How does the increase in manifesting blackness through African American representations on television and in film relate to previous iterations, and what does this increase say/do about 'post-racial' America?

  • Spotlight, Moonlight... The New Grammar of Black Visual Culture

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    by Lauren Cramer — Pace University view

    Last year Jay-Z released the music video for the song "Moonlight" from his album 4:44. The video is an almost eight-minute spoof of the sitcom Friends starring the biggest names in black entertainment today: Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae, Lil Rel Howery, Jerrod Carmichael, and Hannibal Buress. The video is an over-the-top display of black excellence that seems to perfectly illustrate this exciting moment in black expressive culture, where black artists are becoming increasingly visible and telling unique and interesting stories. [1] One of the pleasures of watching the video is recognizing the impressive list of films/TV shows these actors, writers, and comedians have been a part of and how those works connect to each other. For example, Tessa Thompson stars in the upcoming film Sorry to Bother (Riley, 2018) with Lakeith Stanfield, who was in Get Out (Peele, 2017) with Lil Rel Howery. In its most recent season, Howery joined the cast of Insecure, the HBO show created by Issa Rae, and before that, The Carmichael Show with Tiffany Haddish, which was created by Jerrod Carmichael. Finally, Carmichael co-starred with Hannibal Buress in the animated series Lucas Bros. Moving Co. I cannot proceed without a disclaimer: one reason these artists are such frequent collaborators is the sad fact that the space for black creators is still limited. Yet, a video like Moonlight shows that black artists are making something of this interconnectivity—I argue it is a grammar of black visual culture that intentionally turns away from post-racial politics and instead formalizes the blackness as the connective force of this visual culture. 

    In addition to this horizontal connection among contemporary artists, the influx of TV shows and films focused on black lives has created opportunities for these young creatives to look back to the work of black artists that preceded them. The result is a striking aesthetic lineage—see the long-term research of the liquid blackness working group that has traced the politically-charged, but rarely seen, films of the LA Rebellion in the 1970s to wildly popular productions by Kahlil Joseph (Beyoncé’s Lemonade in 2016) and Bradford Young (Ava DuVernay’s Selma in 2014 and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival in 2016). First, this lineage brings attention to the history of black visual culture; specifically, it draws attention to films/TV shows that did not receive much aesthetic consideration in the past because they were mired in representational politics. Second, the complexity of this multidirectional lineage codes blackness (a topic I’ve discussed here), expressing it as a logic of connectivity that exceeds any singular work. As a result, the mainstream popularity of films like Black Panther or Get Out is not moving toward a generalized “multiculturalism;” instead, these objects exist within a dynamic conversation about visualizing blackness on screen. For example, in a recent episode of Atlantathe show created by rapper and comedian Donald Glover, the main characters wear brightly-colored silk pajamas to a college party. For some audience members, it goes without saying that the costumes are a visual reference to the music video for TLC’s “Creep,” in which the singers T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli wear the same monochromatic outfits. Of course, the narrative construct of the “pajama party” at a predominantly or historically black college is something familiar audiences have seen in the other black films like House Party 2 in 1991 and in Spike Lee’s School Daze in 1988. In Atlanta, this connection is only established in the characters’ costumes and therefore does not provide the legibility that “diversity” discourse, multiculturalism, or post-racial rhetoric demand in their insistent erasure of racial specificity. 

    The non-hierarchical, fluid exchange between a television show, a music video, and film is an example of how contemporary black media that appears in the mainstream engages in the political praxis of earlier black art, the works that were “too black” or “too challenging” to gain a wide audience. The media archeology performed by Donald Glover and Issa Rae is ultimately part of the citational practices that social media and other platforms have made popular and accessible to the producers and consumers of black images. It feels akin to the hashtag #CiteBlackWomen or to the social media space (and a personal favorite of mine) The Very Black Project. The latter uses Instagram to turn the grammar of black visual culture into poetry by juxtaposing images like a picture of Sammy Davis Jr., a screenshot of the dictionary definition of “American,” and a close-up of peach cobbler. Again, a massive media platform is used, not for legibility, but for an aesthetic play that is distinctly black. Black popular culture may be extending the lineage of black expressive culture, but that does not necessarily mean it only moves forward. 

