HBO racializes the story of Julia Child in its miniseries on the creation of her television show
It appears that in order to get a green light to produce a miniseries these days, one is required to have major story elements featuring positive Black characters overcoming racism. Even when telling the story of a famous (White) woman creating a cultural landmark with the participation of no actual Black people.
That's the most logical explanation for the distortion (AKA lies) injected into the story of how Julia Child came to start her landmark public television cooking show The French Chef, which debuted in 1963 on WGBH-TV in Boston and went on to become a television and cultural landmark. HBO began streaming its "dramedy" series Julia on HBO Max a few months ago and has garnered positive reviews and an 8.4 very high rating on IMDB, using the "inspired by" rubric to justify fictionalizing the story of a very real person and to inject comedic and satirical elements — along with bogus intimations of racism.
The star of the series, British actress Sarah Lancashire, does a fantastic job of portraying Julia Child. She is so good at inhabiting the personality and physical habitus of Julia Child that it is easy to assume that other elements of story being presented are also accurate. But the racialization of story grated on me. It is considered vaguely racist, apparently, to present the story of a White woman who, working with other White people, created something wonderful of lasting cultural significance. So a Black character had to be fabricated and injected into the story, overcoming racism and leading an exemplary and somewhat inspiring story of creative accomplishment that became essential to the success of the White protagonist.
The Los Angeles Times explains:
The series is less biopic than utopian workplace dramedy about Childs' cooking show "The French Chef" and the birth of public television as we know it. (snip)
Picking up more or less where the biopic "Julie & Julia" left off, "Julia" offers a fascinating look at real-life figures who helped create Child's groundbreaking show, "The French Chef," in the early 1960s — and in the process invented a new kind of television. Here's a guide to who's who in the series (snip)
Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford): An ambitious young Black producer and big believer in Child's appeal to TV viewers, Alice is a fictional character, though one seemingly inspired by several female producers who were instrumental in bringing "The French Chef" to air, including Ruth Lockwood, who helped pick out the show's theme music, and Miffy Goodhart, who booked Child in her omelette-making debut on "People are Reading" and pushed a skeptical Russ Morash to get her on the network again, according to Bob Spitz's biography "Dearie." As series creator Daniel Goldfarb and showrunner Chris Keyser told The Washington Post, there were Black producers at WGBH in this time period, so in theory there could have been a woman like Alice on "The French Chef."
The fictional Alice Naman is given credit for struggling (against the indifference of her White colleagues) and virtually inventing national distribution for a locally produced "educational TV" show. In 1963, there was no PBS, only NET: National Educational Television. But I know because I was alive then and watched a lot of those NET shows that national distribution was far from unusual.
Many of the White characters in the show are made fun of, some rather cruelly. The real person Albert Duhamel, on whose book show Julia Child made her debut, is a comic caricature of a stuffed shirt, and even Julia's husband Paul, played by David Hyde-Pierce of Frasier, comes in for some sly mockery.
But Alice Naman is a shining example of virtue, intelligence, and persistence, and her equally fictional boyfriend is an ideal type, too. The contrast with the treatment of others is ultimately patronizing, it seems to me.
Casual viewers of the series will come away further convinced that America is a racist country and that Black people of surpassing intelligence and virtue are routinely exploited and denied credit. That's a shame, and it mars what is otherwise an excellent production.