Now, in addition to black families and individuals valuing an honest day’s work, you have those who prefer a dishonest way at making a living.
Nowadays, when I think back to the entertainment media of the 90s, what I appreciated most was the many and almost always positive portrayals of black families on broadcast television. Most memorable to me were ‘Family Matters,’ an ABC sitcom about a middle-class Chicago family whose patriarch was a police officer; ‘The Parent Hood,’ which told the story on The WB of an upper-middle-class family in New York City whose patriarch was a college professor and whose matriarch was a lawyer; ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ a NBC sitcom starring Mr. Will Smith that portrayed a wealthy family who lived in a Bel-Air mansion and whose patriarch was a judge; and Fox’s uber-political production, ‘Roc,’ a Baltimore-based story of a garbage collector and a registered nurse who had living with them the patriarch’s father and younger brother.
Many more sitcoms portraying black families existed of course, but those I mentioned are the most diverse, in my opinion, as it relates to the socio-economic statuses of the families. And though varied in wealth, the four sitcoms, like many others at that time, often connected its themes to either civic engagement or activism: In ‘Roc,’ the patriarch ran for City Council; Mr. Robert Peterson, the name of the father in ‘The Parent Hood,’ had a show on public access television and often challenged individuals who portrayed blacks in a negative light; and the fathers in both ‘Family Matters’ and ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ are upholders of the law.
Considering what was happening in America in the late 80s and early 90s – a crack epidemic in urban centers that led to habitual criminality which prompted President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill – the entertainment media seems to have been uber flattering to African-Americans; in a way, broadcast television at that time presented an almost sanitized image of black families: hard work, honesty, community, and manhood were values promoted in almost every episode of the sitcoms mentioned earlier. Even in the 2000s, there were black sitcoms, like ABC’s ‘My Wife and Kids’ and Fox’s ‘The Bernie Mac Show,’ that were equally positive and flattering in their portrayal of African-American families.
Given this fact, it’s hard for me to understand why current-day shows like Fox’s ‘Empire,’ a Wednesday night soap-opera of sorts about a rap mogul and his dysfunctional family and dynasty, and Bounce TV’s ‘Saints & Sinners,’ a brand-new Sunday night hour-long drama about an Georgia church congregation who often gives into temptation, are bombarded with criticism that they do nothing to alter the perception of blacks in America. Mr. Tavis Smiley last April went as far as to suggest that ‘Empire’ shows the worst of black people and Dr. Boyce Watkins, who told Mr. Don Lemon on CNN that black actors and actress are tired of being put in the entertainment ghetto, called it a “ghettofied hood drama.”
Dr. Watkins’ comments suggest that black actors and actress have never had the opportunity to, on broadcast television, play anything other than pimps, drug-dealers, rappers, basketball players and murders. Though the movie industry has surely put black actors in a box, broadcast television has since long ago – think about ‘The Jefferson,’ ‘Good Times’ and ‘Sanford and Son’ – portrayed African-Americans as a race of people who value family and an honest day’s work. But if good exist, so should bad, for how would one know what’s positive unless they’ve experienced negative? Moreover, one of the biggest challenges of African-Americans is to get world to see that they’re not, despite popular opinion, a monolith.
Today’s broadcast television offers the most diverse look at black families that may have ever existed. Now, in addition to black families and individuals valuing an honest day’s work, you have those who prefer a dishonest way at making a living. But to call the latter group “the worst,” is to deny that portrayal the humanity upon which it is based. Not all black families have, as their patriarch, a judge, a professor, a doctor, or a city employee. Some have, at the head of the table, corrupt music executives who made their fortune from drug money and sinister ministers. Do black families of a certain pedigrees not deserve a portrayal on television? And who gets to decide what a good black family is?
‘Empire’ might not portray blacks in the most greatest of images, but the characters on the show almost always promote family above anything else. In fact, in both ‘Empire’ and ‘Saints and Sinners,’ whatever criminality is done is enacted in order to provide for, and safeguard, the family. Is that the right thing to do? That’s debatable. Do families like those exist, however? The answer is yes: their existence is undisputed and is as real as those families portrayed in ‘Family Matters,’ ‘The Parent Hood,’ ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ and ‘Roc.’
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™
Photo: Screenshot/Empire Season 1/FOX