      

    [1] I am considering "Moonlight" as illustrative of the visibility of black stars in the contemporary moment, but for a brilliant consideration of the video’s surface politics or “plasticity,” see Warner, Kristen J. “Plastic Representation.” Film Quarterly71, no. 2 (Winter 2017). https://filmquarterly.org/2017/12/04/in-the-time-of-plastic-representation/.

  • For Us By Us

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    by Lily Kunda — old dominion university view

    In the past couple of years, there has been an influx of television shows created by black producers, writers, showrunners and directors. We have seen the arrival and return of a plethora of black shows including Atlanta, Insecure, Queen Sugar, Chewing Gum, Luke Cage, Being Mary Jane, Black-ish, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, Empire, and Power (Bastien,, 2017). Some media scholars and journalists have even gone as far as dubbing this the “Golden Age of Black Television”. According The Atlantic, 2016 was a banner year for black people in front of and behind the camera, Hollywood seems to be evolving for the better in the way it constructs and markets black TV series (Bastien, 2016). Additionally, CNN shared similar sentiments in an online article,  “The Golden Age of Black Television” stating that, “in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, there's been a bumper crop of TV series offering various glimpses into black lives and culture. And while shows like "I Spy" and "Julia" broke ground in the late 1960s by featuring black actors, today's shows feature black artists on screen and off” (France, 2016).

    As exciting as it is to see more folks of color on the TV screen, this is not the first time in tv history that blacks have had an abundance of representation on the TV screen. The late 90s and early 2000s had a similar influx with sitcoms like Living Single, In Living Color, The Cosby Show, A Different World Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Girlfriends, etc. What makes this era of black television feel different—or more “golden”—than before is the number of blacks having behind the scenes and leadership roles on television and the ways in which these shows are presenting the experience of “blackness”. Current television shows featuring black casts with black folks behind the camera in creative teams are manifesting new portrayals of blackness by displaying more than one depiction of what it means to be black, addressing issues that are important to the black community, addressing historically negative stereotyped portrayals of blackness, not framing blackness from a white point of view and embracing black culture. Blackness is being performed more authentically on television than it historically has been. Authentic blackness means more rooted in African-American culture and not from a white perspective.  By addressing racial issues, the idea that we are in or that there ever was a “post-racial” America is being deconstructed. These representaions are saying YES, RACISM DOES STILL EXIST. In fact, they are saying that racism never stopped. Moreover, by embracing black culture, color-blind post-racial narratives are being met head on by saying black people and white people are not all the same, we are not all “one-race", and that’s okay.

    Part of what makes this era of black television so significant is that blackness is being performed on several different shows on several different platforms. Blacks are not being forced to relate to one specific character or show but are able to see blackness performed in many different ways and across many different televisual spaces. As Lee Daniels of Empire said in Entertainment Weekly, “Finally there’s so many African-American experiences that can be seen and viewed by everybody. It’s nice to be there, really, at the epicenter of it all.” We  get to see a gay black man on Empire, an awkward nerd on Insecure, the gangsters on Power, the professional upper class black woman on Being Mary Jane, the black queer marijuana smoking hippy on Queen Sugar, the black nuclear family on Black-ish and so much more.

    What networks and audiences are beginning to discover is that not only do black people enjoy these authentic depictions, but white audiences enjoy these shows too. According to Ebony Magazine’s website, “according to a new report by Nielsen, ABC’s Black-ish, Secrets and Lies, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder; Fox’s Pitch and Rosewood; HBO’s Insecure and FX’s Atlanta all average more than 50 percent non-Black viewership… Storylines with a strong black character or identity are crossing cultural boundaries to grab diverse audiences and start conversations” (Danielle, 2017). The more successful black shows are, the more networks are willing to have more black shows created by black people. Being a crossover show no longer means taking the blackness out of black television which pleases black audiences enjoying the plethora representation and allows for audiences of other races to enjoy good storylines and TV.

    The numbers on how many blacks are in Hollywood may still daunting because a majority of directors, producers and writers are still mostly white and male, but these new strides in black television can give us hope that things might be changing. Issues relating to the black community are being addresses head on, different representations are being portrayed and more black creatives are being hired and hiring other black creatives. What’s making this era of black television truly golden is the fact that the trend doesn’t seem to be dying down and audiences of all races are enjoying the results.

     

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    Bastién, A. J.(2017, January 29). Claiming the Future of Black TV. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/claiming-the-future-of-black-tv/514562/

    France, L. R.(2016, October 19). The golden age of black television. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/13/entertainment/black-tv-shows-2016/index.html

    Stacks, T. (2005, March 6). Empire State of Mind. Entertainment Weekly, 23-30.

