Randall is a crier. On This Is Us, it feels like he drops tears more than almost any Black actor in television history.
It’s easy to see why.
He’s just retrieved his dying biological father—the only man he’s ever wanted to meet—from a rundown apartment in Philly. His mother lied about not knowing where he was his entire life. And his crippling anxiety means that his main goal in life is be to be so perfect that he’s undeniable. There is something numinous about Randall, as though he were carrying a burden so heavy it’s depths could not be plumbed with the kind of cultural symbols that have dominated the Black character landscape until now. But that doesn’t mean he’s soft. Instead, Sterling K. Brown gives Randall nuance, the ingredient that allows a character to go from chimera to human being over the course of 18 emotion-racked episodes.
Brown has come a long way. In 2016, he picked up the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie for his portrayal of Christopher Darden in The People v. O.J Simpson: American Crime Story. Darden, if you recall, got a lot of flack for being the Black face on the prosecution’s team in the trial against O.J Simpson. Both of these roles feature Black men who tick the “strong” box on the Black man form. Darden suffered deeply and mostly in silence. Brown said in an interview with KCRW in L.A. that Randall also suffers in silence, but not as a measure of his mastery of the cowl of Blackness. His suffering is often intercepted. His need to be a monolith stands adjacent to his reality: that he is a person who crumbles, a person who needs others. It stands in direct contradiction to the kind of paternalism that’s typically displayed by Black characters in Hollywood and television history.
In that same interview, Brown said, “There’s no monolithic black experience that’s being depicted [right now]. There’s enough variety to show that different Black people live differently in this country. And we grow through exposure.”
He’s right. This Is Us intersects with shows like HBO’s Insecure and FX’s Atlanta and varied, tumultuous male characters like Lawrence (Jay Ellis), Earn (Donald Glover) and Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). With these shows on mainstream television, we’re beginning to see through the veil of Blackness in a public way. The shows provide peeks inside the narrative of high incarceration rates and high jobless rates. They are fissures in both the prescriptive rigidity of the white gaze and the fawning face we save when enduring the Black one.
It’s easy to describe these characters as “messy.” We all know why we call them that, even as we glow at their liberation. Because to be messy is to admit failure in a society where the penalty for Black failure is more pronounced than for others. So it is refreshing and genre defying to see the air pass through these people and have them shiver from the cold.
All four characters are climbing out of the realities of others. Peeking out, looking around, and struggling with how those realities line up with themselves.
On Insecure, Lawrence’s sexual dalliances follow the easy through line of men behaving badly because of a broken heart. But what we also see are the consequences. The show does an amazing job of bottling him up, showing how deeply he is shut off from his real emotions and how much he’s playing a role. The writers force the audience and Lawrence to figure out, “Is he a nice guy or ain’t he?” As Tasha said, he’s “a fuckboy who thinks he a good dude.” He’s that, sure. But he’s other things, including a nerdy guy who suddenly finds himself with a kind of sexual agency he never participated in before. He doesn’t realize until it’s too late that he’s feeding into the perceptions society has of him because it’s easy. Black men often align things that happen along stereotypical lines—his threesome, for example—with their own power. But which master are you really serving? In truth, he’s desperate.
Because to be messy is to admit failure in a society where the penalty for Black failure is more pronounced than for others. So it is refreshing and genre defying to see the air pass through these people and have them shiver from the cold.
In Atlanta, Earn and Paper Boi are also dealing with their imagery. A Princeton dropout, Earn’s trajectory is knocked off course and now he’s stuck in the mire of others’ perceptions, his masculinity, and reality. He’s broke and adrift, but sees an opportunity in the career of his much maligned local rap star cousin Paper Boi. The show puts him on a roller coaster that upends his own fragile gaze. To himself, he’s a guy who needs a break. To the outside world he’s invisible, now part and parcel with his gun-toting, drug-selling, rapper cousin. The characters both participate in and are obscured by their Blackness. But the show doesn’t stop there. It illuminates the frustration of the characters at their lot and their myriad insecurities. Earn is finding himself and what he’s capable of now, finally, after he’s been dropped from his lofty perch. Paper Boi hit his head long ago and must deal with both the class perceptions of his cousin Earn and the world of upper-crust Blacks at large, as well as media outlets that distort him for their own benefit.
All four characters are climbing out of the realities of others. Peeking out, looking around, and struggling with how those realities line up with themselves. It’s not the prosperity gospel of The Cosby Show or the complex villainy of characters in The Wire. It isn’t the elegance of Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, either. Instead, it’s a real ass look at the kaleidoscope of absurdity that real ass Black people —whomever they are and whatever they do— deal with on a regular basis.
It is, what Baldwin called, a world without having to believe “at the bottom of [your] heart, what white people say about [you].”