Television’s Evolution of the Major Black Antagonist

“Because I don’t like you”.

Those were the words stated by black attorney Julius Cain to Derrick Bond, also a black attorney, after Bond’s attempt to takeover the law firm in which he was a managing partner failed; largely because of a strategically planned double cross executed to perfection by Cain. The show is The Good Wife (CBS), and that scene and the storyline leading up to it depicted a character type seldom seen on television” a non stereotypical black foil in Derrick Bond, or what I like to call a major black antagonist.

Major black antagonists are not your run of the mill black bad guys or gals which flash across our TV screens from time to time. They aren’t one-dimensional drug dealers, wayward homeboys or homegirls, or violent criminals. The key point about a major black antagonist is that attributes such as intelligence, ambition, and sophistication are put on full display.

This was the case with Derrick Bond, played in a recurring role by Michael Ealy. When first introduced on the show, Bond orchestrated a merger between his Washington DC area firm and Lockhart & Gardener, ostensibly to bring political synergy to the Chicago based legal powerhouse, which was looking to strengthen its DC area contacts. As time progressed Bond hatched a plan to takeover the merged firm, but was ultimately outmaneuvered by his other partners once they got a clear picture of his scheme.

Though some may take issue with Bond not only being out smarted by his white partners, but also that the proverbial kill shot was delivered by a black colleague who tacitly exploited some racial kinship to do so, I do not. Bond was not a likable character, but he was a formidable one — so formidable that his partners had to throw the the proverbial kitchen sink at him and were still barely able to take him down. I suspect this is not the last we’ll see of Bond.

Yet as formidable as he is, Bond isn’t the only major black antagonist on The Good Wife. In a separate story line, Wendy Scott-Carr, a candidate for the State Attorney’s office is even more formidable and unlike Bond, Scott-Carr as portrayed by Anika Noni Rose is likable, and has used her likability to leverage an ambition and toughness that allows her to stay one step ahead of her opposition as her story line on the show continues to unfold. It remains to be seen if she will achieve her goal.

What Bond and Scott-Carr have in common is a thirst for power–to be the top dog–and while the hour long drama form of television has given us various glimpses of blacks in positions of authority such as attorneys, judges and police officers, it has treaded lightly in its depiction of black people exerting or questing for power and influence which often, though not always, is in direct conflict with a white person desiring the very same things. Nonetheless, television is a nearly 60-year-old medium, so in that time there have been notable and important representations of major black antagonists that warrant discussion.

The first full-blown major black antagonist on television was a character from the 1964 series premiere of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. entitled “The Vulcan Affair”. Stately and urbane, Sekue Ashumen was the President of the newly independent African nation of Western Natumba. As the alleged target of an assassination, he is to be rescued by U.N.C.L.E, without him knowing about the assassination attempt or the rescue plan.

However, instead of being the target, Ashumen is revealed to be an evil THRUSH (U.N.C.L.E’s adversary) agent whose goal along with his fellow THRUSHIES is world domination. Of course he was foiled by U.N.C.L.E.’s top agent Napoleon Solo, but not before explaining his unbridled thirst for power. Though a bit cartoonish, Ashumen’s portrayal by William Marshall laid a solid foundation for the major black antagonist trope.

Marshall would build on that trope four years later in 1968 with his portrayal of Dr. Richard Daystrom in the “Ultimate Computer” episode of Star Trek. Whereas Ashumen’s quest was to be a ruler of the world — Daystrom’s ambitions revolved around intellect. This is an ironic reversal of the John Henry legend, where a black man’s brawn defeated mechanization and the threat of lost jobs.

Daystrom conceived and constructed the “ultimate computer” to replace jobs that required high cognitive activity including that of Starship Enterprise captain James T. Kirk. As the ultimate computer begins to act buggy, the good doctor also begins to unravel a bit and is ultimately carted away. Yet despite the computer bugs and mental instability, Dr. Daystrom was for a time the smartest humanoid on the Enterprise and an adversary that Captain Kirk and company had a very difficult time overcoming.

Because of the complexities Marshall brought to the role, Dr. Richard Daystrom could have been a huge breakthrough character but unfortunately, television being a populist medium, it bowed to the times, and once Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on 4 April 1968 (Daystrom graced the small screen a month earlier), the major black antagonist trope was virtually buried. Daystrom’s television presence as a strong character would be overrun by the sidekick trope made popular by Bill Cosby on the seminal mid-60s series Spy (Cosby would win an Emmy for this role).

Rather than expand on the idea of blacks competing against whites for power, television in the late-’60s and early to mid-’70s took the relatively easy way out and focused on blacks and whites working together — primarily with blacks in the roles of sidekicks — the most memorable characters being Nytoa Uhuru (Star Trek), Barnard “Barney” Collier (Mission Impossible), Mark Sanger (Ironside), Lincoln Hayes( The Mod Squad), and Terry Webster (The Rookies).

