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
. 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
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
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
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 (PiC.tv) -- 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
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.