The Atlantic

Claiming the Future of Black TV

After a banner year for African Americans on television in 2016, can the industry normalize this success?
Source: Myles Aronowitz / Dave King / Netflix / Guy D'Alema / FX / HBO / Kelsey McNeal / Eric McCandless / ABC / OWN / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

In his 1976 book-length essay The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin argued that no black actor has ever lived up to his or her potential on-screen. However famous black performers become, he explained, they are constrained by the limited choices afforded to them by a racist industry. Looking at the history of film and television, the same can be said of black producers, writers, directors, and those on every strata of the studio system. Black creatives must also navigate a minefield of expectations, having to represent both themselves as artists and their entire community.

This past year, though, television seems to have proven that Baldwin’s observation no longer holds true: 2016 was a banner year for black people in front of and behind the camera. The growth hasn’t come out of nowhere; instead it is built on the success that showrunners like the powerhouses Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil have worked for in recent years.  When Scandal’s Olivia Pope sauntered onto television screens in 2012, she was the first black female TV lead in almost 40 years. Now, she and her creator, Rhimes, are no longer anomalies at a time when TV is bursting with new and returning black-led series, many of which are also helmed by black showrunners. Last year alone saw the arrival of new shows including Atlanta, Insecure, Queen Sugar, Chewing Gum, and Luke Cage, and the return of others, such as Being

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