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When season 4 of the acclaimed television series Succession premiered in early 2023, I couldn’t wait to watch it. I was hooked on the soap opera-style drama and its sordid tragic-comic depiction of a media-owning dynasty of billionaires. But when I brought it up at the dinner table, my partner remarked, “I thought it’s a pretty white show, and you’ve said you won’t watch shows with majority white casts anymore.”
It’s true; I’ve had my fill of television shows and movies where people of color are either largely absent or present only as props for white leads. But there is something about Succession that makes me overlook its lack of racial diversity. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it initially, but I think I’m starting to understand its appeal, especially for people of color.
The caucasity of a show about the casual cruelty of excess is precisely the point.
The Invisibility of White Wealth
The white-dominated film and television industry has taken far too long to finally skewer white wealth—as Succession does—instead of glamorizing it. From the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind, in which slavery was merely the gauzy backdrop of a rich white woman’s love life, to the fashion-centered 2001 smash hit Legally Blonde, where audiences were expected to empathize with the struggles of a rich white woman’s efforts to win over a man by attending Harvard Law, on-screen wealth has traditionally been an invitation for us to relate to the wealthy, not critique them for their excess. On-screen wealth has been a ubiquitous fixture of our culture—yet it has rarely been the focus. Instead, it has often been unremarkable, like the air that our favorite characters breathe.
In the years since the popular and long-running ’90s sitcom Friends aired, critics pointed out how implausible it was for white middle-class New Yorkers to effortlessly afford well-appointed roomy apartments in a city where most upper middle class people routinely squeeze into closet-sized spaces. Or how Sex in the City’s Carrie Bradshaw’s haute couture wardrobe, presumably purchased on a writer’s salary, was so ludicrously unrealistic. For years, popular TV and film tropes centered on the trials and tribulations of (often white) people in settings where money was rarely, if ever, an issue—as though talking about money in their scripts might force screenwriters to deal with economic realities.
There are exceptions, of course, which offered more truthful depictions of the struggles of working-class people. Among them was the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son, which had a majority-Black cast, and Roseanne, which was made in the 1980s and ’90s and had a majority-white cast. In such shows, the protagonists’ struggles to keep their head above financial water was not just ever-present, but the central point.
Today, Roseanne, now rebooted as The Conners, alongside contemporary shows like Shameless, and (the far more racially diverse) Superstore, still offer glimpses—however rare—of the daily struggles of working-class Americans, white and nonwhite. In such worlds the perpetual hustles to make ends meet offer endless and relatable punchlines. But welcome as such tropes are, the wealthy remain largely invisible in their storylines.
The Visibility of Black and Brown Wealth
On shows where wealth is a focus, there has been a propensity to showcase rich or upper middle class people of color: The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The more contemporary iterations of this trope can be found in shows like Empire or even Bridgerton.
There were commendable efforts, starting in the 2000s, by Hollywood’s writers to juxtapose overtly wealthy characters with middle- and working-class ones in shows like the wonderfully diverse Ugly Betty and, later, the equally lovable Jane the Virgin. Both shows centered working-class Latinas struggling to break into worlds controlled by the very wealthy.
But both shows also personified wealth often, though not exclusively, through characters of color—such as Vanessa Williams, who played a Black version of the real-life Vogue editor Anna Wintour in Ugly Betty, and Justin Baldoni, a Jewish-Italian actor whose complexion allowed him to portray a presumed-Latino hotel magnate named Rafael Solano in Jane the Virgin (the show’s writers adjusted the storyline to make Solano white in later seasons.)
Apple TV’s new show Loot takes a similar approach by casting the talented comedienne Maya Rudolph as a cluelessly earnest billionaire. And who could forget Crazy Rich Asians, the 2018 smash-hit film which sold us the idea that the absurdly wealthy can also be people of color: vulnerable humans who can rely on private jets to aid them in a relatable search for love?
Casting people of color in the roles of the very wealthy allows Hollywood to paint excess wealth-hoarding with a veneer of acceptability: They’re rich, snobbish, and enjoy lifestyles we can only dream of. But they’re also Black, Brown, or Asian so it’s OK, right?
If only it were true that there were plenty of wealthy people of color. The majority of wealth in the U.S. is held by white households. Less than 1% of all billionaires are Black. Even when considering millionaires, 76% are white. The likelihood of a very wealthy person to be Black or Brown is quite low, and yet films and television seem to love showcasing wealthy people of color.
