By Guest Contributor Jordan St. John
Since last year, I have been trying (begging) some of my fellow Black People (BPs) to watch Justified on FX. This season, I have redoubled my efforts. I follow my favorite television series with the dedication some people reserve for sports, weaves and tracking their loved ones on Facebook. Yes, I will still watch it if there is no one to discuss it with but it’s just not the same. Unfortunately, my attempts play out like this:
Me: Try one episode. You don’t even have to watch the first season.
BP: Girl, I don’t know.
Me. It’s got some of the best writing on TV. I mean, it’s based on Elmore Leonard characters
BP: Yeah … What is it even about? Isn’t Justified that ad with the man in the cowboy hat?
Me: Yes. Timothy Olyphant. He’s like a modern gun slinger in Kentucky …
That is about the time I get cut off with a look and we move on to other topics – the weather, Chris Brown, Charlie Sheen, etc. I admit a show whose theme song features bluegrass may be a hard sell but its Gangstagrass, dammit.
Apparently my uninterested friends are not alone. After a strong premiere, ratings for the show’s second season in the all important 18-49 demographic have slipped considerably. In other words, the young and middle aged viewers that advertisers covet are not tuning in and cable executives like what advertisers like. Justified still has pretty solid ratings for FX and managed to score a third season but the show isn’t pulling huge audiences. I don’t have a racial breakdown of the numbers but I can guess they don’t include a ton of black people.
The series follows trigger happy Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Olyphant) who is back in his native Kentucky after what he viewed as a “justifiable” shooting. He joins the local deputy team and quickly gets caught up in all the things he thought he left behind – his ex wife, his con man father, the Dixie Mafia, and a sordid cast of small town crooks. Yes, Justified is partly about a white cop in a cowboy hat shooting rednecks and sleeping with pretty blondes but what I appreciate is the fact it doesn’t use that focus as an excuse to neglect black southern experiences.
Let’s start behind the scenes. This isn’t a show imagined and executed in a page white writer’s room with a token assistant satisfying their “commitment” to diversity. African American, Carl Beverly’s company, Timberman/Beverly Productions, developed the show for FX. You may not have heard of Beverly but he has a special place in my heart as one of the executive producers of NBC’s quickly canceled but much beloved (by me) series Kidnapped, which stared Jeremy Sisto copping it up pre Law & Order. Justified’s writing team also includes a diversity double whammy, African American, female writer and co-producer Wendy Calhoun.
Then there’s the depiction of blacks on the show. How, you might ask, can a show with one black character say anything about anything. Well in 2011, we still need to start with the fact that there is an African American main character. Many shows currently have multiracial casts – Law & Order SVU, Law & Order: LA, Body of Proof, Community, the Office, The Good Wife, Criminal Minds, and CSI to name a few. It’s progress and I’m happy but there are still shows in 2011 trying to get away with person of color drop ins and cameos (I see you, Wayne Brady on How I Met Your Mother!)
Also, I love Shonda Rhimes and her rainbow coalition casts but they’re a bit much. Not with the diversity but with post racial utopia of it all. In Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, race is reduced to plot points and punchlines. The fact that Cristina Yang is the most overachieving doctor and the only Asian on the cast is not something other characters even notice and when Addison Montgomery and her brother show up to their mother’s old school, old money funeral with a black boyfriend and girlfriend respectively, they don’t get the side eye … from ANYONE. Not even their drunk dad. I don’t hold it against Rhimes. Every show creator gets to dictate the rules for her own realm and in Rhimes’ realm busy doctors have over the top sex lives, treat patients while wearing 6 inch heels and only see race when they have something quirky or profound to say about it.
I enjoy colorblind wonderlands as much as the next person. It’s fun to escape there, look around and think “wouldn’t this be nice” but after the scenic tour, it’s time to go. I like to see characters laughing, maneuvering and struggling with the familiar conflicts and compromises that race brings to our lives. To limit people of color on TV to roles that don’t acknowledge the unique facets of their experience robs the audience of the opportunity to see and relate to characters that are truly like them. Fantasy is fun but in the end, we need more.
Justfied delivers. On the show, being black isn’t confined to stand alone moments and convenient interactions. You can’t be black when you feel like it. You may talk about it or you may not but perceptions of race are reflected in the way someone follows or avoids you when you walk in a store and they’re woven into every Dixie flag. On this show, the experience is voiced by Marshal Rachel Brooks, played by theater actress Erica Tazel. Yes, she’s a little too stoic and wise beyond her years as black women on TV tend to be. Of course, her father was a loser and her sister was a drug addict. No show is perfect but I appreciate that they take the time to at least give her a backstory instead of making her a well dressed brown arrow only existing to direct focus to the white leads. Rachel is self aware and the show is aware of her. In the second season premiere, “The Moonshine War”, Rachel asks Raylan to ride along as she investigates a sex offender in rural Kentucky.
Raylan: Why’d you ask me to go with you?
Rachel: I’m not comfortable with these people.
Raylan: What people? Perverts?
Rachel: People in Harlan. Anytime I’ve gone to coal country everyone was all polite, yes ma’m, no ma’m. Trying to keep in mind its
the 21st century and what’s expected. But when the cuffs come out, then I’m a black bitch.
Raylan: So you want me to help you with my people? Throw them a pork rind or some ding dongs?
Rachel: If you wouldn’t mind.
Raylan: No ma’am.
On most shows, if you got this exchange at all, that would be the end of it. The writers and actors could feel good about voicing the issue before quickly calming fears. Rachel’s concern would prove unwarranted. All would go well and she would have to apologize to Raylan by the end of the episode for making assumptions about his people. A good beer and bonding moment would be shared by all. But here, a Harlan resident calls her a negress, before throwing a dead rat her way and threatening to shoot both of them. She’s forced to pull her gun in self defense and it’s only Raylan’s presence as a fellow white Harlaner that allows her to get away without shots being fired.
Justified is excellently written and there are moments of humor and banter in the scene but it is not pork rinds and ding dongs. What is important is the apprehension Rachel expresses doesn’t prove to be in her head. As she predicts, when things get heated, she goes from being a cop to being a black cop. Her concerns are validated, and the program shows more than pat lip service to the complexity of the black southern experience. Raylan and Rachel may be friends and they may be on the same side but Justified’s Kentucky is no Shondaland. No one in their world is colorblind.
Few shows on TV would even bother with this nuance when there’s sex to be shown and car chases be had and they certainly wouldn’t do it while boasting catchy tunes, a strong ensemble cast and inventive storylines. I haven’t even spoken about their complex depiction of another character – black church bomber, turned born again preacher, turned peace seeking anti-hero, Boyd Crowder. He deserves his own post …
I realize I am pushing hard for a show that may be out of many people’s natural field of interest but I believe in rewarding shows for the effort. Race is a touchy subject. There are many shows that are either uninterested in tackling African American experiences or too worried about offending to say anything significant. When those shows do well, it sends the message that viewers aren’t interested in layered, nuanced black characters and certainly not black characters written and produced by black executives who dare to comment on their lives and their color. Networks use ratings as an excuse to play it safe, and the successful status quo as a reason to silence new voices and kill complex storylines. Justified isn’t a show for everyone but it is a show that is trying put our voices and stories out there. We owe it to shows who take a risk on us to take a risk on them.