstanding programming on networks like BET, TVOne, Univision and Telemundo, the casts of colorful characters that more accurately represent the changing face of America is typically missing from the mainstream. But rest assured, Hollywood's missed opportunity is a veritable gold mine for content creators with an Internet connection, bold enough to imagine people of color as diverse, multi-faceted beings capable of drawing an audience.

Desperately in search of a Liz Lemon archetype who looked like her, Stanford grad Issa Rae created the wildly popular web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Light-skinned, longhaired upwardly mobile doctor or lawyer she is not, but J, played by Issa herself, shines as a humorous and embattled protagonist looking to define herself while navigating through the subtle complexities of life. While her experiences are impacted by her race, J is not defined by her complexion. By the same token, Mixed Blooms features a cast in which three of the lead characters are Asian Americans. Rather than following a plotline about imperial dynasties, geisha girls or martial arts, this web series is a comedy about florists trying to keep their shop open.

Beyond entertainment, digital storytellers are using the Internet as a means of "edutainment" -- educating audiences about substantive issues impacting their communities while presenting those messages via entertaining and scripted media.

Robert Townsend's Diary of a Single Mom and Dennis Leoni's Los Americans -- both offered on the Public Internet Channel ( -- are prime examples of how the web series format can be used to change the ways we look at ourselves and address challenges in our daily lives. While featuring single women and family members dealing with issues of alcoholism or unemployment, they paint a broad picture about the fullness of life and variety of issues confronted by Americans in general. The characters are people of color and the themes are universal.

Unlike network television or traditional films sometimes limited by production and distribution costs, web series provide accessible opportunities to reach people wherever and whenever someone has access to a laptop, netbook, tablet or smart phone, and to do so with content relevant to them.

While web series will not likely overtake the traditional studio system, the emergence of Digital Hollywood certainly provides an alternative for content creators and consumers looking for stories that look and feel organic to their life experiences. What's more, by creating content on their own terms, players in this space can redefine what it means to be Black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American in America.