There is a HBO show set in a redneck version of the gothic South peopled with vampires, telepaths, maenads, shape-shifters, and another set of rare mythical creatures in scripted television: a bevy of attractive Black characters with significant storylines. The show is True Blood, loosely based on novels by Charlaine Harris, where the sizable Black cast gives authenticity to the show’s Bayou setting. In some key ways, producer/creator Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) has modeled how to credibly give attractive Black actors screen time and how to buck Northern stereotypes about Southern segregation by having Black people interact with white people as equals (and more disturbingly in situations with supernatural whites, as subordinates). In other ways, Ball consistently also models disturbing ways to mine antebellum histories, American iconography, and unspoken racial beliefs for visceral shock and emotional disturbance, and making you love it.
To date, the dynamic show has offered us a drunkard mother; an unemployable angry daughter; a sexually enticing drifter; and a funny gender-bending/gay/ruffneck/drug dealer with a heart of gold, all as major characters. In addition to the Black extras regularly sprinkling various group scenes, at least two other Black actors have had recurring minor roles, including a con artist store clerk who moonlighted as a faux-witchdoctor and the only local cop with common sense. On any other scripted TV show, six recurring Black characters would make True Blood a BET comedy instead of a demographically appropriate casting for a Southern drama. So, Ball is to be commended for his commitment to representative diversity, even in places where the books have none. Where it gets a bit dicey is in what he does with all that diverse talent.
From my descriptions of True Blood’s Black cast, you already know it reads like a who’s who of racist stereotypes from Central Casting; but, in the context of a town completely filled with imperfect muck-ups and half-wits, these Blacks fit right in as equals. Where Ball drops the ball is in a consistent avoidance of backstories that could give his Black characters more weight and make them even less pawns and accessories for the show’s dominating white storylines. This is particularly true of the angry Tara, her alcoholic mother, and gay cousin, Lafayette. Where is the story of Tara’s father? Are we to assume he was a deadbeat dad just because they’re Black? And what Southern Black family is only three people deep, so that the Black girl must depend on white friends and strangers for help (Monster’s Ball anyone?)? The drifter, Eggs, while delicious eye candy, is a weed-head boasting a fragmented, vaguely criminal history and a thin personality that vacillates between casual boyfriend and black-eyed killer zombie. The anonymous Black cop is on call to shake her head at white folks’ mess much like Niecey from Clean House. The fake voodoo priestess working at Walmart was almost a change in neglected backstory, but she was killed after explaining how she used backwater superstitions to take care of her grandbabies. First Note to Writers: consistent failure to bring all of who Blacks are, not just our ugly, when you use us for your stories is so 80s not cool.
There also seems to be a belief that fantastical contexts and strong color representation gives True Blood a free pass to play with historically offensive, racialized images and power dynamics. How white liberal of them! For instance, Lafayette during the first season was the most expressively vibrant and physically imposing human on the show. But in this second season, his power—all the fierceness that made him a force whites’ respected—was literally stolen from him through bondage. This theft was rife with metaphorical slave scenes of Layfette toiling bare-chested, trousers in tatters, and his body covered in feces, mud, blood and sweat in a dark, damp space resembling the ship hauls of the Middle Passage. That a cowering Layfette was terrified of his white captors (vampires) because he believed they were going to eat of his flesh was also a throwback to slave narratives of slaves’ first encounters with whites, whom they believed to be cannibalistic monsters storing blacks for food. While Lafayette fans are grateful the show kept their character long after the books had killed him off, these scenes were not fun or even suspenseful to watch, and the since neutered Lafayette (PTSD?!) may as well have been no Lafayette at all. Second Note to writers: playing with slavery is really not cool.
Ball’s team also plays loose with Black relationship dynamics using Tara and Eggs, a physically stunning, but emotionally damaged couple who have both historically been willingly exploited by whites who were also part-time beasts. The implicit bestiality of Tara’s past sexual relationship with a shape-shifting dog and Eggs in a submissive, potentially sexual relationship with a shape-shifting bull with talons is queasy enough. But Ball decides to transition the flowering couple from a budding romance between broken people to a hyper-sexualized romp hypnotically presided over by Egg’s white supernatural mistress who not only makes them copulate on demand, but indulge in cannibalism, and domestic violence for her pleasure too. Again, two powerful people, physically and mentally are placed under the command of whites, admittedly supernatural, and disempowered for sport. Complete control over Black couples—up to and including forced culturally unnatural behaviors to Blacks—was routine on antebellum plantations. Ball’s repeated resurrection of this offensive dynamic for shock value, or worse, as a pointless metaphor without narrative rationale or plot development, is grossly irresponsible. Third Note to Writers: forcing black lovers to bestially f*ck, eat people, and beat each other for Miss Anne’s entertainment is super-duper not cool.
I know, I know: it’s a fantasy TV show about vampires, get a day job you post-modern, critical theory Nazi. And part of me is there with you, the part watching and loving an entertaining and well-written show. But I’m Black and educated in storytelling and a student of our troubled history with Black images in white stories. As such, I know writers create, both consciously and unconsciously, their desires and truths. There are True Blood viewers, white and black, who will never see dark subtext, history, metaphor, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there or absorbed. We writers are trained to manipulate subtext to drive dramatic action, express themes, and guide audiences to cathartic ends. But the black and the writer in me wonders what catharsis is achieved by watching finely performed emotional, but thin Black characters who are bestial, traumatized, disempowered, hyper-sexualized, and forced into submission to whites elevated to supernatural status (another common white fantasy)? What are we released from watching these scenes that is so binding? Political correctness? Black empowerment?
And for whom is this catharsis for? And what does it say about me that I can’t turn it off?
Note to Self: time to see your therapist.