"Shawn Ryan, Kurt Sutter, ‘Last Resort,’ ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ and Hollywood’s Approach to Race and Casting"
I’m excited for Sons of Anarchy to return to FX tonight and for the debut of Lost Resort on ABC (it’s available online, but airs for the first time on September 27). They’re both ambitious shows with big ideas, Last Resort about nuclear weapons and the geopolitical stability, Sons of Anarchy about masculinity and fraternity. And they’re both shows with diverse casts, from creators with interesting, if contrasting, thoughts on the best way to get television to get more like the people watching it.
Both Ryan and Andre Braugher, who stars in Last Resort, were asked about Braugher’s status as the rare African-American lead on television at the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this summer. Ryan pointed out that this wasn’t the first time he’s had a black male lead in one of his shows—Dennis Haysbert came first in The Unit. But Ryan said he thought that a color-blind approach was the best way to get television functioning like a true meritocracy for people of color.
“I just never looked at it that way. I’ve wanted the best actor for the role. I try to be as color-blind as possible in most roles that I cast,” he said. “You know, when we put together a list for this role, there were various ethnicities involved, the same for Sam, you know, literally every role. You know, networks want people to watch their shows, and a lot goes into who the audience is. I just don’t concern myself with that. I concern myself with how good can the show be? And you’ve heard Andre speak here today. What writer wouldn’t want him saying their words? So things are changing. Thing are getting better, I think. I feel like I’m doing my part…And I actually do believe that Hollywood is the kind of place where merit can and is rewarded, and so I assume it will be nice when these questions don’t get asked anymore, when Andre can just be an actor playing Marcus Chaplin and portray him and get praise for his performance, but unfortunately, we are not to that point yet. But it feels like we are better off than we were 15, 20 years ago, and hopefully, 20 years from now, we won’t have to worry about it.”
When I spoke to Sutter a few days after the Last Resort panel, we chatted about the arc of Sons of Anarchy in terms of its approach to race, particularly given last season’s plot in which Juice, a younger member of SAMCRO, is blackmailed over his father’s race and lead to believe the fact that he is part African-American could lead to him being expelled from the motorcycle club.
“The interesting thing about MCs, or maybe interesting is the wrong word, but the fascinating thing about the racial component I always felt was the idea that we have a very grey areas. They’re not really defined,” he told me. “It was important for me to separate [the club the show focuses on] from white supremacists in the first couple of seasons, and I did want to acknowledge there is this antiquated bylaw in most of the larger clubs. How did that play out? In some clubs, it’s very rigid. What happened to Juice, he definitely would have been drummed out. Other clubs, not so much.”
In the course of talking about Juice’s plot arc the last season, Sutter pivoted to talking about race more generally, and offered something of a counterpoint to Ryan, with whom he worked on The Shield.
“I just like the reality of bringing in people of color in terms of the show,” he said. “I was just reading Shawn Ryan’s TCA [session] this morning about casting Andre Braugher as a lead of that show. And I think it’s important, and I think there’s a certain responsibility that we have to do that. I try to, even though I write a show about a bunch of white guys riding motorcycles, I probably have as many or more people of color employed on my show than most shows.”
The reality of it is that Hollywood probably needs both of these approaches. Shows and movies that aren’t explicitly about race won’t get more diverse unless the people writing casting notices truly mean it when they say they want people of all races and ethnicities to read for roles, and make that desire clear all the way down their chain of command. And it would help if more white creators were genuinely interested in race, and felt comfortable and confident creating characters of color while remaining aware of the dangers of racial ventriloquism. We need a lot of kinds of stories, and a lot of kinds of characters, and it’s going to take people with a lot of different visions to make them.