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Racial representation on The Walking Dead

For the first three seasons of The Walking Dead, Marty, Olga and I joked along with a seemingly sizable portion of the audience about the fact that the show seemed to have only one slot for a black, male, recurring character. For the first two seasons, that character was T-Dog. He had so few lines that we featured a segment on the Z-Realm Podcast called "T Time," in which we strung together all of his lines for the episode with a musical accompaniment. That segment rarely came to a minute, and it was frequently just a few seconds long.

As per the show's formula, we didn't learn much about T-Dog's background or interior life until the build-up to his death. I haven't done a word count, but I suspect that he had more lines in his final episode than in the entire season up to that point, and his story thread was one of several in play in that episode.

After T-Dog's exit, one of the prisoner's who had been holed up in the prison cafeteria since the outset of the zombie apocalypse, Oscar, stepped into the position T-Dog vacated. He was a pretty forgettable character with a brief tenure in the position of featured, black, male character in a recurring role, which is why I hyper-linked his name. Oscar was the only character to die when Rick's group raided Woodbury, and he died because Rick, in a funk of crazy brought on by Lori's death, hesitated when he saw the nameless Woodbury henchman who was gunning for Oscar as Shane. By the time Rick stopped hallucinating, it was too late for Oscar.

Because of the (hopefully) unwritten rule that there can be only one black man in Rick's group at any one time, Oscar could not come back from the raid on Woodbury because Tyresse, a much-anticipated character from the comic, was back at the prison waiting to join the crew. Oscar had to die in order to give his spot to Tyreese. When asked about the timing of Oscar's death, Gale Ann Hurd, one of the show's producers, said something to the effect of, "Somebody had to die in that raid to keep it from being a total cake walk, so Oscar got to put on the red shirt."

Michonne, a badass, black woman and the single most anticipated character from the comic, showed up in the final seconds of season 2 and remained a smoldering potential for most of season 3. Her traumas and subsequent survival modus operandi left her taciturn, and Rick's group didn't trust her, so she mostly spoke with her samurai sword during her probationary period only to open up and ascend to the top tier of indispensable characters like Rick and Daryl in season 4.

After two seasons with The Walking Dead holding the title of top TV drama, the AMC executives finally realized that they couldn't maintain their astoundingly popular franchise on a shoestring and eased up on the budgetary restrictions which had, up to that point, kept the cast small and forced the writers to focus on a handful of major (mostly white) characters.

I'm sure that everyone involved with the production of the series was following the online discussions and understood that they had a mess to clean up with regard to race. They seem to have taken advantage of the expanded budget to repair the broken depiction of an apocalyptic tale set in Georgia that features so few black characters.

Along with Tyreese came his sister Sasha, a character who did not appear in the comic. She was firefighter before the ZA, which accounts for her physicality and grace under pressure. Sasha, reluctantly, accepted the romantic feelings she developed for another one of the newly-arrived black characters, Bob Stookey. Bob had been a military medic, which made him an obviously valuable addition to the group, particularly with the death of Hershel.

Bob seemed, at first, to remain in compliance with the one black man rule because he started out as a contemptible character whom the audience assumed would be short-lived. He had a drinking problem which endangered some of the top tier characters, and for a time he seemed to occupy a special role for a black man in the series which exempted Bob from the rule. But over time he proved his worth and established himself as a major character, which in the on-going presence of Tyreese, marked the end of the one black man limit on The Walking Dead.

This brings us to the beginning of season 5 in which the group is about as ethnically diverse as one would expect of a random group of survivors thrown together by happenstance and necessity in the aftermath of the collapse of civilization in and around Atlanta, Georgia. The season 5 premier aired on October 12, 2014. On November 28, 2014, NPR's All Things Considered ran a story in which Eric Deggans, a black man, pronounced The Walking Dead's diversity short-comings fixed. Of the new black characters, Deggans commented:

These aren't just tokens. They are fully fleshed-out characters with their own histories, storylines and goals. And they have come along as the Walking Dead has become the most popular series on TV with the young demographic advertisers crave.

It's another example of how creating a cast that looks like America is good for TV stories and the TV business. Even in a zombie apocalypse.

So, it would seem that we're all good on the topic of race on The Walking Dead, and now we can get on with some righteous, post-racial zombie killing and survivalism. Little did Eric Deggans realize back in November that by the end of the mid-season premier in February of 2015, both Bob and Tyreese would be dead. What's worse, their spots are now held by Gabriel, a black preacher, and Noah, a young black man who was held in servitude in an Atlanta hospital by a warband of former police officers. Gabriel and Noah are poor trades for Bob and Tyreese.

Gabriel revealed himself from the word "go" to be a spineless, sniveling waste of resources, and if he tracks the arc of the character from the comic, we'll be able to add "traitorous" to that list of descriptors before long. Noah has spunk, but he was largely responsible for Tyreese's death, and as a skinny kid with a bum leg and few demonstrated skills, he doesn't hold out a lot of promise. Rick, Daryl and Michonne seem safe on their triumvirate thrones.

One glimmer of hope for a strong black, male presence on The Walking Dead is the character of Morgan Jones who played a major role in the pilot episode and who has been trailing behind the group for some time. If the show follows the comic, he will rejoin Rick's crew shortly and strike up a romance with Michonne.

Yesterday, someone Tweeted at me saying, "While the cast of #WalkingDead remains somewhat diverse, how come the zombies are all Caucasian? @Kayemmo, let's hear your theory."

This isn't a new question, and the Nerds of Colour offered a snarky response to it, but a different suite of explanations occur to me.

First: There ARE black zombies on The Walking Dead, just not as many as you might expect given the demographics of its setting.

Second: I suspect that white skin offers a better, more high contrast, canvas for the zombie make-up artist. In Night of the Living Dead, shot in black and white, the zombies identified themselves primarily with behavioral cues. In the 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, which was shot in color, the primary visual cue which distinguishes the living from the masses of living dead is the fact that the zombies, white, black and Latino, are all painted the same shade of blue-gray. It reads as obviously cadaverous on the white extras but looks a little strange on the black ones. The prosthetic make-up which we associate with zombies in contemporary zombie media was saved for a select few highlight moments in that film.

(The entire director's cut of Dawn of the Dead is available for free on YouTube. Check out the first 15 minutes and you'll see what I mean.)

Third: Something about the casting process puts more white extras in the make-up artists' chairs than black ones. The explanation for why that is could involve institutional racism in the television industry, but I'm not qualified to provide details or make accusations.

Fourth: Zombies are there to be slaughtered in creative ways. My guess is that the series producers did not want to show the white principal characters shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning, impaling and burning black zombies week after week. Better to be accused of under-representing African-Americans in the zombie hordes than to be accused of pandering to racists who love to see their white heroes inflict all manner of violence on a mass of black bodies and faces week after week. This fourth offering is "my theory."



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Feb. 15th, 2015 08:40 pm (UTC)
This post reminded me of a recent essay in Slate Star Codex titled Black People Less Likely.

Something about the casting process puts more white extras in the make-up artists' chairs than black ones.

Besides bias in individual casting decisions, I can think of two things that might bias the group being cast:

1. The group of people who would want to be cast as extras in a zombie show is likely to be biased towards fans of zombie media. Does that group skew white? I don't know, but it seems plausible since a lot of "nerdy" groups skew white and Asian.

2. Being an extra takes time and doesn't pay much. Therefore it's likely to skew towards people with more free time and money.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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