Shawn Rhea is a principal at Rhea Communications Consulting. Her blog, Wired Fish, explores social, racial and economic justice issues
Black Pimps and White Damsels
How HBO’s The Deuce Just Killed 50 Years of Racial Progress in Hollywood
I wanted to hold out hope, but I suspected when I saw the trailer that HBO and David Simon’s new series, The Deuce, was going to be problematic. With Marvin Gaye’s 1972 classic “Troubled Man” as its soundtrack, the trailer drops a lens on Method Man, who plays a pimp, trying to persuade Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays a sex worker, to come work for him. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of dangerous tropes that unfolded on my TV screen this past Sunday. In setting the stage for the series, which purportedly tells the story of New York City’s infamous Time Square porn industry, the debut episode takes us into a world where pimps are mostly Black men, sex workers are mostly White women and people with legal jobs are almost exclusively White.
It’s not just the alignment of race, gender and job titles that is troubling: it’s also the juxtaposition of race and decency. Over 90 minutes we’re introduced to a White pimp who is “nice” to his women and therefore not well suited for the trade, and we witness a Black pimp take a straight razor to a White female sex worker while a frightened White man makes an aborted effort to come to her rescue. Throughout the episode, with the exception of one Black police officer (played by The Wire’s Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), only White actors play characters that are not employed by the sex trade. We see them as professors, college students and bartenders with business hustle. We see Black folks as criminals, period.
As someone whose job requires constant consumption of media, I probably shouldn’t be shocked that we’ve arrived at a moment when the film industry feels safe recycling these false, dangerous narratives. 2016 was, after all, the year of #OscarsSoWhite. But admittedly, I naively believed that after 50 years of protest, prodding and some progress, Hollywood had permanently retired the hurtful, ugly Birth of A Nation and Mandingo narratives that portray Black men as sexual predictors intent on robbing White women of their virtue. But here we are in 2017 in the throws of one of the most regressive periods of racial progress that this country has experienced — a moment when Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo Nazis and overly aggressive police officers are looking for any “justification” for their dangerous beliefs and violence against people of color — and HBO and David Simon are resurrecting deceitful narratives. Narratives that studies have shown have grave, real-world consequences. Worst yet, The Deuce has received critical acclaim from mainstream publications that pride themselves on progressive coverage.
Make no mistake: The Deuce’s arrival necessitates a come-to-Jesus moment between social-justice organizations engaged in media work and the folks who create, finance and distribute content. There’s a clear need for an unabated reminder that the film industry has a responsibility to offer balanced narratives about people of color. That work starts with making sure that Blacks, Latinx, Native Americans, Asians, LGBTQ, disabled and other routinely overlooked groups are well represented as writers, producers, directors, green lighters and in other positions of power behind the camera. A look at The Deuce’s directing and writing credits makes clear it lacks the diversity that could bring more accurate, nuanced character representations to the series.
Just in case HBO, Simon and others in Hollywood are reading, there are a number of groups prepared to help the film industry do better, and there is also a good deal of reading material that spells out the existence and problems with unbalanced negative narratives. Here are several resources worth checking out.