For decades, Black professionals and families have existed in primetime dramas as sidekicks, comic relief, or stereotypical, watered-down versions of White characters. But, Blacks have suddenly become avant-garde in cable and standard networks – a turn that has television executives and viewers glued to the edges of the seats.
The sitcom “Underground” (pictured) is one of several new Black dramas that are airing on popular network throughout the country. (Courtesy Photo)
Rafia Khan counted the number of television series from the 1980s to 2015 that starred or centrally featured Blacks as anything other than con artists, criminals, or the victims of crime. As a Harvard-trained social scientist, Khan writes extensively of the connections between television images and identity formation within America and the ways in which it impacts Blacks. Khan told the AFRO that even Blacks do not know what to make of their identity sometimes unless and until it is cosigned by Hollywood.
“The idea that art imitates life, also works in the reverse and we see this often in popular culture. Sometimes it is subtle – clothing or hairstyles, and other times, it is seeing the representation of a Black person on television portraying a lawyer or physician – that makes us aspire to better things,” Khan told the AFRO. “Until now, once the image of the Black professional or family was so marginal that audiences wondered, where they live, what they eat, what their story was outside of the law office or hospital. Finally, with shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Soul Food,” and more recently “Empire,” “Queen Sugar” and “Underground,” those questions are answered.”
Reginald Vassey, a Washington, D.C. film student currently studying at New York University, said many viewers do not separate what they see on television as fiction and often look for themselves, making the process of scripting Black drama, a kind of “how-to” guide.
“In the 1990s when all the B-boy dramas filled theaters, the flip side were sitcoms like “Martin,” “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” that allowed you to laugh while bullets were flying in drive-bys in Anacostia (an area in Southeast D.C.). What many took away from that was the shootings, drinking, crime, and mothers wailing over dead children was reality and that day-to-day stories on sitcoms were the make-believe situations,” Vassey told the AFRO. “These new dramas are making it plain that while I was on the floor ducking bullets, someone else’s reality looked like Cosby, or “Roc,” families in “The Wire” and “Soul Food.”
For Vassey, President Obama’s administration also had a major impact on how Blackness was not only viewed, but also how it was forever separated from the media chasm of inferiority, crudeness, and ugliness.
“I’ve been in rooms where casting calls asked for a very typical brand of Black male or female. Even if the person was a professional, it was hard to name the ‘look.’ I now hear folks saying or writing ‘an Obama-type,’” Vassey told the AFRO. “This man has exuded charisma, familial devotion, an adoration for seniors and babies, and a suave demeanor… that translates into a John Luther (“Luther”), a Luke Cage, a Noah (“Underground”), or even a Lucious Lyon. That is powerful and it is what Black viewers want to see of themselves when they watch television dramas.”
For female leads, Vassey said the powerful, stereotypically aggressive boss, has begun to give way to vulnerable, believable characters, as well, including “How to Get Away with Murder” star Viola Davis (Annalise Keating) and “Underground’s” Earnestine.