Representation | Race/Ethnicity in American TV Dramas

Race is a way of classifying individuals and groups on the basis of physical characteristics, predominantly their skin colour; ethnicity refers to the culture of people in a certain geographical region. Both these classifications are deeply cultivated in media of all kinds, but they are especially visible in TV dramas.

The extract I am going to analyse was taken from the American TV drama The Wire, which aired from 2002 to 2008. In this extract, there are three characters – all young black men. It starts with a fast panning shot, which turns into an establishing shot following D’Angelo as he walks to his friends, Bodie and Wallace. The scene is set on a vacant lot amongst many brick apartment buildings. Music is heard as if playing from a stereo somewhere in the scene, so it is a diegetic sound. It resembles early ‘90s hip-hop. All the shots in the extract appear to be handheld shots, albeit well stabilised.

As soon as the action begins, racial stereotypes come up every second. The three characters all wear clothes associated with African Americans: baggy jeans, hoodies and large dark-coloured jackets. One character is sitting on a broken chair, while the other two men sit on plastic crates. When D’Angelo greets the other two, Bodie hands him a paper bag with money earned from a drug deal – the drug trade is mainly associated, stereotypically, with black people.  Ar first, the three discuss their drug dealing business. The youngest, Wallace, has dreadlocks – another characteristic linked to their race.

Wallace and Bodie are playing checkers on a chess board, for which D’Angelo mocks them and offers to teach them how to play chess. This shows that he is educated to some extent, which society considers unexpected from a man of his race. However, he uses a few heavy swear words in the scene. He explains his friends what the chess pieces can do and what the purpose of the game is: “this the kingpin, a’ight?”, “he ain’t gettin’ no hustle”. This kind of slang is used all throughout the extract, which is another stereotype about the African American race. On one hand, the explanations D’Angelo gives are basic, as if he was talking to a small child, but on the other hand, they are molded to Wallace’s and Bodie’s understanding of the world from their position as drug dealers: the rook, or castle, is referred to as “the stash”. This draws the other men’s interest, as they make remarks about D’Angelo’s descriptions. He then gets to the pawn, “the soldier”, as he calls it after looking at it, reflecting for a second. When he talks about the pawns “fighting”, he slams the one he’s holding on the board, to make it clear that they are bold and courageous (“they like the front lines, they be out in the field”). Bodie refers to the pawns as “little bald-headed b*tches”, but following D’Angelo’s explanation, both him and Wallace start identifying with “the soldiers”. Wallace asks “how do you get to be the king?”, to which D’Angelo replies saying no piece can change what it is, except for the pawn – “he get to be queen” if it reaches “the other dude’s side”. Bodie keeps focusing on getting to the end with the pawn, although D’Angelo says that’s not the goal of the game. The former says “So if I make it to the end, I’m top dog.” Using the first person while talking about the pawn makes it clear that he feels like he is a pawn himself – just another soldier in the drug-ridden area they live in. When talking about “the game”, they might not be referring to the actual chess game, but about the drug game, their everyday reality. D’Angelo states that the pawns “get capped quick, they get out the game early”, to which Bodie replies, while shifting his position on a chair to a more imposing one – “Unless they some smart*ss pawns.” This is how the extract ends, the last line conveying the fact that Bodie wants to do more in life than be a low-life drug dealer, he sees the greater picture and wants to escape from the situation he’s been in, most likely, his entire life.

Panning and tilting shots are used all throughout the scene. Wide and medium dolly shots are used to show the three men during their discussion and many close-ups are used to focus on one character when he is talking. As far as sound is concerned, all sounds used are diegetic – the characters can hear them: car horns, police sirens and helicopters (most likely law enforcement) are clearly audible in the background.

In conclusion, the African American race is represented quite comprehensively in this extract, which manages to encompass a plethora of race-related stereotypes, while also showing that the pattern, the norm, can be broken.