'Mad Men' and black characters: Negative depictions in the name of diversity?

african kings

It’s all about choice. When artists create, they decide what to present, what to leave out and what to make up. A work of art need not follow any script, except the one in its creator’s head.

But when part of the appeal of that creation is realism, a promise that the fiction accurately depicts what is or what was, the game changes and the artist should be prepared for the criticism that is sure to follow if his or her version of truth seems inaccurate.

Calling for diversity when recreating history

In 2013, in a diverse country, a television show that doesn’t reflect that diversity often has to deflect negative attacks from anyone who notices. Ask Lena Dunham, whose hit Girls on HBO depicts a city that my similarly-educated, 20-something New Yorker son would not recognize — a mostly-white one. Though she has been both praised and criticized for its monochromatic navel gazing, even many of her defenders concede the point that the show lacks a realistic depiction of racial variety.

But make a period piece, and you’re immune from such a modern conundrum, right?

This brings me to the AMC television show Mad Men, one I came to love back in 2007 because of the exquisite art direction, but stayed with for its complex storytelling and deft writing. In the foreground, it’s about the goings-on at a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the mid-1960s, and the relationships of agency staffers with their clients and one another. That bright world of wealth and Manhattan skyscrapers contrasts with what happens in the background, which is most of the real story. With its infidelities, double crosses, unhappy marriages and lonely suburban outposts, this world of boozing men and women is often grimy and corrupt.

Mad Times: Getting some things right

With the outwardly impervious creative director Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) leading the way, the show gets a lot right even as seen through an exaggerated TV lens – the cocktails and cigarettes, the casual sexism and racism.

The impeccable casting includes Robert Morse – that imp from the mid-1960s high-finance satire How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying – all grown up now as an agency grand pooh-bah in the role of Bertram “Bert” Cooper. Subtle creative choices like these make the depictions in Mad Men superb.

It doesn’t really bother me that pivotal events of this era, such as the Vietnam War, the assassinations of JFK and his brother Robert Kennedy, and the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, are experienced through its privileged main characters’ eyes. Isn’t that often the way the self-centered view important events? The show still manages to reflect its turbulent decade of war, protests and violence, as women and minorities demand access to rights their society has denied them.

These depictions are accurate. Mostly, anyway.

Getting gender right, but getting race wrong

Its female characters are varied in type and ambition. Creator Matthew Weiner has bragged about the high percentage of women in the Mad Men writing room. But I have to wonder about how many minorities are pitching story ideas there, because when it deals with African-Americans, the show takes no such care. It’s pretty clueless when it comes to the important role of minorities in shaping the New York of the time – its culture, fashions and, yes, business evolution.

Advertising was and continues to be far less diverse than the rest of the business world, an especially egregious sin, because its images create a national narrative. But despite the discrimination and challenges, African-Americans have made their mark in this field in creative and positive ways.

In the real world of 1960s Madison Avenue, Georg Olden, an African-American, was a vice president and senior art director at the prestigious McCann Erickson agency, who went on to win seven CLIO awards, the industry’s premier annual award granted for the best in advertising and package design. Seven CLIOs — many more than the fictional Draper and his team. Olden even designed the CLIO statuette.

It’s logical to assume that to succeed in a time of blatant bias, a successful black man or woman had to be a star. Some of these pioneers also started their own well-known agencies at the time as a response to discrimination.