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How HBO Does Diversity (and Doesn't)

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Watching some upcoming episodes of HBO’s engrossing Rome recently, I saw something unusual for that show: a black man. The episode takes place in Egypt; the character is a Nubian soldier under King Ptolemy XIII. He has, by my count, one line, before being killed.

TV critics, understandably, have taken shots at the major networks for their diversity record in recent years. And TV critics, understandably, have lionized HBO for its great shows. But I have to wonder: could a network that was not as acclaimed get away with having so many high-profile shows that are so white?

I know the question sounds PC, if not flat-out stupid. HBO has been exemplary in making high-quality movies with and about African Americans: Lackawanna Blues, The Tuskegee Airmen, Boycott and on and on. The Wire has a vast, rich and mainly black cast of complex characters on both sides of the law.  (Then again, its creator, David Simon, recently speculated that its ratings are low precisely because it has a mostly black cast.) Oz too was deeply diverse. HBO gave platforms to Chris Rock and Russell Simmons.  And viewers of color have rewarded it (like Showtime) for doing so. By most estimates, black viewers make up a greater percentage of HBO’s subscribers than of the general population.

And yet, when you look at HBO’s series, especially its more recent ones, you’re looking at a lot of pink. Carnivale and Deadwood, of course, had historical milieus to consider. One suspects that Depression-era carnivals were not highly integrated, and Deadwood—which introduced two black occasional characters in its second season—at least touches on the lives of Chinese on the frontier. Then again, The Sopranos is largely about white (and racist) mobsters. Sex and the City centered on four white women. Entourage, four white men. This year’s new comedies—Unscripted, The Comeback and Extras—all starred white actors playing white actors. Next year, HBO debuts Big Love, a drama about a polygamist family in Utah, which does not exactly seem a potential melting pot.

So why doesn’t HBO take the heat? Maybe because when it does race, it does race better than anyone. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm—set in a wealthy Hollywood world that is, with occasional exceptions like Wanda Sykes, very white—is more uncomfortably direct about race than most shows on TV. HBO’s characters—white, black Jewish, Mormon—are culturally specific, instead of inhabiting the generic no-culture of most network shows. It does not take the broadcast network approach of having a certain racial balance on many shows (the closest HBO example was probably Six Feet Under). Some of its shows are very black and others very white. But it also doesn’t let casting a "black best friend" substitute for depth on the page. That so many non-white viewers pay to get HBO is a sign that real diversity is about more than the numbers on every show.

Still, it’s possible HBO could have been more creative in casting Rome (which was produced with the BBC). HBO assumes a sophisticated audience, and it’s common enough now for Shakespeare plays to be cast color-blind; no longer do black men only get to play Othello. It’s not as though HBO felt required to cast only Mediterranean actors—from the Tiber to the Nile, the stars sport mainly British accents and Anglo features. (The half-Indian, half-Swiss Indira Varma does play the plebian woman Niobe, but passes easily for Italian.) Does that make Rome less believable? Ciaran Hinds plays Julius Caesar, and wonderfully—even though something tells me there aren’t so many Ciarans running around Italy.

Granted, the phrase "Black Caesar" may sound like a blaxploitation movie. (Mainly because it was one.) But history is long, and the Roman Empire was vast. Vast enough, you’d think, that a black actor could get a couple more lines before getting killed.

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