Throughout Hollywood history, Black actors have played a limited role in onscreen explorations of the past, often serving in small supporting roles or simply not appearing at all. And, as such, Black people’s place in history often goes unnoticed off-screen and the context necessary to understand the racial tensions of the current moment is lost.
“In essence, our history has been so overlooked. And the specificity of our history has been generalized,” says actor Jurnee Smollett. “We get a month out of the year where people feel obligated to talk about it, which is ludicrous, but the specificity of Black American life and that history has been erased.”
A new crop of period television series may be turning the tide on that, though. From Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” to a Shirley Chisholm-centric episode in FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America” to exploring fictional characters’ experiences with ambition, wealth, status and racism in Showtime’s “Black Monday,” Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” Netflix’s “Hollywood,” HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” and Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” it seems as though Hollywood is finally firmly interested in taking a sharper and more nuanced look at America’s history from Black people’s point of view.
“This is a very bold reimagining of our story [as Black people] because it’s placing it directly in the center of a genre that we’ve been shut out from for so long,” Smollett says of “Lovecraft Country,” in which she plays Letitia “Leti” Lewis.”
“Lovecraft Country” showrunner Misha Green leaned into both the fantasy/sci-fi elements of the source material, which was adapted from Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, but also a rarely represented truth about life for Black people in the 1950s — exploring challenges Black people faced in the era, including living in a sundown town, the effects of redlining, and traveling the country with a “Green Book.”
“I’m a huge sci-fi, horror and thriller fan and yet, I haven’t felt that there’s been many opportunities for someone like myself to go and play in these spaces. I want to act against the green [screen] just like anybody else,” Smollett says. “I was excited to be a part of ‘Lovecraft’ because it really was centering Black voices in a very disruptive way, and disrupting and deconstructing this genre.”
Two-time Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown headed back to the 1960s to join the cast of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” for its third season, resolving previous criticisms of the Amazon series’ all-white narrative. And for the actor, half the fun of playing Reggie — the talent manager to crooner Shy Baldwin’s (LeRoy McClain) — was leaning into the high-concept (and high-budget) period attire.
“Every time I was on set, it was when ‘Maisel’ got really Black,” Brown recalls. “I was like, ‘Look at all these beautiful Black people, just dressed to the nines, looking sharp as a tack.’ It did something for my soul to be like ‘Yeah, this is who we are.’”
Beyond the novelty of dressing up in tailored suits and sporting a 1960s-style side part meticulously shaved into his hair, Brown also acknowledged the responsibility of informing audiences about the complex social dynamics that existed for Black people of the era. In fact, he notes that Reggie’s look was about much more than just aesthetics. The character’s immaculate style also served as a suit of armor.
“Everybody code switches,” Brown explains, speaking of the practice of adjusting one’s way of speech, behavior or expression depending on social context. “But the level of presentation was something that Black folks were more cognizant of in the 1960s than they are even now, because there’s so many reasons people view us as being less than.”
Although Reggie experienced a different amount of access to power than Brown enjoys today — with the character using a white man to pose as Baldwin’s manager in certain professional negotiations — the actor emphasizes that times haven’t changed completely. “I have a unique level of privilege in the industry. And still, I live with the idea that could all be taken away with relative ease.”
Adrien Sebro, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, notes the inclusion of Black characters on primarily white shows, including Brown’s role on “Maisel,” is extremely important in shaping contemporary audiences’ views about Black life throughout history.
“Seeing it on television makes you re-imagine your predetermined ideas about this time period and how race looked,” Sebro says. “It makes you imagine that maybe there were individuals who broke defined color lines, so to speak. But those aren’t the stories or narratives we usually hear.
“Television, in its capitalist form, drives the American economy, ideas and choices. So, when you see Black people coming forward more and you’re seeing different images of them on TV, that helps to drive this idea that we see Blackness in every space and that helps to inform the citizen,” he continues. “The existence of the characters like that make it clear: you can’t have any of these shows focused on America without Black characters, because there is no America without Black people.”
Jeremy Pope saw the power of a narrative to change the conversation about the Black experience firsthand as the release of “Hollywood” coincided with the Black Lives Matter protests, and the racial reckoning in the entertainment that followed.
“It’s crazy, the timing of the show — we’re in a full pandemic, so people are home to watch it and then two weeks later we’re out in the streets protesting and unpacking these topics,” Pope says. “It was interesting to watch that conversation shift from this fantasy world to looking at it in real life.”
Pope plays aspiring screenwriter Archie Coleman, a gay Black man struggling to land his big break in 1940s Hollywood in the series, which presents an alternate view of Tinseltown’s Golden Age and questions how much would’ve changed if the industry had been more racially diverse and accepting of all sexual orientations earlier. Over the course of seven episodes, Archie ultimately finds success and wins the best screenplay Oscar. In reality, a Black man didn’t take home that statue until 2018 (Jordan Peele for “Get Out”).
“I want to believe that had we seen an Archie Coleman or someone win or know that it’s tangible, that we would have seen a few more people between an Archie Coleman and a Jordan Peele,” Pope says. “And while we celebrate the work of Jordan Peele and I’m so grateful that he was able to achieve such a feat, should we have had to wait so long?
“I know that I’m only here because of the sacrifice that so many artists and people before me have made,” he continues. “Now we’re living in a world where we’re starting to feel supported, where we can say ‘Black Lives Matter’ with our whole chest and know that there’s a group of people that will support you on that, I think it’s important that we’re challenging the narrative, that we’re coming together and knowing that we’re still in the fight.”