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Critic’s Notebook: In Praise of the New Wave of TV Casting Inclusivity

Shows like ‘Queen Sugar,’ 'Greenleaf,’ 'Underground,’ 'Roots,’ 'Insecure,’ 'Atlanta’ and 'Luke Cage’ are exposing how much talent is out there.

A few isolated Twitter accusations that Marvel’s Luke Cage is racist for its lack of well-rounded white characters are the stuff of clickbait articles that I want no part of.  

Complaining that one or two (or even five or 10) current shows have become the inversion of the sort of racially imbalanced casting that Hollywood has relied on for over a hundred years on the big screen and for six or seven decades on TV is sadly hilarious and also taking exactly the wrong lessons from a trend I’ve been happily noticing over recent months. Rather than giving those few Twitter whiners a lecture on hegemony, I want to accentuate the positive.

After years of struggles to find even a few actors of color to play leads or even token roles, casting directors have suddenly been able to fill whole, multi-tiered casts with African-American actors, almost as if when the parts are created and suddenly became available, there turned out to be actors capable of filling them. Crazy, right? And it’s been practically one new show or miniseries every few weeks, so it’s not like the same 15 actors are popping up in everything. In fact, there’s almost no overlap at all, either among the actors or the casting directors bringing them together.

In some cases, it’s entirely unknown actors getting their first shots at regular TV work. In other cases, it’s veteran character actors reveling in the most substantive ongoing work of their careers. Sometimes the actors have been brought over from across the pond, but mostly they’re being found in our own domestic production backyards, the places you tend to find actors who want to work.

We/I write so much about struggles and failures of inclusivity in TV casting that I wanted to write something in praise of the stars and casting directors on such TV vehicles as:

Roots — None of its individual stars were nominated for Emmys, which says more about the depth of the limited series/miniseries category than anything else, but the casting team (led by Victoria Thomas, Leo Davis and Lissy Holm) got a well-earned Emmy. Whether they’re new discoveries or just under-recognized actors getting a big and visible platform, performers like Malachi Kirby, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Emyri Crutchfield, Regé-Jean Page, Michael James Shaw and many more should get a huge career boost from their Roots work.

Underground — WGN America’s antebellum series is all historical, so it may have scared away big audiences, but what if I tell you that it’s just a great action series that happens to use the Underground Railroad as a backdrop? Giving Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who look and act like they ought to be A-listers but “somehow” aren’t, the kind of lead roles they’ve long deserved is one of the show’s big achievements, but all additional exposure for actors like Johnny Ray Gill, Alano Miller, Chris Chalk, Amirah Vann and more is a plus, so kudos to casting directors Kim Coleman, Eric Dawson, Carol Kritzer and Robert J. Ulrich.  

Greenleaf — OWN’s summer sleeper hit got a boost from a recurring turn from Oprah Winfrey, but the show should be hailed for giving Keith David and Lynn Whitfield some of the best material of their careers as well as a supporting cast of less familiar actors culled by casting directors Craig Fincannon, Lisa Mae Fincannon and Kim Coleman.

Queen Sugar — Hail director and creator Ava DuVernay and also casting director Aisha Coley, because this OWN drama should provide breakouts for the likes of Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Dondre Whitfield and particularly Kofi Siriboe, as well as the myriad writers and directors given opportunities to shine here.

More at THR

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The first regular community meeting on Underground Atlanta, required of the new owner WRS, happens Thursday (July 13) at 11am at the visitors center at Alabama and Pryor.

Underground is a damn mess that needs fixing (only about a dozen stores remain on the lower level – and the Masquerade relocation is cool but it’s dead during the daytime), but the purchase of it was a damn mess too, thanks to the infuriating disregard for good urbanism and general openness by Mayor Reed. Can anything good come from this?

I’m optimistic to an extent. WRS seems to have no real plan, judging from their presentation at City Hall a couple of weeks ago. They seem to be stalling and I’m not sure why.

But interest in the future of Downtown – as well as understanding of the need to make better use of the land around our MARTA stations – is growing.
They’ll be taking comments Thursday. Show up if you have some to give.

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This march is a part of a National Call to Action to End State and Police Violence Against All Black Women and Girls. #SayHerName

Join us as we march on May 25, 2015 to honor and uplift the lives of All Black Women and Girls affected by State and Police Violence.

We march to honor the life Alexia Chrisitan, a 26-year-old, Black mother of two, murdered by the Atlanta Police while handcuffed and sitting in the back of a police car, outside of the Underground in Downtown Atlanta. #AlexiaChristian

We march to honor the lives of Black women and girls who have SURVIVED violence. We march to honor the lives of Black women and girls who have DIED at the hands of the Police and the State. We march because, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom, It is our duty to win, we must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” - Assata Shakur

We march to reclaim the radical legacy of Memorial Day, created by former enslaved Africans to give proper acknowledgment and honor to the lives of Black Union soldiers who lost their lives fighting for our freedom in the Civil War and to honor the life and legacy of Black Woman Revolutionary and Union Army General Harriet Tubman. #ReclaimMemorialDay

ALL SELF-IDENTIFYING BLACK WOMEN WEAR WHITE!

(Including: Trap Queens, Mamas, Grandmamas, Church Mothers, Sorority Sistas, Homegirls, Sex Workers, Thick Girls, Skinny Girls, Loc-wearing Girls, Weave-wearing Girls, Formerly Incarcerated women, Sex Workers, Domestic Workers, Educators, Trans* Women, Studs, Femmes…)

This is for ALL Black Women

For more information: Text @ShutItDownATL to 23559

Underground Atlanta
Atlanta, GA

Underground Atlanta is a shopping and entertainment district opened in 1969. The 12-acre area was created in the late 1800s using the viaducts built over the city’s railroad tracks to accommodate cars. In the 1920s many of the basement levels of the shops had been used for speakeasies during Prohibition. Later, the level had been raised by one and half stories and a five block area was completely covered up, leaving the area abandoned and forgotten for 40 years.

The “city beneath the city” was rediscovered in the ‘60s and was reinvented as an entertainment district by two Georgia Tech graduates. Since Fulton was the only county that allowed mixed alcohol to be served in bars as long as men adhered to a strict coat-and-tie dress code, Underground Atlanta became a hub of nightlife.

But soon DeKalb County relaxed its alcohol restrictions and more bars started popping up elsewhere. When the dress-code restriction was dropped, fights began breaking out. The addition of a MARTA station took away parking and several blocks of clubs. Crime became uncontrollable and Underground Atlanta was shut down in 1980.

In 1982, plans began to revitalize downtown, including Underground Atlanta. By 1989, Underground Atlanta had reopened as more of a shopping mall than an entertainment district. The area fluctuated in popularity throughout the '90s. In 2004, the city allowed bars in the district in an effort to save Underground Atlanta from closing again.

In December 2014, Underground Atlanta was sold to a developer who planned to breathe new life into the district by providing more retail options and above-ground apartments. The area is in need of revitalization, but plans have stopped due to funding.

Cheers!
- Paige