“Atlanta” and “Queen Sugar”: blackness, identities, archetypes and the complexity of reality
It is known Kahleesi: 2016 was the year of diversity in the showbiz.
From the fringe to the red carpet, stars of all shapes, skin tones and backgrounds are proudly playing on screen the richer and most diverse scenarios of stories, characters and realities since…ever?
Diversity shouldn’t be about picturing “different” characters on television. Diversity should be about making narratives plausible and realistic. It should mean depicting characters who overpower stereotypes and embody complexity over frivolity.
From Skam, the Norvegian “teen drama” which is driving its young audience crazy, to the HBO’s adaptation of Issa Rae’s webseries The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and the realistic portrait of disability in Speechless, with an honourable mention of the delicately pictured love story between two strongly overwieght characters in This is Us, the past year was a huge achievent in terms of variety and ability to implement a new perspective into the reassuring and usually quite ordinary panorama we were used to.
Nonetheless, diversity shouldn’t be simply about picturing “different” characters on television. Diversity should focus on creating plausible and realistic narratives. It should mean depicting characters who overpower stereotypes and embody complexity over frivolity. Diversity means honesty and variety; it means to represent the complex and rich spectre of human emotions and interactions. Writing about sterotypical “diverse” characters doesn’t mean variety, nor diversity, nor inclusiveness. It means ipocrisy and sloppiness. And sloppiness is more dangerous and worrying than bad intentions. A superfcial script that’s supposed to be good makes more damages than an openly bad one.
Luckily 2016, didn’t mean only Brexit and Donald Trump, but also social and political victories, solidarity and intersectionality. And that vibrant new deal influenced tv and cinema from the notorious Moonlight and Hidden Figuresto the maybe less known but mention worthy Chewing Gum, Crazyhead and KICKS.
2016 meant also two of my favourite shows of the year: Atlanta, created, written, produced and starred by the talented Donald Glover (AKA Childish Gambino), and Ava Duvernay’s (and co-executive produced by Oprah Winfrey) Queen Sugar insert themselves into that scenario with powerful scripts, realistic characters and a their catchy photography.
Atlanta and Queen Sugar don’t share the plot, the location or the characters, Glover’s show focuses on the struggle of an average guy in Atlanta while he tries to promote his cousin’s music carreer (I know what you’re thinking about, and if Empire came to your minds you’re running in the wrong direction folks.) and Queen Sugar develops around three siblings who inherited their father’s suar plantation and found themselves dragged to their hometown and their past.
What makes those shows special is the ability to convey a complex narrative around topics such as family, relationship, money and identity (black, female and queer identities), starting from an archetipycal point of view and expandig the experience to a more accurate and multi faceted reality.
Queen Sugar and Atlanta paint a quite familiar imaginary with sharper and stronger colours. The Rapper, The Ex-Convict, The Basketball Player’s Wife, The High Black Friend, The Political Activist. Big scary capital letters that often trap black identities into sterotypes and characters who have to be easy to manage in order to satisfy a middle class white audience instead of answer to an increasing demand of realistic portraits of black characters.
“I scare people at ATMs, boy. I have to rap. That’s what rap is — making the best out of a bad situation.”
Atlanta and Queen Sugar show the ability to create an inclusive and realistic universe inhabited by complex and articulated characters, who embody both their rich cultural heritance and all the complicated hues of the human soul.
And doing that they don’t justify their characters’ decisions because they live in a white middle class society. That is clear, every single day. All of them are conscious and all of them experience the pressures of being black (and a woman) in 2016 in USA.
“That’s what they do to us. They make us scared to fight.”
It’s true and honest, simple and effective.
And, at the same time they’re mainly about family issues, about trust, about choices and consequences, about insecurities, mistakes, hope and struggle.
They are archetypical characters but they’re different from everyone else. They migh carry the burden of being black and “walking while black” in western society, and they clearly embody characteristics and different aspects of their past and roots, but they are deep, and complex, and interesting because they’re not satisfaying, they don’t reassure us because they make decisions they’re supposed to.
They make complex decisions, sometimes they disappoint people and they’re childish, selfish, silly, or suddently and incredibly deep.
“I just keep losing. I mean, some people just supposed to lose just for balance on Earth.”
They are not winners or losers, they are fighters. Complicated and not perfect, often week and self involved, and true. Honest. Deep.
I couldn’t ask more to a show.