    Danielle, B. (2017, February 16). Black Shows Are Winning the Ratings Race & Attracting Non-Black Viewers. Retrieved from http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/black-tv-nielsen-report#axzz50v1UKrfW

  • Uncompromised Combatant Bodies

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    by Dana Gavin — Old Dominion University view

    I am hesitant to draw any sweeping conclusions from a very small data point, but I believe that the way multiple African and African American bodies are represented in the phenomenal Black Panther marks an important departure from the way African and African American bodies have been represented (and celebrated by Hollywood) in the past. In this case, I would point to the change in quality, not quantity, as the critical move, and while I would avoid using the term “post racial” to describe America in 2018, I would argue that the figures of T’Challa, Killmonger, and Okoye offer a vibrant counter-narrative to the beaten, violated bodies of movies like Detroit or Twelve Years a Slave and, given how financially successful the film has been already, may herald a new wave of African and African American portrayals on the big (and small) screen.

    Black Panther features African and African American bodies in combat frequently. Early on, we view the lead character, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), shirtless in a pool of water, where he will volunteer to have his superpowers taken away in order to most fairly compete with others for the right to rule Wakanda. Though he is clearly a superhero (we have already seen him battling baddies in his sleek Black Panther suit), T’Challa’s body is not scared, nor is it super-sized. His strength is represented as being separate from his super-warrior embodiment, and this feels like a move to make clear that T’Challa is not a vision of racialized prowess and that he is a fair competitor (St. Louis 2003). T’Challa engages in dramatic (and beautifully shot) combat with worthy opponents, and he is even bloodied, but his body is never represented as un-manned or unmanly. Throughout the film, we witness T’Challa’s kindness and humor, which is crucial to his power as a leader.

    Erik Killmonger’s body stands in physical contrast to T’Challa’s. Played by Michael B. Jordon, Killmonger has literally inscribed pain onto his body: when he pulls off his shirt, preparing to fight T’Challa for control of Wakanda, his torso is brutally marked for each “kill” he accomplished as a black ops soldier. Killmonger, as an African (Wakandan) American, is a character forged in violence, which speaks to the systemic violence America inscribes (visibly and invisibly) on African American bodies. He mourns being kept from the peace and prosperity in Wakanda, as he is kept in Los Angeles after the death of his father. In his quest for revenge, he engaged in nefarious warfare, celebrating violence with violence against his skin. But here, unlike in movies like Detroit or Twelve Years a Slave, Killmonger is in control of those marks. He is writing on his skin, and this makes the character even richer: it’s difficult to hate Killmonger because his suffering is complex, and yet, his agency also makes it easier to root for T’Challa to succeed.

    The physicality of Danai Gurira’s Okoye is thematically contradictory to T’Challa and even more so to Killmonger. Okoye needs no superpowers to be a successful warrior, and she resists compromising her agency even when Killmonger ascends to the throne – she maintains her identity as the Dora Milaje commander and sees her role as one of maintainer during the chaos of leadership transfer. I would argue that Okoye is the most successful fighter in the film (I mean … she rides on top of a car just like T’Challa, and earns even more victories, all while sans superpower!), and her nerves of steel offer a powerful depiction of femaleness. The women of Black Panther are some of the most stalwart characters we’ve ever seen on screen, and the fact that they are centered so prominently in a film that does not aim to represent their strength in the form of their bodies being maligned, is a joy to behold. This isn’t to say the female characters do not experience loss – they simply do so without being physically compromised in ways we too often see rendered on the big screen.

    Work Cited

    St. Louis, Brett. “Sport, Genetics and the 'Natural Athlete': The Resurgence of Racial Science.” Body & Science, vol. 9, no. 2, 2003. Pp. 75-95. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X030092004

  • Africa's Other Hidden City

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    by Christopher Chavez — University of Oregon view

    In her 1903 serial, Of One Blood: Or, the Hidden Self, Pauline Hopkins tells the story of Reuel, a brilliant, but tortured Harvard medical student who is black, but passing for white.  Through a series of unforeseen events, Reuel finds himself on an archeological expedition, where he discovers Telassar, a hidden city located somewhere in the deserts of Ethiopia.  The city is ancient and grand, featuring technology far superior to any found in the western world.  Reuel is recognized as the city’s lost king and is invited to take up his rightful place at the throne.

