Who Gets to Be Bostonian Onscreen?

Years of pop culture depictions of Boston have one thing in common: They center whiteness.

silhouettes on a movie screen

Photo via Getty Images. Illustration by Benjamen Purvis

Teyonah Parris may be making headlines because of her portrayal of Monica Rambeau on the Disney+ Marvel series WandaVision, but watching her trade quips with the Scarlet Witch wasn’t the first time I’ve seen her–I first became familiar with her as a series regular on the Starz series Survivor’s Remorse, which ran for four seasons between 2014 and 2017. The series, which followed the exploits of fictional NBA star and Dorchester native Cam Calloway and the rest of his family after he receives a huge contract to play in Atlanta, co-starred Parris as his cousin/agent Reggie’s wife, Missy.

The show received mostly positive reviews during its tenure, but it stuck out for another reason to me: When it premiered, it was the first time in my almost forty years on the planet that there had been a television show about a Black Bostonian family. Unfortunately, in the pilot, they moved this entire family of Black Bostonians to Atlanta immediately. The disappointing decision to set the show outside of Boston was widely criticized as an effort to get around the fact that most Black Americans have a less than positive opinion of Boston, and if these Black Bostonians were going to have a chance at being well-received or accepted by a wider audience on screen, the setting had to be in a city universally regarded as somewhere Black folks thrive. But it was all the more painful to see given how much of a rarity it is to see this kind of Boston representation onscreen.

When we think about pop cultural representations of Boston, they’re usually centered in whiteness. Whether we’re talking about Buzzfeed quizzes, episodes of The Simpsons, Samuel Adams beer commercials, Saturday Night Live sketches, network sitcoms, dramas, or Hollywood studio films, the default depiction of a Boston resident is usually a white person with some semblance of a supposed “Bahstin” accent. In all my years of living here, when I think of the television shows and films set in Boston or Massachusetts, the overwhelming majority of them have white subjects and give off the idea that Boston is a white paradise. It’s extra baffling considering the city is only 45% non-Hispanic white.

I wince thinking about when the TNT series Rizzoli & Isles completely misrepresented Boston’s entire Cape Verdean population back in 2010 on an early episode titled “Sympathy For The Devil.” On social media, the response from Bostonians was overwhelmingly negative. They tore the episode apart for getting such a crucial aspect of Boston life so wrong. Just how wrong? Well, that’s enough for an entire other piece, and one written by a Cape Verdean. Suffice to say, it was the typical Hollywood example of dropping in on a unique ethnic experience, and then getting the culture and customs wrong in ways that only natives would recognize, while simultaneously appearing like a fair depiction to the overwhelming majority of the viewing audience. As frustrating as it was, though, it was one of the only times a show even acknowledged that Boston has non-white communities. Other than that, we face the same problem we’ve dealt with our entire lives: In mainstream media, non-white Bostonians are basically non-existent.

Depictions of Boston Public Schools in films and television give off the impression that they’re teeming with white children, when the truth of the matter is, as of 2020, Boston Public School enrollment stood at 43% Latinx, 33% Black, 14% white, and 9% Asian. But onscreen, you get the impression white children are the overwhelming majority—when in reality, they only represent one out of every seven BPS students.

Survivor’s Remorse was a unicorn among Boston-based television shows, as it centered the Black Bostonian experience. In other shows about Boston, Black folks are usually in secondary or supporting roles. They rarely deal with communities unique to the Metro Boston area, like our Puerto Rican, Dominican, Haitian, East African, or Cape Verdean populations, all of which have lived in this region for generations now. Rarely do we see any representation of Boston’s Asian community in shows and films set in Boston, which is all the more surprising, considering Chinatown has been in existence since the late 1800s. Instead, we see story after story centering Irish or Italian Catholic families, although that is far from representative of the Boston I was born and raised in.

This exclusion happens in a variety of ways. Many productions have been set in Boston and the surrounding towns over the past twenty plus years, but when I’ve looked at the casting for extras and bit parts, it often asks for an “authentic” Boston accent. As someone who was born in Boston Medical Center back when it was called Boston City Hospital in the heart of Boston, I can tell you that calling that accent “authentic” is a misnomer. It’s actually more prominent the further out you venture from the city—you can hear it as far afield as Maine and New Hampshire. What this does is promote the fallacy that non-white Bostonians and Massachusetts residents who rarely, if ever, have this accent somehow aren’t “authentic” Bostonians, even though we’ve lived in the heart of the city or surrounding towns and cities our entire life. This type of erasure has been present throughout my life.

One of the most frustrating aspects of watching shows like SMILF or City On a Hill is that they fail to capture the realities of Boston life that a documentary like Trial 4 does—that it’s a diverse city full of stories just waiting to be told that don’t center whiteness. There’s no excuse for Massachusetts natives like Bill Burr, Lenny White, Denis Leary, or Ben and Casey Affleck to always get to play Bostonians when Michael Beach, Brian White, Uzo Aduba, Diane Guerrero, or Donnie Yen rarely if ever get the same opportunity. The only Black actor I can recall seeing who has played a Black Bostonian in multiple roles in recent years is Jahi Di’Allo Winston, who portrayed young Ralph Tresvant in BET’s 2017 mini-series The New Edition Story and Danny in the 2018 film Proud Mary.

Despite the glut of Boston-based films and TV shows over the last couple of decades, representation remains a major issue in depictions of Boston. We’ve seen enough shows and films about South Boston, Charlestown, the North End, the white parts of Dorchester, or Massachusetts towns seemingly devoid of brown residents. It’s time for a family drama set in the South End/Lower Roxbury about a multiracial friend group of families that represents the diversity of the city. We deserve to finally see the Massachusetts we actually grew up in and live in shown to the rest of the world.