There was, however, one notable exception in that time period: Bernie Hamilton’s Captain Harold Dobey of Starksy and Hutch. Though not truly an antagonist Dobey was detectives Starsky and Hutch’s boss and thus did exert his will over his reports from time to time. Ahough these interactions were more for color and entertainment value, his character should be viewed as a meta sidekick/ pseudo antagonist and transitional character to the next major black antagonist of television: Joan Pringle’s Sybil Buchanan of the acclaimed The White Shadow, a show that debuted in 1978.

Buchanan’s importance to the discussion can’t be overstated, because she was the first major black female antagonist in the hour long format (Eartha Kitt’s ’60s era Cat Woman, though noteworthy, was in a half hour show and by definition not major). In her role, Buchanan was the vice principal of a high school in inner city Los Angeles. When a white former NBA player named Ken Reeves was brought in to coach the high school team by Buchanan’s boss, the school principal, Buchanan was resistant and skeptical, believing that Reeves liberal intentions wouldn’t be enough to help the problems of some of the players he was coaching.

In much of the first season she was at odds with Reeves over matters of discipline and education, while also voicing her displeasure with her boss’s decision without seeming insubordinate. It was by far the most nuanced black antagonist role seen on TV. By the end of the series she was promoted to principal, and her relationship with Reeves became one of friendship and mutual respect. But that first season, Buchanan re-opened the black antagonist role first introduced 14 years earlier by William Marshall.

Interestingly, the next black antagonist to grace the TV screen was Diahann Carroll’s Dominque Devereaux of the ’80s night time serial Dynasty. Deveraux was brought in as a foil to the shows reigning “uberbitch” Alexis Carrington. In a sense Devereaux was a step away from the complexity and seriousness of The White Shadow’s Buchanan and because of her over the top desire for power and fortune at the expense of Carrington–the two even had a famous TV fight scene–her contribution can be seen as an anticipation of the materialistic “bling attitude” that took root in hip-hop in the mid- to late-’90s.

At more or less the same time Dominique Deveraux appeared, Avery Brooks’ sartorially resplendent Hawk on the private detective series Spenser For Hire gave us another take on the major black antagonist. In the series pilot, Hawk is introduced as Spenser’s adversary, a hired enforcer for a local crime boss named King Powers. Powers wanted Hawk to kill Spenser — something Hawk came reasonably close to doing. It was only after Powers called Hawk a “nigger” because of his hesitance in pulling the trigger on Spenser that he decided not to kill Spenser, and instead let Spenser and Powers fight bare fisted( a fight that Spenser won).

Though not “ambitious” or a “boss”, Hawk wielded a great deal of power throughout the series, and though after the series pilot he and Spenser were generally depicted as allies, given his introduction in the pilot, and the independence exhibited throughout the series — at times going against Spenser — Hawk was a significant contribution to the major black antagonist trope.

While the ’80s gave us two black antagonists (three, if you count Buchanan’s role as being part of the ’80s as well), the ’90s gave us only one: Shambala Green played by Lorraine Toussaint in Law and Order. Though not a regular character on the show, Green’s was a recurring role battling District Attorney’s in case after case. Though she was often used simply to advance a story line, what cemented her position as a major black antagonist was a scene in which she and DA Ben Stone go toe-to-toe while eating sushi and discussing a case with serious racial overtones. Stone himself is a liberal cut from the mold of Bobby Kennedy, but on this day Green is having none of his liberal sensibilities, she tells him forcefully, “hanging a picture of Bobby Kennedy on your wall just won’t cut it anymore”.

Because of her open and honest takes on race, Green was closely linked to Sybil Buchanan and was the last major black antagonist we would see on TV until the aforementioned Bond and Scott-Carr were introduced to viewers in 2010.

Make no mistake about it, Bond and Scott-Carr are breakthrough roles, yet surprisingly they have already been trumped in 2011 by the premiere of Alderman Ronin Gibbons on Fox’s The Chicago Code. Played masterfully by Delroy Lindo, from the quest for absolute power of Sekue Ashumen to the righteous racial indignation of Shambala Green and everything in between, Gibbons is an amalgamation of all the major black antagonists that came before him. Yet unlike the preceding antagonist roles, who were never their shows focal point, the entire series is devoted to “taking down” a corrupt Gibbons. Along the way we learn about the scope and nuances of his power.

In one episode we see him fend off a potential “hit” put on him in a barbershop by shooting his teenage assailant, however by the middle of the episode Gibbons pays for the assailant’s hospital bills, buys him a game system, and keeps the young man from being prosecuted. All this is done as a way of advancing his political power, while also trying to find out who put the hit on him. By episodes’ end when he learns who that person was, the show hints that Gibbons uses his relationship to the underworld to have the person killed.

Delroy Lindo as Alderman Ronin Gibbons in The Chicago Code

The Chicago Code has not yet completed its first season, so there will be many more things to learn about Alderman Ronin Gibbons, but when TV historians talk about the black image in the second decade of the 21st century they’ll note that 2011 was the year — for the first time in its history — that network television had the courage and creativity to consistently portray black people as major antagonists in search of the same brass rings that their white counterparts have sought for nearly 60 years. With a foundation for a black antagonist trope now clearly laid, can a similar foundation for a black protagonist trope be that far off?