    To answer the question of how current media representations of blackness relate to earlier iterations, there are certainly a lot of similarities between Hopkins’ Telassar and Wakanda, the fictional kingdom depicted in Marvel’s Black Panther (2018).  Both Hopkins’ novel and the movie describe a gilded, African city whose rulers have deliberately hidden it from the outside world. Both pay deference to African royalty, and in particular, patriarchal monarchy. Both texts reflect a pan-African sensibility, not located in any particular place, but rather composed of various signifiers of Africa.  Finally, both see Africa as a potential solution to black struggle in the US.

    At another level, both the book and the movie speak to a desire to be respectfully represented in media.  In his book, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century, scholar Kevin Gaines argues that Hopkins’ serial was part of a larger discourse within the black intellectual community that looked to ancient Africa as a source of pride and aspiration. Black Panther reflects some of these same sensibilities.  However, the film must also be seen as Hollywood’s response to the #OscarsSoWhite movement, which called attention to the striking lack of black representation in film.  The very fact that Disney green-lit, and then supported a film with a primarily black cast is remarkable, the industry’s response has been prematurely self-congratulatory. “Black Panther is a game changer for African American entertainment,” proclaimed the Orange County Register. Adam Vary of BuzzFeed prophesized that the “Historic success of Black Panther should change Hollywood forever.” 

    The degree to which Black Panther has indeed changed Hollywood remains to be seen. After all, Hollywood’s record on black representation has been inconsistent over the years.  This brings us to the issue of black ownership of media, which remains alarmingly low. It is significant that Of One Blood was written by a black woman and originally printed as a serial in The Colored American Magazine, which was edited by Hopkins.  Furthermore, Hopkins’ creative output was a direct response to white America’s inability to rightfully tell the stories of African Americans.  Throughout her career, Hopkins urged African Americans to engage in creative production because, in her words, “no one will do this for us.”[1]

    Despite Ryan Coogler’s involvement, Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and produced by Disney, a multinational corporation.  Authorship may account for some important distinctions between Of One Blood and Black Panther.  Hopkins’ book is overtly critical of the US, ending with Reuel’s ultimate rejection of America.  By contrast, Black Panther is conciliatory, concluding with Wakanda revealing itself to the western world.  Curiously, this is all made possible through a collaboration with the CIA.  The mixed politics of Black Panther is a sobering reminder that, whatever the intentions may have been for creating the film, it is ultimately a commercial product that is intended to reach a mass audience. And the unspoken rule of mass entertainment is never to do anything that might isolate or offend the “average” (read white) viewer.



    [1]Found in Pauline Hopkins, “Contending Forces,” (pp. 13-14).

  • The More Things Change, The More Things Stay the Same…Or Do They?: Black Media Representation in the Age of Black Panther

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    by Kimberly Goode — Old Dominion University view

     

    Without a doubt, Marvel’s Black Panther has been an unprecedented success. It has broken a plethora of records. It is the highest grossing superhero movie of all time in North America, the most tweeted about movie of 2018, had the largest presale tickets for a Marvel film, had the largest opening weekend for a Black Director, and the fifth largest opening weekend of all time (Khal). Black Panther is also the highest reviewed movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Pushing James Cameron’s 1997 epic, Titanic, to the fourth spot, Black Panther is now the third highest grossing film of all time.

    Despite being a part of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and the precursor to the highly anticipated Avenger’s Infinity War (factors that may have played a role in the film’s ground-breaking success), the most appealing aspect of the film was its majority Black cast, fascinating plot, and wonderful characters (Rubin). For years, Hollywood executives justified their lack of financial backing for films starring Black leads or a predominant Black cast on the premise that such films lack crossover appeal to both non-Black audiences (chiefly White) and non-North American audiences. Yet, as many journalists have stressed, the sheer success of the film has certainly proved the Hollywood film executives’ beliefs to be unfounded (Barnes; Pesce; Harris; Rolli). The film garnered an enormous amount of excitement from movie going audiences of all ethnicities, nations, comic book fans, non-comic book fans, and celebrities alike (Coley; Hodge; McNary;McNary; BBC News).

