This season, both 'UnREAL' and 'Orange Is the New Black' boasted story lines about systemic racism and police brutality—and blew it. And this is why.
Now more than halfway through its second season, Lifetime’s addictive, occasionally subversive drama UnREAL has waded into the fraught conversation about race in America and police brutality—and it’s drowning. In the past, UnREAL has proven to be intelligent in handling thorny subject matter despite its initial premise—a series depicting a mentally unstable feminist TV producer of a Bachelor-esque reality show called Everlasting—until one of the Black characters gets shot by the police. And so the question arises, how do we tell stories about blackness on TV—and who should be telling them?
It wasn’t always this way with UnREAL. While race was hardly at the forefront last season, the show commented on how Black women have to act as loud-mouthed, witty stereotypes in order to get ahead on reality television. Seeing a show like this deal with such subject matter changed the way people perceived Lifetime as a channel: Here’s a truly feminist show, and one that doesn’t focus solely on white women.
The decision to focus the second season on the way reality-television employs racial stereotypes is an audacious choice. But unfortunately, because this is for our entertainment more than our edification, the series’ drama requires upping the ante every few minutes with new twists, characters, and reveals that make it hard for any one story line to breathe. And its the treatment of blackness that has been the most glaring mistake.
In “Ambush,” tragedy is sparked when this season’s suitor Darius jettisons off with his cousin/manager Romeo and two tipsy contestants in a Bentley without producer’s approval. Our protagonist Rachel decides to call the cops and report the car stolen knowing with a Black man behind the wheel the altercation has the potential to get ugly and could be used as a way to further her career to discuss more important subject matter like police brutality. Rachel’s conscience kicks in too late when she bolts from the bushes, covertly filming the situation, startling the officer, who gets out his gun. But it isn’t Rachel who is shot. It’s Romeo, who, like Darius, is black. The image of Romeo bleeding out on the pavement is powerful only because of the real-life incidents it evokes. It’s only natural to assume the writers would focus on Darius’s reaction to Romeo’s shooting. That it would be his pain the episode would center on especially as he tried to use his celebrity as pro-quarterback to get out of the altercation only to reminded that no matter how rich and powerful he is, this country will use his identity as a Black man against him. But after he’s shot we see neither Romeon nor Darius again—we don’t even learn whether Romeo survives. Why? Because the writers choose to focus on Rachel’s white guilt.
Discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and the tragedies that make it a necessary political force is ripe for exploration in pop culture. It gives a humanity that can at times be dulled when news story after news story is released of another Black man or woman being killed at the hands of police.
The episode that follows offered UnREAL the opportunity to focus on Darius’s response to this tragedy—an opportunity the writers again failed to take. We don’t learn about Romeo’s condition, nor do we see Darius reflect on how the shooting affected him. Don’t viewers want to appreciate a Black celebrity’s rude awakening, when he realizes that not even his stature can protect him from racism and police brutality? Why would he ever return to the show after what happened? How did his family react? All these questions are ignored to focus on the drama on-set and several, momentarily thrilling plot twists. UnREAL has introduced racism only to forget it exists after having an episode that has the depth of an after school special. It seems the show is primarily interested in the reactions of the white producers to racism. Things get worse when we learn since the last time we saw him Darius got the surgery meant to help his ailing back from an injury he tried (and failed) to keep hidden from the producers.
Black body politics have been important to his characterization. His character often commented on how his physical health is intrinsically linked to supporting his family. To have such a monumental decision made off-screen and for us to learn that the surgery didn’t work, thus ending his professional football career in an off-hand manner proves how uninvested the writers are in exploring the weighty issues of race they want kudos for mentioning at all. Unfortunately, the shooting (and possibly death) of Romeo and Darius’s physical issues aren’t the only way UnREAL’s dishonest handling of race has manifested itself.
In the same Hollywood Reporter interview, showrunner Sarah Gertrude Shapiro discusses her own blindspots when it comes to race: “Even as a person who felt like she had thought about stuff, my eyes were really opened. There was stuff that I learned about myself in terms of my privilege that I definitely hadn’t looked at before; I was aware that white feminism was complicated in relation to race, but I really hadn’t thought about the issues of black female beauty at that level.”
Black female beauty and sexuality becomes an important topic in earlier episodes of season two thanks to the contestant, Ruby. She’s different than many of the other women on Everlasting since she’s using it as a platform to discuss the issues of racism and police violence. Actress Denée Benton gives a moving performance layered with undeniable empathy and honesty. It’s almost enough to mask the fact that her character comes across as if the writers know little about black activism. She’s a stereotype pulling out talking points the show tries to position as revolutionary. She represents how UnREAL barely scratches the surface of these hulking societal issues it wants to get credit for even mentioning.
Her storyline grows more unnerving as the writers make a point to focus on how she isn’t comfortable with being feminine like the other girls despite the show she finds herself on. She even looks at putting fake eyelashes on as a disgrace to her character. Equating Ruby’s “wokeness” with a disinterest (and at times distaste) with being dolled up is a weird point to make. It’s as if Black women with natural hair can’t be considered beautiful to society at large and that her manner of dress is directly proportional to how great of an activist she is. While this isn’t as damning as what happens with Romeo, it represents the ways black female beauty is so often politicized. A black woman in the public eye can’t make choices on her hair or dress without troubling commentary about what that means about her blackness and womanhood coming into the fray. Just ask Michelle Obama or Beyoncé or pretty much any well-known Black woman on the public stage.
Many shows like The Good Wife and Scandal have sought to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement only to come across as condescending, or, at the very least, lacking. But the final two episodes of the new season of Orange Is the New Black proves to handle this topic more egregiously than any other, when beloved character Poussey is killed by a prison guard. Because in developing the story of that murderous guard, OITNB makes a telling error by framing her death as a mistake rather than a representation of the systemic racism in the prison system itself. Making her killer, Officer Bailey, one of the good guys does this storyline a disservice—it’s a cop-out for the writers. Her death becomes an accident of an otherwise good man, not a representation of a moral and human failing at the heart of American society. It should be noted that despite having many Black actors on its cast, OITNB has no Black writers on staff. And those series that don’t often fall victim to the racism they’re critiquing. Yes, diversity in front of the camera is important, but it is just as crucial if not more so to have those telling the story, who have a real-world understanding of the issues they seek to write about, behind the camera and in the writers room.
UnREAL of course tries to comment on the failures of white allies and liberalism—but is that really the story that needs to be told about race on the show? If Black stories matter to the series, why aren’t they truly being told?
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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