Depictions of race get real, complicated on 'Star,' 'This Is Us'

One of my main thoughts: New network series like NBC's "This Is Us" and Fox's "Star," which debuts Wednesday, show how much more complex depictions of racial identity have become since the '80s — when John Waters crafted the initial "Hairspray" film narrative.
These two shows arrive this season on a network landscape that already included such award-winning productions as ABC's "Black-ish" and "Scandal," as well as Fox's "Empire."If you include cable, you have to add FX's newcomer, "Atlanta," to the mix. The question is what, if anything, does this range of shows say culturally about American TV and its audiences when it comes to attitudes toward race?

In the 1980s, the template for depictions of race on TV was largely black and white, as it is in "Hairspray." But in "Star," the new musical drama from Lee Daniels, who co-created "Empire," black and white are only two points on a spectrum, and the skin colors in-between are only one of several elements that shape the identities that characters embrace.
Star is white, but her sister, Simone Davis (Brittany O'Grady), is biracial. She, too, has been living in foster care since their mother died – and waiting for Star to rescue her.
So, you have three different racial identities in this trio, and that matters, according to Daniels, who says he's consciously putting race on the table with "Star."
"I thought that it was important to address race relations in America," Daniels said in an interview on "The Real," a syndicated talk show. "We are truly, I believe, in a civil war. And I think that when we understand that we're all one, we will then understand America. And America is still to be understood by us.

The first 10 episodes of the drama, which ended a half-season run Tuesday night, followed the family through several decades moving back and forth from childhood to adulthood for the Pearson children. (The series returns Jan. 10.)
Randall (Sterling K. Brown), the adopted child, is a highly successful business executive, who finds himself thrown into a whirlwind of identity issues when he discovers his biological father, William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones).
Race is sensitively explored in episodes involving a family trip to a public swimming when Randall is a child and another in which Randall's biological father comes to live with him and his family and is questioned by police while going for a walk in his grown son's upscale neighborhood.
"This Is us" won me over on race with an episode that revisited the way kids at the white school Randall and his siblings attended called him Webster, a mocking reference to a 1980s ABC sitcom of that title featuring a young black boy (Emmanuel Lewis) who is taken in by a white couple after his parents are killed in a car accident.
Rebecca wants Randall's white brother to stick up for him at school. But as soon as the Webster taunts start to fly, his white brother abandons Randall to the pack.
It is no surprise that as an adult Randall has such conflicted feelings and that his identity issues are tied not only to race, but also social class and family. Finding his black father is earth shaking for Randall at a time when he seems to have so much going for him as husband, father and business executive in his own right.
Network TV started offering more multi-faceted explorations in the 1990s with series like NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," which was filmed in Baltimore. The character of Baltimore Police Det. Frank Pembleton, as played by Andre Braugher, was multifaceted and deep enough to be on premium cable today. But that was the rare exception on network TV of that era.
It remains to be seen how viewers will react to a white character in a leading role on "Star."
Daniels said on "The Real" that he gave a white character such a prominent role, because he felt "the nation needed to heal."
"I think that this white girl is so fabulous that black people will embrace her, and white people will embrace her," he said.
But blowback has already started with a post on "The Root" Thursday headlined: "Lee Daniels Needs to Stop It With This White-Girl Lead in 'Star' and His Magical Negro Speeches."
Try to talk about race on TV in new ways, and brace for the blowback. Daniels probably wouldn't be using civil war references if he didn't expect it.

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