Depicting the Racist Past in a “Postracial” Age: The White, Male Protagonist in
Hell on Wheels and The Knick
Michael L. Wayne
Abstract: This article examines the ways in which depictions of race and racism in some prime-time historical dramas promote contemporary postracial ideologies. Focusing on the portrayals of overt racism and interracial relationships in Hell on Wheels (2011–2016) and The Knick (2014–2015), the author argues that the use of morally ambiguous white, male protagonists in contexts associated with morally unambiguous racism allows these shows to acknowledge the centrality of racism in American history while simultaneously presenting racism in interpersonal rather than systemic terms. This representational strategy differs from the politically correct depictions of race and racism in historical dramas like Mad Men (2007–2015). As such, Hell on Wheels and The Knick reflect the paradox of postracial popular culture whereby depictions of racial animus and violence support viewers’ desires to forget about both race and racism. In contrast, the racial caste system in Deadwood (2004–2006) presents white supremacy and American history as inseparable. This article concludes by discussing some of the connections between these representational strategies and the shifting economic landscape of the post-network-era television.