Despite Declarations to the Contrary, Black People Watch 'Game of Thrones'
Long ago, in a time before time was counted . . . on portable phones . . . identifying as a black nerd or geek used to be one of the surest paths to social banishment. T’was a fate common to many nerds and geeks, but for nerds and geeks of color, harboring a love of swords and sorcery ran the risk of effectively placing oneself on the outer edges of the ostracized. It meant hearing, over and over again, that what we were into was some white people sh*t.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” fits into this category purely based on visual evidence. Its focus on Westeros, a land author George R. R. Martin modeled upon Europe. The main characters are played by white actors. Characters played by actors of color hail from Dorne, the Westerosi version of Andalusian Spain and southern Italy, and Essos, viewed as an exotic land filled with silks and spices and brothels and legalized slavery.
This is a common reason given by people of color for not watching “Game of Thrones,” and it’s understandable. But as the show’s popularity has exploded over the past couple of seasons, and especially in the wake of the #NoConfederatecontroversy, I’ve been asked by other black people as well as a few “woke” white folks how I can be a fan of a series that has very few deeply developed characters of color.
My answers are simple, and straight, and deeply complex all at once. I watch because it’s a tremendously entertaining, visually seductive work that inspires conversation on multiple levels, both with regard to its successful aspects and it myriad flaws. I watch because those dragons are extraordinary, and there’s a thrill in seeing a woman command and ride them. I watch because I’ve grown emotionally attached to many of its characters.
The most obvious reason I watch is because I love television. And as a minority, part of loving television is recognizing the truth that TV is a medium that has long favored the stories of white people.
Besides, contrary to offhanded assertions some people have made (including radio host Tom Joyner) plenty of black folks watch “Game of Thrones.” There’s an active viewership devoted to communal viewing and conversation percolating under the Twitter hashtag #DemThrones. In fact, more people are watching “Game of Thrones” in season 7 than ever before; episodes draw an average audience of 29.3 million, a count that includes the audiences for their broadcasts on the HBO channels as well as DVR replays, on-demand viewing and streaming viewership. (The most recent episode, “Beyond the Wall,” drew 10.2 million viewers in its 9 p.m. time slot, making it the second-most-watched episode in the series’ history.)
Famous black folks watch it too, notably “Saturday Night Live” cast member Leslie Jones, who lends her commentary to the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” recurring segment titled “Game of Jones.”
Not everyone watches it religiously, mind you. “I’m not, like, a ‘Game of Thrones’ fanatic,” said hip hop icon and “NCIS: LA” star LL Cool J when the question was put to him at a recent CBS event. “That’s just the honest truth. But for me to go in knowing it’s fiction drives me” to watch, he explained, “because then it becomes about somebody else’s point of view. That’s a little challenging but it’s pretty interesting, it’s pretty cool.”
Orlando Jones, a man who earned geek ambassador status due to his work in “American Gods” and “Sleepy Hollow,” watched the series as part of his job, having worked in the past with “Game of Thrones” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and because he admires Peter Dinklage’s work.
“I came to ‘Game of Thrones’ going, it has the perfect murders-to-beheadings ratio,” Jones joked. “I’m like,’OK! Bare breasts, beheadings, breasts! So that’s what they’re watching.’ That was my initial instinct.”
He added, “If I started discluding content solely based on its underlying, shall we say, lack of sensitivity to disenfranchised groups — of which I am one, but I’m not the only group that they have literally no sensitivity to — I would have to disqualify way too much content to be in the entertainment business.”
On the other end of the “Game of Thrones” fan spectrum is Aisha Tyler, co-host of “The Talk,” the voice of Lana on FX’s “Archer,” and proud geek. “Human stories are human stories. And ‘Game of Thrones’ isn’t set in any part of the Earth as we know it. It’s a fantasy show,” declared the geek khaleesi. “If you decided not to watch a TV show unless it was completely devoid of racial tropes, you’d have about one show to watch.”
As a rebuttal to the critique of the whiteness of “Game of Thrones,” Tyler recalled the prominence of Salladhor Saan (Lucian Msamati) the wealthy pirate for hire who lent his ships to Stannis Baratheon’s cause in the doomed attack on Blackwater. He had considerable power, she pointed out.
That’s true. The series also cast a black actor, Nonso Anozie, as Xaro Xhoan Daxos, a self-made nobleman in Qarth, and DeObia Oparei as Areo Hotah, the head bodyguard of Prince Doran Martell. The Dornish contingent is represented by actors hailing from a variety of countries, including Chile, Sudan and Australia, claiming descendance from Indian, Singaporean and Maori culture.
Those characters are all dead, by the way.
Nevertheless, “I don’t think that it promotes racial tropes any more than a lot of other shows, which are much more relevant to our current situation on the planet today, because ‘Game of Thrones’ is some made-up sh*t,” Tyler said.