Race on ‘Mad Men’: What Could Satisfy Us?

Given past critiques of black roles on-screen, is there anything the writers can do to make us happy?


Since Mad Men is back with us and the year is 1966, it looks as if the handling of race on the show will finally be more up front than it has been before. In the Season 5 premiere, black people picketed the ad agency Young & Rubicam and had water bags dropped on them (which happened in actuality). Sterling, Cooper was soon faced with a lobby full of black people answering an equal-employment-opportunity ad that Roger put out in jest as a swipe at Y&R.

However, are we in for three months of indignant editorials about how the Mad Men writers just “don’t get” the black thing? We’ve been primed for it by common complaints that there haven’t been enough black people on the show, period. However, if the complaining continues, one will have to ask: Is there anything the Mad Men people will be able to do right?

I wonder. For example, many would have preferred that Mad Men follow the Drapers’ maid, Carla, home and explore her life as a black person during the turbulent 1960s. But we have just seen what happens when white Hollywood makes a film about black maids in the ’60s: The Help. And it would seem that the proper way to feel about The Help is that it was a botched job. Mad Men could hardly help reanimating similar sentiments.

The Help kept historical racial clashes like the assassination of Medgar Evers in the background in favor of kitchen-sink dramas, Nelson George told us. But Mad Men has always kept history in the background: No character was placed in Dallas to watch John F. Kennedy get shot. George also disliked The Helps “candy-coated cinematography.” But Mad Men is shot in sumptuous, saturated color, and so, things happening to black people, too, are always going to look photographically plush (like the female applicants’ outfits in the season premiere).

Many thought that whites and blacks got along too well in The Help. Valerie Boyd found it implausible that the maids would dare tell a white woman their story. How dare there be a certain amount of comedy, Manohla Dargis thought. But even amid segregation and open racism, individuals find common humanity across racial lines here and there when interacting seven days a week. Life is subtle. And part of Mad Mens iconic status is due to its fondness for ambiguity.

There were those (such as Boyd) who disliked that in The Help, black victory was channeled too much through whites; for example, it was the white character Skeeter who wrote the book for the black maids. It’s no good, we were told, to downplay black people’s determination of their own fates. But if Mad Men depicts black progress from the late ’60s on, then it will be true to history if it depicts their working with whites to get things done, bit by bit. Montgomery and the March on Washington are, by 1966, in the past. “Black power” was longer on mood than it was on concrete economic results.