To be fair, rich white characters with overt wealth and power have not been entirely absent from our screens. Indeed, films in particular—more so than television—have occasionally depicted such figures to great acclaim. Think Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane, considered one of the greatest movies ever made and loosely based on the life of media baron William Randolph Hearst. Or the 1987 Oliver Stone drama Wall Street, in which Michael Douglas expertly plays greedy financier Gordon Gekko. Or Martin Scorsese’s 2013 dark comedy Wolf of Wall Street, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio showcasing the life of a wealthy white-collar white criminal.
One could even argue that the 1993 hit Jurassic Park wasn’t just an action thriller, but one whose plot highlighted the hubris of the wealthy. The common thread through these films is the sinisterness of wealthy white criminality.
The Nascent Visibility of White Wealth
In the past two decades, television finally began, albeit slowly, to normalize the skewering of white wealth. Wealthy white protagonists are objects of ridicule in numerous popular sitcoms, among them Arrested Development, a show that Betsy Leondar-Wright, author of The Color of Wealth, described as one that “accurately illustrates some common maladaptive life paths of people who grow up in wealthy families.”
Then there was Schitt’s Creek, a sitcom about a white family losing their wealth and being forced to live in a rundown rural town they had bought as a joke. And, of course, there is the ongoing The White Lotus, a wildly popular dark comedy that expertly lampoons the cluelessly privileged as they vacation in exotic locations.
What’s behind this trend? Prentice Penny, the showrunner for HBO’s majority-Black show Insecure, told Variety, “I think what people like seeing, especially right now, is rich people getting some comeuppance or going through a lot of drama and being upended.”
Indeed, there may be an increasing public thirst for content ridiculing the rich. In a 2022 study, the University of California Los Angeles’ Center for Scholars and Storytellers found that among teenagers in particular, there is a “rejection of traditionally aspirational content that valorizes higher social status and material gains.” It may be no coincidence that this is happening while economic inequality continues to grow and union activity is sharply rising.
But narratives in mass media work both ways: Culture feeds the demands that shapes content, but content also shapes culture. The London School of Economics conducted a study which found that “People who regularly watch television shows that glamorize fame, luxury, and the accumulation of wealth … are potentially more likely to be in favor of punitive cuts to welfare payments.” Although it’s too much to expect overtly anti-capitalist (and anti-racist) fare from Hollywood, as screenwriters strike for better pay and working conditions, we may start to see more story lines exposing the machinations of the power players controlling our economy.
This would be bad news for the nation’s ultra-rich, who seem to prefer invisibility—not just from the Internal Revenue Service but also from the rest of us. “Stealth wealth” is a fashionable trend among one-percenters. But “Eat the Rich” is gaining traction among the rest of us.
Displaying the Dysfunctionality of White Wealth
In Succession, the wealthy members of the Roy family and their internecine warfare are laid bare for all to see. Writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe’s hilarious attempt to write lyrics for the show’s signature soundtrack sums it up like this: “All the rich white folks are going to argue, and then whoever’s best is going to win a kiss from daddy.”
Central to the show is the sheer ineptness of the Roy siblings—deeply flawed people who are born into gratuitous wealth, shooting from the hip, and incessantly falling prey to “daddy issues.” Not only are they lacking in intellect, their money and the nepotism it enables may be why they haven’t had to exercise their brains very much. The siblings’ power stems not from clever decision-making but from having buckets of money to throw around.
Their knee-jerk whims, manifesting via their media empire, have enormous impact on society. The siblings show disdain for those not lucky enough to be born into wealth. Together with the show’s patriarch Logan Roy, they are racist, often misogynist, and, especially in Season 4, hardcore flirting with fascism.
It only makes sense, then, for the show to be mostly white. The Roys are a fictitious amalgam of any number of white wealthy dynasties that dominate American culture: the Murdochs, the Mercers, the Waltons, and of course, the Trumps. As Bea Gutiérrez wrote in an analysis for the BIPOC collective Off Colour, “To fit into the series’ satirical world, marginalized characters would almost always have to either be mistreated or share the same abominable morals that our protagonists do.”
Not only is it important for television to display the reality of white wealth and its negative impact on society, but it is critical that such depictions are not whitewashed (no pun intended) by actors of color. Making visible the often-invisible power and abuse of white billionaires can shape our culture as a whole and make it less acceptable for the uber wealthy to keep hoarding resources.
And so, like many people of color across the U.S., I deeply enjoyed Succession, perfectly unperturbed for once that in such a show, people of color were gloriously on the sidelines. After all, we’re the ones eating popcorn and watching with glee.
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com