In The Hollywood Race, Shannon Houston examines the dynamics of race and culture as they play out in film, television, music and pop culture.
Even die-hard fans of The Good Wife might be surprised to read this, but the CBS drama is, among many other things, one of the most important shows for people of color right now. Last season I saw some strange and fascinating things going on, including racial subtext that was never at the center of the plot, but always made for an exciting peripheral.
And this season I see it becoming more prevalent, especially now that we’re seeing more of Mike Colter’s character, Lemond Bishop. Bishop is client of Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and although he is a drug kingpin, his story is a bit more complicated than that. Not complicated in the way one might expect (where he’s really a good guy, just trying to provide for his family; a product of his environment, etc.), but complicated in that—like many of the characters on The Good Wife—we haven’t quite figured him out yet. Whether he’s politely threatening Kalinda Sharma (Archia Panjabi), or screaming at his son’s soccer game, Bishop is a little odd—and “odd” is incredibly hard to come by for black characters on television.
Colter is in no way new to my recent revelations about the series, now in its sixth season. He saw very early on that his role on The Good Wife would not rely on the clichés he’d been avoiding for his whole career. In fact, he avoided these clichés so much, that a man of lesser faith and resolve might not have had a career at all. After a key role in, arguably, the most important and critically-acclaimed film of 2004, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, Colter (who played boxer Big Willie Little) had Hollywood banging down his door—but for all of the roles that he didn’t want. As an actor, it’s difficult to turn down role after role. As an actor of color, it’s basically a request for early retirement.
“The easy thing for me, after Million Dollar Baby, happened to be the athletic market—to try to play more athletes or more boxers,” Colter explains. “My agent at the time wanted me to go for Rocky Balboa. I love Stallone, I’m a big Stallone fan, but I just did not want to play another boxer, or another athlete. I was adamant about it, and my agent was a little annoyed with me.” Needless to say, Colter has since gotten a new agent. But he admits it must have been frustrating to see all of these opportunities, and to have a client who simply kept saying “no,” to lucrative work—and to the money that would have come along with.
“I just kept telling [my agent at the time] I could do more than that. I’m good with language, I’m more of a thinker. I can do other things.”
Colter says that he “didn’t know how to ‘cash in’ on the newfound potential,” but I believe he did know how to do it; he chose a different route instead. And part of this choice required that he think of himself as an actor, rather than a black actor with limited options.
“I did not want to look at myself as an actor of color,” he explains. “I felt that was limiting. You walk into a casting office, and, ultimately, they see what they see. But if you see yourself in a certain way, or with a certain potential, eventually other people will see that potential too, if you’re able to demonstrate it.”
Colter admits that waiting for a non-boxer, non-athletic role to come along took patience, and “was scary for a while.” But he’s happy to also admit that, “it’s paying off now.”
What’s interesting about his role as Lemond Bishop is that it is, actually, another character trope that he’d vowed to never play—drug dealer. However, after six seasons, it’s very clear that Bishop—though dark and brooding, and quietly intimidating—defies most stereotypes. Colter says that, from the first script he received, he knew this role was going to be different. He knew that “the drug dealer in The Good Wife world would not be the same as a drug dealer in The Wire.” And that’s why he offered up another beautiful “no” to his own rules, and took the part.
“Lemond isn’t written like a typical drug dealer,” Colter says. “If you didn’t hear about some of the things he does, the way he’s presented, he could easily be one of the lawyers in the firm.” And he’s right. Bishop’s suits could adorn any member of Florrick, Agos and Lockhart. “It’s like he’s chosen to take his business savvy and turn it into a lucrative drug business, along with his legitimate businesses. That’s what drew me to him—I can do the things that I’m good at, without falling into certain stereotypes.”
Colter also gets to have these unique relationships with the characters on the series. With Alicia, from the first episode he shot with her, he’s always been able to call her on her stuff. “Don’t make assumptions about me because I’m a black guy,” he says in one of their first scenes together. But he’s a conniving sort. Colter explains that Bishop is written in a complicated manner, because “he’s aware of what people see, and uses that to his advantage.” Someone like Alicia Florrick—and many of her colleagues—would never want to appear to be racist, or to participate in racial stereotypes. Bishop knows this, and takes it into consideration when he makes his moves.
The only one he can’t quite pull this off on is Kalinda, another character of color. This season, as the two have been facing off over the arrest of Cary Agos (Matt Czurchy), and it’s been incredible to watch.
“I’m literally a foot taller than her,” Colter laughs. “But if there was someone locked in a closet with Lemond Bishop, Kalinda’d be the one to make it out alive. She’s small, but there’s always something up her sleeve. She’s a formidable adversary.” Colter adds that he loves working with the entire cast, but—like many of us—he was disappointed when Josh Charles made that dramatic exit last season. “I think Will and Lemond really got along well together, because he didn’t care where Lemond got the money from,” he says, laughing again. “He just wanted to keep it in the firm.”
We know that Colter as Bishop has plenty to more to give us this season on The Good Wife (and, when he’s not staring down Kalinda, he’s the new face of HALO: Nightfall). At the beginning of our talk, we laugh about the drama club he started—the first of its kind—in his high school. This is a guy who talked his fellow classmates into joining the group, then talked teachers and students into handing over their jewelry and clothing, when he realized there was no budget for costumes. That he’s managed to make it in Hollywood—without going the route of many of his peers—should come as no surprise. And, well, it’s pretty damn amazing. Which is why I have to disagree with one more point Colter makes.
“I enjoy playing Lemond because he’s a little bit cooler than I am, and a little bit more charming.” Cooler than the guy who broke Clint Eastwood’s heart in Million Dollar Baby? Cooler than the guy playing, arguably, the coolest business man (legitimate and otherwise, ahem) on television right now? More charming than the actor who started off this conversation, making an excellent point about the name “Shannon,” and how sorely underused it is?
I don’t think so.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.