The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, January 28, 2007

"24" and racial images

Someone asked me my take on "24" and the Presidents Palmer. Hmmm. You know, I love that show, but it also disturbs me just a little bit right now. The question of the black presidents touches on the question of why they are black. Now, Keifer Sutherland implied in a "Larry King Live" interview that there was some deliberateness about this from his point of view, that he liked the interjection of that racial image into the American culture. But then, I don't believe he was part of the original casting decision for Dennis Haysbert, so the suspicion comes that Haysbert was cast initially for his gravitas, and they explored the racial aspect later.

"24's" love of killing popular characters led to a real shocker last year, when Palmer was killed. All right, I accept that. But one of the things that made it tolerable for me was the presence of the black CTU agent Curtis Manning, who had tremendous presence and physical grace, to the point where white guys on the "Aintitcoolnews" 24 talkback referred to him as "the black Bauer." Pretty funny, but on an ethnic level that gave me something to identify with. This season, Wayne Palmer, David's little brother, is introduced as the new president. Shortly afterwards, they kill Curtis.

There are a couple of things that disturb me about this. One is the sense that black characters are being manipulated SPECIFICALLY according to their race. Another is the fascinating, and even odder fact that both Palmer and Manning were killed with shots to the throat. And both episodes were broadcast on...Martin Luther King's Birthday. King, of course, was shot in the throat in a sniper hit that definitely mirrored Palmer's assassination. For the second character to die the same way, on the same day, is just too much for coincidence. No. The writers are definitely white, and they are definitely at some level thinking of these men as "black" even before they think of them as "men." Wayne Palmer is a bit of a weenie compared with his brother, although I'm quite certain he will "grow up" over the course of the season, I can't help but feel he is a black pawn being pushed around the chess board by a white finger, for the sake of evoking strong emotions from the white audience, without any real sense of how all this would feel if one had more melanin. Fair enough. I've had to deal with this my whole life, and I struggle to find a place within myself where I feel less manipulated. But frankly, it sucks a bit of my pleasure out of the show. The manipulation of racial images--and specifically the killing of powerful black men to jigger the ratings, suggests something unpleasant about the men who thought this was an appropriate way to conduct creative business. I'm sure they consider themselves racially enlightened and yada yada yada.

But meanwhile, it's getting just a little harder to ignore that this is all playing out on Fox Network, if you know what I mean.

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