The Black doctor on the historical small screen
African American physicians in television period dramas
in Diagnosing history
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This chapter looks at American period dramas’ portrayal of Black physicians on five shows: CBS’s M*A*S*H*; BBC America’s Copper; Showtime’s Masters of Sex; Cinemax’s The Knick; and PBS’s Mercy Street. It examines how these shows have depicted African American doctors: whether these characters are historically accurate; whether they are nuanced or stereotypical; and how they have contributed to or helped to challenge entrenched historical myths and misconceptions of Black doctors.

Analysis reveals the characters are largely complex and historically accurate. Through these characters, based on real-life figures, viewers can learn about obstacles that African Americans faced in becoming doctors, including rejection by white peers and patients and everyday racism and violence. The shows also detail the courage that was required to challenge these limitations and hints at their roles as community leaders and activists. However, there are problems with some of the portrayals. The characters follow some of the tropes of the Black professional seen in contemporary medical dramas: the exceptional, brilliant, ambitious individual achieving success through personal dedication and hard work. The characters are all men, reflective of the continued underrepresentation of Black women in television shows. Additionally, the characters are primarily significant individuals in an ensemble, but not the main characters in the shows, who are all white; The Knick is the sole exception. Finally, the roles of Black doctors as leaders in the Black freedom movement is largely absent, and instead, the shows focus primarily on the characters’ singular struggles against oppression.

Diagnosing history

Medicine in television period drama

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