By Courtney Garcia, theGrio.com (Article originally published on theGrio.com.)
The season finale of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” drew a record 12.4 million viewers Sunday night – 8.1 million in the key 18-49 age demographic – sealing it as the top-rated show on television and demonstrating how a diverse cast can hold its own successfully on screen.
While the cable drama has faced criticism in the past for its purported underwhelming portrayal of black roles, the most recent season featured two standout African-American leads in the addition of characters Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman).
Both parts supplemented other minor black roles and matured as the season progressed. They are expected to grow more influential in the series’ future.
Furthermore, as one of the series’ regular directors Ernest Dickerson (who is African-American) indicates, the drama has set itself apart from others as a champion of diversity both on-screen and behind the camera.
“A lot of problems other shows have had, even shows I’ve done in the past, were that African-American characters were underwritten; they didn’t know how to write for them,” Dickerson, who has directed seven episodes of “The Walking Dead” including the past two finales, tells theGrio. “But I don’t think that’s a problem here. I think we do better than a lot of other shows. A lot of other shows don’t have African-Americans as major characters. They might be background. We [also] have a very diverse crew… We’ve had assistant directors of color. We’ve had people of color in all departments. There are a lot of black folks on the set.”
What a difference a third season makes
Now in its third installment, the first two seasons of “The Walking Dead” primarily featured one African-American principal, a vulnerable, self-determinative character named T-Dog (Iron E Singleton) who gets killed off in the early part of season three. His death sparked various rebukes from viewers, who knocked the show for killing and replacing its few black characters one by one, rather than spending time with their development. T-Dog was deemed a passive player, who was cut short from the script when he could have been a driver of the narrative.
Yet, as Dickerson points out, the storyline follows the graphic novel series relatively closely, and accordingly, it introduces the more overriding black characters of Michonne and Tyreese later in the plot.
“T-Dog was not in the books at all, he was purely an invention of the writers in the first season,” Dickerson explains. “I know people were complaining about T-Dog not having anything to do in the second season, but see, I knew that eventually Michonne was gonna show up…Unfortunately, I think sometimes his part was underwritten, but now we have Michonne and Tyreese, and I think they’re going to grow into the next season.”
Dickerson believes the cast, in its entirely, represents the gamut of races, and all are killed off equally.
“Walking Dead‘s” diversity has detractors
Others are skeptical. Prior to this season’s conclusion, viewers joked that the show had a policy towards allocation of African-American characters, and that their contributions to the plot were subsequently limited.
Writer C.A. Huggins tweeted in December, “#WalkingDead always keeps a black guy on reserve in case current cat gets killed. They pull the next brotha off the bench.”
Similarly, Eric Deggans, TV critic for the Tampa Bay Times, voiced his mid-season grievances in a piece titled, “Does ‘The Walking Dead’ have quota for number of black characters?” Deggans pointed to Tyreese’s appearance on the show shortly after the death of Oscar, a black prison inmate. Oscar had previously been introduced following the demise of T-Dog.
Adding to the discrepancy, none of these characters had been completely fleshed out at the time of their expiration, and were additionally panned as “problematic.”
Deggans admits, nevertheless, the situation improved in the latter part of season three.
Meet Michonne and Tyreese
“[The writers] addressed one of the problems, which is they tended to kill off characters of color before they had the chance to develop,” he remarks. “Partially, I think that’s because they introduced the graphic novel’s two most popular characters of color [Michonne and Tyreese], one this season, the other at the end of last season. These are two of the most popular characters from the graphic novels period.”
“As a fan of those characters, I would have liked to have seen – particularly Tyreese – given a little bit more to do,” he continues. “It seemed that character spent most of this season standing around, and commenting on things that other characters were doing. He wasn’t initiating a lot of action. He wasn’t taking a lot of action. He wasn’t at the center of hardly anything that happened on the show. This is a complaint that fans have had about a previous black character that had been on the show [T-Dog]. They never knew quite what to do with his character.”
Deggans does appear optimistic about the future of Michonne and Tyreese given their “extensive storylines” in the novels. He also suggests the show has integrated both roles more intrinsically into the plotline, though neither has been predominately featured in the more compelling scenes, as he recalls is the case in the books.
“It’s not about who gets killed off, the question is who are the characters centered on?” Deggans observes. “Michonne is arguably the most popular character from the book, and for the first half of the season, she barely said five sentences. Even when she was taking action, we didn’t get to know much about her. And all of that was kind of by design, I understand that, but it had an impact…Given the history that this show has of marginalized characters of color, people were concerned.”
‘Walking Dead’ Cast Looks Ahead
A question of demographics
Another complaint Deggans addresses is the fact “The Walking Dead” is set outside Atlanta, yet the demographic of that region doesn’t seem accurately depicted by the cast. As he notes, results from the last U.S. census showed Georgia has the largest black population: 30 percent of residents are African-American, and 51 percent of the population in Atlanta is black.
Deggans says he doesn’t see a proportional mix on the series, which he feels is “odd.”
“Even when they were in Atlanta, they didn’t have nearly as many black zombies as you would expect, and their biggest interaction with a group of survivors, they were all Latino,” he says.
“Oh, there’s black zombies in there, we see black zombies all over the place,” the director counters. “There’s black zombies; there’s Asian zombies. In my episode, there were quite a few.”
The show is far from over
Dickerson also contends that, thus far, the black leads in the show have been compelling and central to the story, and that, with Tyreese and Michonne gaining prominence, the stage has been set as a wider platform for African-American actors.
“You have a strong black character in Tyreese, his sister, and we have a strong black character in Michonne,” he points out. “Michonne, as a character, has grown as she’s gotten to know the main characters in the group. She was a person who kept her feelings and everything about herself close to the vest, but she’s been allowed to open up more.”
Referencing the finale, he adds, “You saw a lot of people of color climbing out of that bus and going into the prison. And so you’ll be seeing more of those people next season.”