I know it’s full The Walking Dead season after last night’s season premiere, but I am still recovering from its younger sibling’s brief time on TV. After the short six episode run of the first season of AMC’s latest series spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, I am both impressed and unimpressed with how the creators have dealt with the real world topic of race in their imagined apocalyptic zombie world. As an avid fan of TWD, I have always been ambivalent about their portrayal of racial and political interactions, and it should come as no surprise that “Fear TWD” seems to be more of the same.
So far, the only racial or ethnic trope the show’s creators–Robert Kirkman and team–have dared to push was having Latino characters in what is supposed to be modern day L.A., which really shouldn’t be that revolutionary. Let me take a moment here to break down the demographic makeup of the city of L.A. According to the 2013 U.S. Census estimates, the city is 9.2 percent black, 27.2 percent white, 14.6 percent Asian, and 48.3 percent Latino. The case could be made for L.A. as the most diverse city in the United States. So any TV series set in Los Angeles better damn well be prepared to convey the city and its people as close to realistically as it can.
Los Angeles Times writer Hector Becerra interviewed Panamanian actor Ruben Blades, who plays the part of barber shop owner Daniel Salazar, in an article anticipating the portrayal of Latinos in the series a week before the premiere dropped. Blades expressed enthusiasm in how the show producers treated Latino characters “intelligently,” but even his optimistic evaluation seemed to build up the series to be more forward thinking than it really was.
“Fear the Walking Dead” seems to be sticking by “The Walking Dead’s” colorblind-but-not-really post-racial society, following its progenitor’s long-standing tradition of killing off all the black characters first. The season premiere kicked off with Calvin – the most empathetic drug dealer I have ever seen on television – turning into a walker and being pummeled by Travis Manawa’s truck.
FTWD producers decide to take the long exhausted television stereotype of the black drug dealer and give it a twist — he actually seems to care about his heroin addicted clients . — Uuntil he pulls out a gun, subsequently making then he makes history in FTWD by becoming both the first known character to turn, and the first character to die. The second character the audience sees in the process of becoming a walker is also a black male – Alicia’s boyfriend Matt is mid-fever with a huge bite mark on his neck by the time the Clark’s find him. The third character the audience sees already in full-blown walker mode is principal Art Costa, also black male. Do I see a trend here? Three significant black characters were introduced in the first three hours of “Fear the Walking Dead” and all three were killed. The late-season addition of creepy suit Victor Strand seemed like a hail Mary.
The white characters in the story are still featured front and center with the two teenage kids, Alicia and Nick, being the main dysfunctional features of a dysfunctional family, leaving Manawa’s teenage son Chris to push his way in from the periphery of the plotline. Even in a world nearing an apocalypse, Nick, a white male character with a drug abuse problem is still more “relatable” than a Latino or black character. Actress Kim Dickens, who plays Madison Clark, explains that a broken family is “relatable” for the audience. (“It’s the family that are surrogates for the audience, and it’s very relatable to people,” Dickens said.) While I applaud the show’s cast for being forward-thinking in their attempt to be inclusive, it still feels like people of color are, again, getting nudged aside and made to wait patiently on the sidelines.
But there are Latinos in the series, aren’t there? Yes, quite a few. But not all of them are played by actual Latino actors. Half-Maori, half-Latino character Chris Manawa is played by Italian actor Lorenzo James Henrie. Daniel Salazar’s daughter, Ofelia, played Mercedes Mason, is described as a “multi-national,” Swedish-American actress. Terrific actors that they may be, if I have to watch one more TV show that features Latino characters played by non-Latino actors I just might have a fit. Hollywood has a long history of outsourcing Latino roles and giving them to non-Latino actors: Al Pacino in “Scarface,” Natalie Wood in “West Side Story,” Madonna in “Evita,” Jennifer Esposito in “Crash” (she’s Italian, I looked it up), and Lou Diamond Phillips in “Stand and Deliver.” Are there not enough viable Latino actors out there that you can’t hire actual Latinos for the few roles we actually have?
In an attempt at some realism, the producers of the show decided to make the character of Ofelia a second generation Latina who struggles with Spanish. For those of us who live this struggle, the scene in the third episode when Mason is trying for a fake English accent in Spanish feels so fraudulent it made me wince. The only way a producer or director would know how to convey this character’s struggle with the Spanish language would be to have someone in a decision-making position on set who knows what it looks like. For instance, in Guillermo Del Toro’s series, “The Strain,” he employs actor Miguel Gomez as a character recently released from Juvenile detention who struggles with Spanish. His character gets it right – I’m sure both he and Del Toro understand what struggling with your cultures language looks and sounds like because they are familiar with the experience.
This particular struggle comes down to what producer Effie Brown was trying to explain on HBO’s “Project Greenlight” before Matt Damon took it upon himself to cut her off: diversity matters just as much when discussing who is behind the camera as who is in front of it.
There is one scene in the second episode of “Fear the Walking Dead” that felt about as true to reality as you can possibly show in a fictional television show. Chris, Travis Manawa’s complaining son, gets off a bus in the middle of the city to find rioters in the streets screaming at the police that they have the right to protest after bystanders watched the police shoot down a homeless man. “Freedom of speech!” they yell at the cops who, in turn, try to usher them off the streets abrasively.
Chris yells at his dad over the phone that he feels like he’s really a part of something as he tries to tape the riot. As an audience member sitting at home watching from an omniscient point of view, I can’t help thinking, “Get off the streets, stupid! You’re going to be walker bait!” As I think this, I can’t help but compare the scene with the protests that have accompanied the incidents of police brutality all over the nation in the past couple of years. Los Angeles specifically has a long history of distrust in authority, more specifically cops and I can’t help but feel that the producers of the show are dancing at the edge of something political.
But that dancing largely falls flat due to showrunner Dave Erickson’s decision not to “polemicize” the social issues on the show. These obvious parallels to protests in Ferguson and elsewhere championed by black and brown people are hollow and focus more on rioting than any real social commentary. The racial implications of scenes in the season’s endgame involving medical ethics, medical experimentation on Latino characters, and a forced occupation and internment of a neighborhood full of people of color are largely glossed over in favor of the same kind of deafening neutrality held over from the original series.
That’s where the producers of “Fear the Walking Dead” and the original series, “The Walking Dead,” always fall – on the edge of something radical. Their post-racial perspective feels like a half-assed attempt to include minorities in pop culture. The excitement Latinos feel in even being included in primetime television says more about how starved we are for representation than for anything else. We get so excited about just being included in the character demographics without really checking on how we are being included – are Latino characters being portrayed by actual Latino actors? Are all the black characters contributing to the story line or are they just serving as walker-bait? Are these characters’ realities actually adding to the story in a meaningful way or are they just palette swaps waiting to be zombie lunch?