In the lush landscape of Monterey, California, where the houses look like pages out of an Architectural Digest spread, and an ocean view at sunset is all but given, wealthy, manicured white women get complicated backstories, and one lone, light-skinned black woman with wavy boho braids gets a whitewashed swan song. That might as well be the logline for Big Little Lies, HBO’s television adaptation of Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s wildly popular, bestselling 2014 book of the same title. Adapted and written by David E. Kelley (of The Practice and Ally McBeal fame, among other successful television shows with few to no characters of color) the series, which ended its second season last Sunday, is a plot-addled melange of marriage, single motherhood, domestic violence, sexual assault, and murder... but race, not so much.
It’s a pity. Zoë Kravitz, who absolutely acted her ass off in the role of Bonnie and proved that she really has the chops to be a formidable actress, told Rolling Stone that she’d broached the topic of race with the show’s writing and production team. “I tried to get a little more … [race] put into Big Little Lies … but people are scared to go there,” she said.
Go where, I wonder. In the year 2019, where do people have to go in their minds or in their lives in order to envision a multidimensional black woman with a personality and a narrative arc? More often than not, we’re standing right in front of them — they just don’t see us. As New Yorker writer Doreen St. Felix observed, Big Little Lies is essentially about whiteness.
The problem originates with Moriarty's novel, which is based in Australia and contains four women who are all white. For the televised series, the character of Bonnie was cast as black. Bonnie’s husband is white, which puts her in an interracial marriage, with a mixed-race child living in Monterey, which according to a 2010 Census report, is about three percent black. Again, there are a million and one reasons how or why Bonnie might have ended up where she did, in those particular and, on the surface of it, unlikely circumstances. Sadly, we never find out.
Rather, in the second season, Bonnie’s mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox) is introduced as a pushy dark-skinned woman, soon revealed to be a psychic, or to the trope-trained eye, a magical negress, who has fewer than five scenes before she collapses from a stroke and falls into a coma, where she stays throughout the rest of the season. Not before, however, she utters the show's most obvious and truthful commentary about Bonnie, "You are out here surrounded by people who don’t get you. They don’t look like you. I haven’t even seen one other black person since I’ve been out here." (In a Vanity Fair interview, Fox revealed that the line was in fact ad-libbed.)
Later, Elizabeth lays in her hospital bed hooked to an IV, while Bonnie and her bored and docile white father take turns sitting with her. During her hospital visits, Bonnie has flashbacks that tell us Elizabeth had been an abusive mother.
It’s telling that not one of the white women in the “Monterey Five,” as they became called, whose big little lie Bonnie is protecting and agonizing over, comes to visit her when she’s in the hospital holding vigil for her mother. In fact, throughout the show, Bonnie is an island unto herself. Her friendships with the women are tentative, removed. In the second season, one suspects this might be because the others are too busy trying to help protect Celeste (Nicole Kidman) from losing custody of her twin boys in the aftermath of their father’s death. Celeste’s mother-in-law, Mary Louise, shows up in the form of Meryl Streep, making it seem almost unfair to ask for more of anything, much less a deeper storyline for a character the show clearly doesn’t care about. Streep is at the top of her game (I mean, when is she not?), and impossible to not watch, as she tears her wretched little heart out in defense of her dead, abusive, rapist son, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard).
Celeste and Mary Louise battle over the boys in a series of melodramatic court scenes, while Madeleine (Reese Witherspoon), Renata (Laura Dern) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) sit in the front row of the courts public seating area, looking anguished and gravely concerned.
Yet again, where’s Bonnie? Well, she’s at the hospital, grieving the loss of her childhood, her mother, her marriage — after Elizabeth dies, Bonnie abruptly tells her husband, Nathan (James Tupper), that she doesn’t love him and never has — and, turns out, she’s also anticipating the loss of her freedom as a citizen of America.
In the first season, we are led to believe that Bonnie pushed Perry to his death because she was acting out of in-the-moment anger and solidarity with the women he’d abused. But she eventually tells her comatose mother that when she lunged at him, she was actually lunging at her. Bonnie’s confession was her closure, and the final scene of season two (which is reportedly the last) is Bonnie turning herself in to the Monterey Police Department, with the other four women in tow. Are we to guess that they are willing to support her now that she’s going to take the fall for them? Ironically, she’s doing what every black woman is expected to do — carry the burden for white women, and everyone else in the history of forever.
As a black adoptee in a white family myself, I saw Bonnie’s character as a thoughtful and potentially imaginative way for Kelley to address how a black woman navigates an all-white world, even within her own family, while also staying connected to her own racial identity. Alas, it doesn’t appear that Kelley had a nuanced representation in mind. Or perhaps more worrisome, maybe this was all he could imagine for her.
Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely. Her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2020.