Black History Month

The West Wing’s storytelling isn’t perfect – that’s why it’s important for Black History Month

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This article is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team which examines this year’s Black History Month from the angle of ‘making history’. The opinions expressed in these pieces are those of the editors themselves, and do not necessarily reflect Backbench’s stance as a whole. 

In order to cover Black History Month, Backbench set its editors a task to cover it in their own way. Admittedly, for this assignment I have had a unique case of writer’s block. As different ideas were written and promptly scribbled out again in my notebook, I kept reaching the same question; what could I possibly add to the discussion? Then I remembered something I had read during lockdown: if a conversation feels difficult, it is worth having. I imagine the same principle applies to writing.

So, how to proceed? Well, I have opted to discuss Black History Month with the help of the wise words of Aaron Sorkin. More specifically, through the screenplay and fictional stories of The West Wing.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, The West Wing was an American political drama that followed the lives of President Bartlett and his administration as they navigated political issues, both foreign and domestic. Running until 2006, the series first aired in 1999 but has recently remerged into headlines as the cast are currently undergoing filming for a one off reunion episode. Its purpose is to encourage voter turnout for the upcoming presidential election.

It came to the delight of fans across the US, and indeed the world, but it is an intriguing tool to yield for the election. When you recollect the screenplay, it is a story of how, more often than not, the Democrats were the ‘good guys’ and the Republicans the ‘bad’. There was, therefore, a natural bias. This is especially apparent when looking at social media accounts of the cast who have always been open and vocal about their political opinions of Trump, in particular Bradley Whitford. In fact, Sorkin himself had a moving open letter to his daughters published the week after Trump’s election in Vanity Fair expressing his sorrow for the world they will now grow up in.

The series gave us moments of stunningly inspirational rhetoric that left viewers wishing for this utopia of politicians they were watching on screen to be real. The pilot alone included a powerful verbal attack on a far right religious group, after they had subjected the President’s granddaughter to political blackmail and tactics. Episode 2 brought us the famous “Two Cathedrals” monologue.

Skipping forward to current day, it seems we may be further away from this utopia than ever. In normal times, great rhetoric was used by candidates as they geared up to the next exercise of their democracy. Instead, many commentators write how Trump has rewritten the rules of rhetoric. Journalist and former speech writer for Blair, Phillip Collins, wrote that this reminds us of the sheer brutality of American politics. If the West Wing series is to be used as an instrument of saving the art of great rhetoric before an election where race relations and the handling of a pandemic are on the line, it may well be a case of bringing a knife to a gun fight.

The contemporary societal climate dictates what issues become televised and shown on the small screen. It’s why in 2017 Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” acted as a spine-tingling metaphor for society’s appropriation of black culture and the silencing of a community no matter how loudly they shout. The same principle understands why Parasite won an Oscar earlier this year as it displayed the class divide in South Korea in a political environment that was ripe with bigotry and intolerance. The productions replicated the issues that were emerging in society and set out to challenge thinking.

What is interesting, then, is how a series that stopped airing nearly 15 years ago not only holds stories that are still relevant today, but has been brought back to centre stage as an instrument of increasing electoral engagement.

In the wake of the tense race relations and injustices in contemporary America, the political metaphors the series offered remain as poignant as ever. In one of the first few episodes, Bradley Whitford’s character is faced with what he sees as a dilemma when hiring for the President’s personal aide. The ideal candidate he ends up interviewing is played by Dulé Hill, and Whitford promptly admits to his boss that he is not “wild” about the aesthetic of a young black man carrying the president’s bags. His boss soon sets his concerns aside when stating that the aim is to get the right candidate for the role and that’s final.

As the plot unfolds over numerous series the writing never shies away from difficult racial issues. By the end of the first series, viewers see a presidential assassination attempt by white supremacists, that we later learn was aiming for the aforementioned black aide instead, as he was in a relationship with the President’s daughter. When the staff feel uneasy back at work over the coming weeks, the President confides in one of his speechwriters that they witnessed a modern-day lynching when he fails to understand why this shooting feels different from others he’s experienced.

The West Wing even addresses intersectional equality. When military officials discuss the topic of homosexuals in the military, they argue it’s not that they are homophobic, but that such an allowance would cause system disruption. In a moment of cinematic perfection, the black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs then enters the meeting to isolate the flaw in their argument. “That’s what they said about me 50 years ago,” he quips, leaving the room in silence before finishing stating that the system had been disrupted – and it got over it.

This is merely picking out a select few examples, but the drama is filled with them. Needless to say, some are not as updated as they could be nor should I let this moment go by without acknowledging that the series was written, directed and produced predominately by white men. Nonetheless, with it set to air in Black History Month and just weeks before polling day the show’s one-off reboot will undoubtedly take this into account.

Black stories deserve, and need, to be told. Naturally, some people are better at telling them than others and some of us require a little help. My assistance has been the cinematic genius of Aaron Sorkin but even with this I will always fall short. To speak candidly, I am a white woman writing about the stories and experiences I will never understand. This lack of understanding should not mean silence, but it should mean quiet until we have had the time to educate ourselves. As we recall the difficult stories associated with Black History Month, we must keep learning, but we also must keep progressing and moving forward. Or, as Sorkin wrote in his screenplay, to keep asking: “what’s next?”

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