In the ever-evolving landscape of American television, the measure of progress in race relations often finds expression in who graces the living rooms of White Americans. To be Black and featured on TV, familiar enough to be addressed on a first-name basis by White viewers, has historically been a testament to trustworthiness. From the iconic Julia, J.J., Cliff, Olivia, Annalise to Dre, these figures have shaped the narrative of Black experiences on the small screen over the last half-century.
In the insightful exploration presented in “Black TV: Five Decades of Groundbreaking Television From Soul Train to Black-ish and Beyond” by Washington Post pop culture writer Bethonie Butler, the focus is not solely on how Black TV transformed America (although it undeniably did), but rather on narratives that unapologetically “center Black people and their experiences” without being tethered to the influence of white characters.
The timing of “Black TV” coincides with what can be considered a victory lap for Black storytellers. The success stories of creators like Shonda Rhimes, Donald Glover, Quinta Brunson, and Kenya Barris underscore the shift in focus towards the voices of those behind the scenes. Butler skillfully navigates through the pivotal moments in the history of Black TV, emphasizing the significance of creators and producers who breathed life into Black narratives on television.
The journey commences with “Julia,” a groundbreaking series that debuted in 1968 with Diahann Carroll in the titular role. Before “Julia,” television had often leaned on stereotypes or portrayed Black characters as mere servants in shows like “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and “Beulah.” Butler delves into the timeless dance between White producers, network executives, and their attempts to define what they perceived as authentic Blackness.
The narrative extends to the influential comedian Redd Foxx, celebrated for his generosity on “The Tonight Show” in 1965, where his endorsement of Flip Wilson catapulted Wilson to A-list status. Foxx, in turn, leveraged his platform to advocate for other talents like Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney, shaping the landscape for shows like “Sanford and Son.”
Pryor, a pivotal figure in Black comedy, hosted “Saturday Night Live” during its inaugural season, leading to the creation of “The Richard Pryor Show” in 1977. Despite its brief run, the impact was enduring, paving the way for future shows like “In Living Color,” “Def Comedy Jam,” and “Chappelle’s Show.”
The ethical practices of Black Hollywood, reflected in the cast of groundbreaking sitcoms like “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons,” changed how race was discussed on television. However, as Butler reveals, Hollywood did not always reciprocate the same level of respect, with legal battles, such as Eric Monte’s lawsuit against the creators of “Good Times,” exemplifying the challenges faced by Black creators.
While recent successes like “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” and “Empire” dominate the television landscape, Butler urges us not to forget the struggles faced by Black dramatic actors in earlier years. Despite the monumental success of “Roots” in 1977, featuring an exceptional cast, the hiring landscape for Black actors did not witness the anticipated shift.
The turning point arrived in 1984 with “The Cosby Show,” heralding a new era for Black family life sitcoms. Following its success, shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters,” “Moesha,” and “Living Single” further solidified the presence of Black characters on television.
As “Black TV” takes us on a journey through these transformative decades, it prompts reflection on the strides made and challenges faced by Black creators and actors in reshaping the landscape of American television.