It isn’t as if there’s no historical material to draw on. People of color have been involved in Western history since, well, almost always actually. We wouldn’t even have to draw on the history of other countries, though that would bring a refreshing change to what we normally see. North American history itself doesn’t even originate with white people. Native Americans are occasionally seen in Westerns, sure, or films like Terrence Malick’s The New World, but they are rarely seen as more than supporting characters to a white story. It’s as if people of color cannot exist without white people in mainstream media. Why not a story about Native Americans beforeEuropean settlers invaded their land? Or one that centers on Chinese immigrants during the building of the railroads, or possibly something about the Mexican-American War? These stories simply do not exist, according to our television and movie screens.
While period dramas based on countries other than the United States are plentiful, they just so happen to take place in countries that are predominantly white. Take Reign, for example. Centered on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, it’s a North American production, distributed and produced by Warner Bros. and CBS, with the main acting roles held by Canadian (as well as Australian and British) actors, even though Reign is about Scottish royalty in France. These shows are not concerned with North American history; the issue is not a matter of what may or may not be relevant to US viewers. It’s a matter of race. Just this season, one of Fox’s new dramas, Hieroglyph, which was set in ancient Egypt and generating a lot of buzz, was suddenly axed despite being ordered straight to series. Why? Supposedly, after shooting the pilot, the scripts they were getting for later episodes were “underwhelming,” which justified their reasoning. But let’s be honest, shows with terrible scripts make it every season, with some cancelled after just a few episodes. So why the decision to drop Hieroglyph?