    As Phil Contrino, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, astutely exclaims,

    a movie can’t get to $1 billion globally without tapping into some universal truths. Black Panther’s emphasis on the importance of family and identity helped it transcend race, and that’s why it’s had no problem playing so well around the world…Audiences are sending a clear message that they want to see more diversity on the big screen. I really hope that five years from now we can look back at Black Panther as the moment that permanent change began.”

    Black Panther brilliantly tackled issues anyone could relate to- abandonment, loss, isolation, duty, and revenge. Also, the characters and their interaction with each other was reminiscent of most families and communities. They all had distinct personalities, flaws, and were devoid of racial stereotypes. However, contrary to Contrino, Black Panther is not the only “moment” that could function as the beginning of “permanent change”.

    The 2010’s has been a great decade for mainstream Black media representation. The decade even started off with an African American president, a Black first family, and a movement that brought the issue of police brutality into the world’s consciousness and repainted the image of African Americans as victims of a heinous crime instead of deserving criminals. Further, there have been a plethora of widely popular television shows and films that not only obtained crossover appeal but included well rounded, multi-dimensional Black characters. From Kerry Washington’s Scandal, Viola Davis’s How to Get Away with Murder, the socially conscious black-ish, the Oscar winning Get Out, to the critically successful Hidden Figures. There has never been a time where we’ve seen this amount of positive as well as diverse Black media representation. However, I do question the permanency of such representation.

    The history of African American media representation has always been an incredibly negative one. However, there have been certain periods in which we witnessed a bevy of tv series or films that included well rounded Black characters and/or predominantly Black casts. Unfortunately, these periods were succeeded by a period that had very little positive Black representation. For instance, the mid-1980s and 1990s were seen as a Black Renaissance of cinema. The period had a horde of positive and diverse Black media representation. It had The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Different World, Family Matters, Sister, Sister, Smart Guy, Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, Independence Day, and so on. Each of these tv series and films were critical successes, had cross-over appeal, and featured three dimensional Black characters. Yet, by the 2000s, the renaissance seemed to have ebbed away. There was very little positive Black representation in that period, apart from niche markets that catered to Black audiences (e.g. BET). One can only wonder then if this “new” Black media renaissance will ebb away like its predecessor. I posit, there are factors in contemporary society that leads credence to the likelihood of permanent change that was not around in the previous renaissance(s). But before I discuss these factors, it is paramount I paint a more detailed picture of the ebb (the reduction in positive representation) and flow (the increase in positive representation) of Black media representation.

    The Ebb and Flow of Black Media Representation

    Much of the early days of American cinema was marked by virulent racism. Bishetta D. Merritt asserts, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation, “crystallized Hollywood images of African Americans on celluloid” (109). The film contained practically every racist trope of African Americans imaginable (e.g. Uncle Tom, oversexed buck, the coon, etc.). These images would serve to be a mainstay in American cinema and functioned as a standard image of blackness in which the rest of society would come to view African Americans (109). Therefore, Black directors, such as William D. Foster, Noble and George Johnson, and Oscar Micheaux, spent most of their energy creating independent Black films to counter the toxic images of blackness permeating mainstream American cinema of the early 20th century (1900s-1930s) (Sheridan 177; Merritt 109). These films more closely mirrored the lifestyle of African Americans during this epoch. The characters were doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, ministers, teachers, etc. and the subject matter pertained to issues of race, class, everyday life of Black people, and were aligned with various movements of upliftment. The Black press and film scholars referred to these films as race or ebony films (Early African American Film, “Definition”). Though only a few of these films garnered commercial success and attention from the White press and mainstream (White) audience, these films were successful, at least for Black audiences, in (re)articulating Black identity as “complex, contested, and fully realized” (Early African American Film, “History”). Though fewer in numbers, race films would continue on until the 1950’s, when many Black production companies went out of business due to growing costs of film production (Early African American Film, “History”).

    Nevertheless, after the Second World War (late 40s to 1960s), the mainstream media, at this point in time-Hollywood, would begin to pick up, in a sense, where race films left off. As America began to confront racism so did Hollywood. Big studios often made movies depicting various aspects of racism like miscegenation and segregation in the military. Sidney Poitier rose to prominence in this era. He would go on to star in numerous movies, a few in which had tremendous crossover appeal. However, most of the movies in this period were criticized for “their velvet glove handling of racism-noble White man to the rescue of the saintly Black victim. The “saintly negro” charge was particularly leveled at Poitier, who many Black critics viewed as White America’s vision of what a Black man should be rather than a real flesh-and-blood man who was allowed to be angry or sensual”. The films that showcased a more realistic portrayal of Black identity were again independent movies aimed at a Black audience. Though there was a bit of progress gained in the mainstream media in terms of more positive, albeit stereotypical, Black representation, this period was still marred by racism and the Black filmmaker, unlike in the previous period, was nowhere to be seen. This absence resulted in movies depicting Black people that did not reflect Black people or Black experience(s) (Sheriden 180).

