One of the most notable aspects of the latest season of Daredevil (other than how its immense popularity didn’t save it from being axed) was the introduction of Ray Nadeem, a tortured FBI agent forced into serving the slippery crime baron Wilson Fisk. Ray and his family are plagued by debts and brought to the edge of ruin by a relative’s cancer diagnosis – an Archille’s heel that Fisk meticulously shoves a dagger into. He is ambitious but fundamentally well-intentioned, convinced that joining the FBI is the best way to serve his community. He also happens to be Asian-American.
Yet refreshingly, this is barely referred to throughout the series. Ray and his wife Seema occasionally speak to each other in Hindi, but it’s a private code rather than a marker of identity. There are no impassioned speeches or lengthy soliloquies about a father who left India for America in the 1930s and shinnied up the immigrant ladder. Ray’s thoughts, beliefs and actions are what define him, not his ethnicity.
Of course, the fact that this is note-worthy shows that diversity hasn’t quite yet become an unquestioned part of the entertainment industry. We are far from a world where all actors are subject to color-blind casting. 2018 brought us Marvel’s Black Panther, which despite its well-deserved plaudits, shows how unusual it is for a film about an African state to be concerned with something other than war, famine, and slavery. And even then, it focuses on a country, Wakanda, that doesn’t exist.
However, the past 12 months also saw the latest season of The Good Place, a vision of the afterlife that includes Heaven and Hell without the gods, albeit with plenty of demons. The casting is about as far from tokenism as you can get. Much of its popularity seems to rest on how most people know someone as fatally indecisive as philosophy professor Chidi, or as maddeningly smug as a philanthropist and socialite Tahani. The fact that Chidi is from Senegal, or that Tahani is British-Asian, is rarely the butt of the joke – rather, the characters’ quirks and one-liners are what make them memorable.
The same philosophy seems to dominate one of Michael Schur’s other beloved creations, cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, canceled and then renewed this year, which sees women, BAME and LGBTQ characters casually occupying positions of power and living contentedly in mixed-race relationships. This would seem like common sense, given that if heaven and hell exist, much like any department run by a higher politburo, they are likely to be full of people from all walks of life. It, therefore, wouldn’t quite mesh if all but one of them was white.
Even the BBC seems to be catching on. Espionage drama Killing Eve was lauded for its multi-racial, mostly female cast. In particular, the women weren’t seen to be defined by domestic roles or their interactions with male characters, with Canadian-Korean actor Sandra Oh leading the charge.
That said, this past week also saw the Beeb release yet another period drama, a non-musical version of Les Miserables. So far, only one non-white character has appeared in a leading role – David Oyelowo as Javert. Still, it’s a step forward from the corporation’s many other costume dramas, which have often tended to cast black actors as servants, slaves or fools.
Anyone who came of age in the early 2000s will remember Token, the wry creation from South Park, whose sole purpose was to be the series’ only black child. We haven’t quite left those days behind, but 2018 seems a small step forward. Long may it continue.