In these febrile times, there is little more comforting than rewatching a much-loved series or film: at this point, the dopamine hit of nostalgia deserves “key worker” status. But often, as we look back with a more critical eye, joy can be accompanied by the uncomfortable recognition of a lack of diversity in our old favourites. All too often, black actors have been cast in minor roles, their characters a footnote to the main story. Here are some of TV and film’s black characters who deserve their dues …
Denzil Tulser in Only Fools and Horses
(played by Paul Barber)
Loyal as they come, Liverpudlian lorry driver Denzil was the perfect foil for the Trotters’ escapades. Whatever mad scheme the brothers hatched, he’d be there to help. Without Denzil, we wouldn’t have many of the sitcom’s classic scenes: for example, when Del, Rodney and Albert “sailed” from Hull to the Netherlands after Del got locked in Denzil’s trailer.
Best quote “[Rodney’s] cool. I tell you, if he wasn’t so white, I’d swear he was black.”
Duke Ellington in The Story of Tracy Beaker
The lovable care worker and head chef extraordinaire Duke holds cult-like status among millennials who grew up with this series, set in the chaotic children’s residential care home nicknamed the Dumping Ground. Caring, playful and harbouring a kindred hatred for Elaine the Pain – the home’s much-maligned, do-gooder social worker – he was the surrogate dad the kids needed.
Best bit The fever dream that gave us the Lovely Bubbly Porridge song.
Stanley Hudson in The Office (US version)
(Leslie David Baker)
A long-suffering salesman for paper company Dunder Mifflin, Stanley Hudson deserves props simply for tolerating the torrent of office antics. Boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell)’s constant pep did nothing to quell Stanley’s severe hatred for his job. He would rather be anywhere else in the world (and it shows), but with sudoku puzzle in hand, he will stick it out and do the bare minimum until retirement.
Best quote “Did I stutter?”
Sam in Holes
Hill may be better known for playing another peripheral character, presidential aide Charlie Young in The West Wing, but as Sam – farmer, expertly skilled handyman and all-round good guy – he received even shorter shrift in this poignant coming-of-age movie. The “forbidden” love between the charming Sam and schoolteacher Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette) saw his ruthless, untimely murder, which broke audience hearts despite his relatively brief appearance. Sam deserved the world, but the world didn’t deserve him.
Best quote “I can fix that.”
Missandei in Game of Thrones
In her journey from enslaved young woman to trusted adviser and friend to Queen Daenerys, Missandei was arguably the heart of this fantasy series. Her slow-burning friendship-turned-relationship with Grey Worm was a source of pure joy amid the hellscape of a world they lived in, yet her execution is remembered as one of the most heartless deaths on the show.
Best bit Every scene between Missandei and Grey Worm, to be honest.
Ronnie in Schitt’s Creek
When the formerly rich Rose family first moved to her humdrum home town, it’s fair to say that Ronnie – councillor and Jazzagals a cappella group member – was not their biggest fan. Exasperated by the wildly flamboyant (read: iconic) Moira, Ronnie and her no-nonsense attitude were left thoroughly unimpressed. But beneath the hardened exterior lay a caring heart, and her unspoken protectiveness over Moira’s son David was frankly one of the most underrated aspects of the series.
Best quote “So what’s your deal? You’re pretty. What’s that like?”
Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films
As one of the few people of colour in the entire Harry Potter franchise, Dean deserves an honourable mention. He carried the hopes and dreams of young, black, would-be witches and wizards on his shoulders with the few lines he delivered. Dean deserved just as much dialogue as his best friend Seamus but, nevertheless, he acted the hell out of those background scenes.
Best bit Dean getting with Ginny and annoying Ron in the process.
Lavender in Matilda
Welcoming Matilda on her first day of school, Lavender is the kind of friend everyone wants: ride or die, no questions asked. Miss Trunchbull wasn’t ready for the formidable duo. Inspired by her magical friend’s bravery, the baby-faced assassin conspired to take Trunchbull down; lest we forget, Lavender is the genius who put the newt in the water jug. All while dressed in purple (Lavender, duh?).
Best quote “Shot put, javelin, hammer throw.”