‘Sleepy Hollow’: A new day for race on network TV?

Teresa Wiltz | 9/20/2013, 6:05 a.m.
Back in 1820, when Washington Irving penned “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” most black folks were in chains, women were ...
The cast of Sleepy Hollow features Nicole Beharie, center, in a starring role. Courtesy of Fox

Sleepy Hollow is also greatly grounded by Beharie’s performance. In her competent hands, Abbie is a fully formed person with her own complicated backstory. Together, she and Ichabod form a modern-day salt-and-pepper pairing, good-naturedly debating the merits of the Revolutionary War era versus the ubiquity of Starbucks in 21st century living.

Sleepy Hollow does what I wish more television would do: Like Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, it’s matter of fact in the way it treats race, acknowledging it without belaboring the point. “You’ve been emancipated, I take it,” Ichabod says when he first meets Abbie.

Her response? “OK. I’ll play along. I am a black female lieutenant with the Westchester County Police Department. Do you see this gun? I’m authorized to use it. On you. … Slavery was abolished 150 years ago. It’s a whole new day in America.”

In lesser hands — Meagan Good’s undercover cop in NBC TV’s now defunct Deception comes to mind — this could be a real scenery-chewer of a line. But Beharie keeps it understated, ironic, light: Yeah, I’m African American, she seems to be saying, and the sky is also blue. She keeps it moving, unhampered by the constraints of identity politics. Her Abbie is a no-fuss, no-muss everywoman, attractive, but decidedly unglamorous, a woman who’s got a job to do and does it — well.

Here’s hoping television, currently enjoying a renaissance, will bring us many more similarly emancipated black women characters.

Teresa Wiltz is a former deputy editor at Essence.