Thank God for In-Flight Entertainment! But Where Are All the Black People?


My 15-hour Wednesday-to-Thursday flight from Buenos Aires to Sydney wasn’t as hellish as I thought it would be. The nourishment was surprisingly palatable (yes, even in coach); the seat beside me was empty, so there was plenty of leg room; and the Quantas Airlines in-flight entertainment system offered more watchable options than a week night of prime-time TV back home. Some people like to spend long flights sleeping (I’m in and out of consciousness in my own bed, so dozing like a baby when I’m up in the air is a pipe dream), some prefer to read (I’ve yet to meet a book that can hold my attention for an entire international flight), I live for in-flight entertainment.

En route to Sydney, I did a lot of catching up. Though I’m a music guy first and foremost, as usual, I skipped the song selections. I already had my two iPods with me, and why listen to music I can hear anywhere when I can check out movies and TV shows I usually wouldn’t watch anywhere else? I saw Sex and the City 2, which wasn’t as terrible as I’d heard, two episodes of Modern Family, two of How I Met Your Mother, two of Two and a Half Men, and one of Accidentally on Purpose. Among the mostly white faces, I saw a smattering of diversity on the miniature screen: two Colombians, three gay couples, an Asian guy, assorted hunky Middle Eastern men, a bra-less lesbian, and Liza Minnelli. What I didn’t see: a single notable black character. (Though I did spot, for a split second, a cute black toddler who had been adopted by a scarily stereotypical white gay couple on Modern Family.)

I shouldn’t have been suprised. Outside of Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr. among the rainbow coalition on Grey’s Anatomy, and several other shows that include a black face or two in predominantly white ensembles (True BloodPrivate PracticeGlee), prime-time TV lacks a significant black presence. Among the mildly diverse list of 90 or so 2010 Emmy acting nominees (a Colombian, an Indian winner, a lesbian winner, three gay actors in one category!), only one, Men of a Certain Age‘s Andre Braugher, was black.

What irony! The U.S. has its first black president, and as a whole, blacks are far better off than they were when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Still, back then, I couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing people who looked like me, on shows like Sanford and SonGood TimesThe Jeffersons, What’s Happening!!Diff’rent StrokesThe Cosby ShowA Different WorldAmen and 227. I pray to God I’m overlooking something, but since the cancellation of Everybody Hates Chris and The Game, I can’t think of a non-cable-network series that features a predominantly black cast. (Thanks to Tyler Perry, TBS has Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and Meet the Browns.)

On the way to Sydney, it wasn’t until I turned on Date Night — a romantic comedy starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell, stars of, respectively, 30 Rock and The Office, two of the few TV shows featuring black talent — that, at last, I saw black people. The movie didn’t impress me nearly as much as it did critics and audiences — if Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, or Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, had been the leads, it would have been ripped to shreds — but kudos to the casting agent for including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson and rapper Common in a supporting mix that had everyone from Mark Wahlberg to Mark Ruffalo to Mila Kunis to Ray Liotta to James Franco.

Blacks figured even more prominently in Mother and Child, a gloomy drama starring Annette Bening and Naomi Watts as a mom and daughter separated at birth by adoption. But then, Samuel L. Jackson has been in seemingly every other movie for years, and the presence of the magnificent Kerry Washington only served to remind me that if she were a few shades lighter, she’d probably be one of the hardest-working actresses in Hollywood.

In the end, though, the movies are kinder to black thespians in Hollywood than television. And on the small screen, black actors have it easier. During the upcoming fall season, Blair Underwood (The Event) and Terence Howard (Law & Order: Los Angeles) will join 2010 Emmy presenters LL Cool J (NCIS: Los Angeles) and Laurence Fishburne (CSI: Crime Scene Investigations) on the short list of major-network shows featuring black actors in main roles.

But for black actresses, better luck next season. (Did I blink and miss one of them on the Emmy stage this year?) If HBO, Showtime and TNT can build shows around Toni Collette, Edie Falco, Laura Linney, Mary Louise-Parker and 2010 Emmy winner Kyra Sedgwick, why not a show based around a strong black female character? If there’s a place for Liza Minnelli in Sex and the City 2, isn’t it about time someone gave Angela Bassett something great to do?