Looking for Anti-Racist TV shows?

Stuck at home and trying to take our minds off the pandemic, a lot of us are currently on the lookout for good movies and TV series. Watching TV doesn’t have to be a mindless activity that numbs your brain. Sure, it can be an easy, entertaining way to escape the pain and anxiety we might be feeling right now. But the choices we make when selecting TV shows can reduce our racial biases thanks to the diverse representations of people of colour. There are shows that draw our attention to issues of racism we didn’t previously understand. They foster more empathy for marginalised people. They nudge us down the anti-racism path. That is what we mean by an “anti-racist” TV show.

We want to see:

  • agency (people of colour in lead roles, making complex decisions and not merely falling into racial stereotypes)

  • compassion (viewers feel strongly for those characters)

  • criticality (intersectional social commentary on the obstacles characters face).

Of course, some movies and series may be more radical than others and some may make problematic representations and simplifications that we don’t always agree with. But that’s where the opportunities for discussion and critique arise. If we didn’t have these diverse representations of people of colour (as was the case a decade ago), we wouldn’t have these opportunities to develop our criticality. This post is the first in a series of anti-racist TV shows and movies that will be listed and rated according to our three anti-racist criteria.

  • Top Boy

Recommended by Sangeeta, this Netflix drama follows the lives of drug dealers in the inner city housing estates of East London. Against a background of austerity, racism, gentrification and callous immigration officials, the drama gives a deep insight into the struggles that people of colour and, more specifically, black youths face today in the UK. Throughout the show, we see stereotypical portrayals of ‘black masculinity’ challenged: vulnerability, tears and compassion among black male protagonists is not something we are used to seeing on our screens. Top Boy provides an honest depiction of the lives of young black people in modern day Britain, which have largely been impacted by racism and austerity. Ashley Walters, who stars in the show, summed it up well when he said “I hope Boris Johnson watches Top Boy”.

Agency: 5 stars

Compassion: 5 stars

Criticality: 4 stars

While Top Boy featured female protagonists, the show could have benefited from further exploration of black women's lives, which were very much weaved into the lives of their male counterparts. Shelley’s role was focused around being Dushane’s love interest, and the scenes in which she featured saw her acting as a source of support to Dushane when he was struggling with his own issues, or when his mother was ill. Considering that it was Little Simz, the highly successful and edgy musician from North London who played Shelley, I had expected more from Shelley’s role: Little Simz certainly has a lot more to bring to the table than being someone’s love interest or shoulder to cry on. I would have liked to see black women's stories in Top Boy portrayed with the same level of depth that their male counterparts had.

  • Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker

Recommended by Titi and Mélina, this Netflix miniseries is an adaptation of the biography On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Bundles, starring Octovia Spencer. Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove (1867 - 1919), started her career as a washer woman until she thrived as an entrepreneur developing a line of hair products that promoted self-love for black women. We are shown how she relentlessly overcomes the intersectional challenges of sexism and anti-blackness in a segregated America. The heartwarming drama depicts an empowering representation of black femininity, while successfully providing an insight into the mechanisms of toxic anti-blackness, misogyny and heteronormativity. A good reminder that hair is political. Watching this will make any woman of colour feel invincible!

Agency: 5 stars

Compassion: 5 stars

Criticality: 4 stars

The celebration of a self-made millionaire doesn't do much to critique the capitalist system which perpetuates, and is built on, racial and gender inequality.

  • Gentefied

Recommended by Mélina, this Netflix series follows the lives of three Mexican-American cousins in California who chase the American Dream. Throughout the first season, it becomes clear that this dream is often at odds with the things they wish to protect: their neighbourhood, their immigrant grandfather and their family taco shop. The show manages to perfectly balance lighthearted, humorous moments with incisive social commentary around issues of gentrification, migration, internalised racism, cultural appropriation, homosexuality and more.

Agency: 5 stars

Compassion: 5 stars

Criticality: 4 stars

While the majority of the characters are brown Mexican Americans, the only black character ends the first season falling out with the family. She remains in the margins and she makes subtle hints about anti-blackness, challenging the stereotype of the loud, angry black woman in the community, but this issue is not explored further. We hope the second season will create more space for her story.

  • Noughts and Crosses

Recommended by Titi and Mélina, this BBC series brings to life Malorie Blackman’s eponymous novel. In this somewhat dystopian (yet very close to home) world, the show experiments with the concept of reverse racism where black “Cross” people colonised Albion (i.e. the UK) and enforce segregation on the native white “Nought” people. Issues of police brutality, institutional racism, colonised education and more are explored in the first season. You can listen to the podcast Obsessed with Noughts and Crosses, hosted by Kelechi Okafor, to hear an analysis of the anti-racist messages underlining the series.

Agency: 5 stars

Compassion: 4 stars

Even though the show is meant to be critiquing white people’s power and privilege in our current society, there is only one black person who isn’t portrayed as unsympathetic compared to all the other white main characters. What implicit message does that send to viewers? This can inadvertently cause the majority of the black characters to be demonised.

Criticality: 4 stars

While the reverse-racist world created is a fantastic opportunity to critique our current society, it can be problematic because it seems to target a white audience. Is the show made for the white gaze? It is in fact breath-taking and inspiring to finally see so many black people in positions of power in a Western society. The cinematography, the attention to detail and the the black aesthetic being celebrated is impeccable. But we are encouraged to feel more sympathy for the white characters as they suffer from the structures of inequality. That is probably to prove that the structures of inequality are the problem, not the skin colour of each person. Yet, what bothers me is that it relies too much on white empathy: can white people only “get” racism and feel sympathy for the victims of racism when they are white?

Do you have any favourite anti-racist TV shows or movies to recommend? Get in touch and send them to us with you thoughts and your ratings on Twitter (@AntiRacistEd) or via email (theantiracisteducator@gmail.com)

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