    Television was no better. Racism marred this medium as well. Although there was a dearth of Black representation, there were a few shows that featured Black characters. The ever-racist Amos and Andy was one of them. The program initially started as a radio show in the 1930s where two white broadcasters, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, portrayed two black men named Amos and Andy (Watkins). However, what made Amos and Andy semi-positive was that it depicted “a richly textured Harlem community at its center, filled with all manner of black people, filling all manner of occupations and roles. White characters were an unusual occurrence, and every one of the major regular and recurring characters was played by a black actor” (Ihnat, Sims, VanDerWerff, McGee, and Bowman). This level of “well-intentioned” yet malicious racism characterizes the popular depiction of African Americans in the media. The period that succeeds this one, however, will once again seek to counter the racism of  its predecessor.

    The early to mid-1970s, which was deemed to be the first official Black media renaissance, started off with a group of UCLA Black filmmakers. Energized by the Civil Rights Movement, they sought to “resist the grip of Hollywood and its use of Eurocentric models of behavior. The Black community, its culture, literature, and people were the focus of the films…” (Merritt 110). These films were decolonizing and antiracist in their images, sounds, aesthetics, and production techniques. Their aim was to place the Black perspective and culture as the center of the narratives and to showcase black people as “neither marginalized…nor…villainous stereotypes” (110). In fact, this was the era where the Black superhero emerged (Sheridan 181). A common plot line in films of this epoch was the Black protagonist thwarting the racist antics of White antagonists as well as the schemes of gangbangers. Also, the Black female perspective emerged. There were a plethora of movies featuring Black women as superheroines stopping crime, getting revenge on their abusers, and standing up to White supremacy (Sheridan 181). Most of these movies, however, did not have a tremendous amount of crossover appeal, but they were critical successes with Black audiences.

    Tv shows fared a similar fate. Black centered programs such as What’s Happening!!, Different Strokes, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sanford and Son, would also emerge during this era (Kimble and Lewis). Shows of this period portrayed the diversity of Black identity and experience and had an abundance of cross-over appeal to non-Black audiences (Kimble and Lewis; Arceneaux). Unfortunately, the succeeding period, though with more Black characters in mainstream movies, would return to stereotypical portrayals of African Americans.  

    In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the racial consciousness in films vanished and subtler, yet still overt, racist depictions of African Americans arose. Earl Sheridan asserts, “there were Blacks in the movies, like Eddie Murphy, but they were funny men. With his jive, street-smart attitude, Murphy was unapologetically Black, but his films were not about race and he was not threatening to White America. Richard Pryor began as a powerful comic critic of American racism. But as he grew more popular in the ‘80s, his films lost their militant edge, so much so that in The Toy (1983), Pryor is a plaything for a spoiled rich White kid.” (182). However, there were a few films that did deal with issues of race, but there were few in number-The Color Purple being one example (182). Television was slightly better since many sitcoms from the previous period were still on air and with new shows like NBC’s 227, that centered Black experience, everyday life, or with majority Black cast, added to the repertoire (Kimble and Lewis).  

    The late 80s and the 1990s witnessed yet another renaissance of Black media representation. The Black movie star was in full effect with the likes of Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, and many others. This stood in stark contrast with previous epochs when only a handful of Black stars became cross over sensations (e.g. Sidney Poitier in the 50s and 60s). Also, this period experienced a boom in the “hood film” genre. Much like the 1970s, these films presented stories about inner city African Africans and their experiences with poverty, racism, and crime (Sheridan 182-186). Equally, television witnessed a comparable trajectory with the arrival of The Cosby Show and many others with dimensional characters or mostly Black casts (Wicker).

    The 2000s, however, would put a halt on the progress of the proceeding era. In this period, networks and studios developed “urban” shows and films that focused on a niche market-the Black audience. But many of these shows didn’t last very long and most of the films were only successful amongst a Black audience. There were a few commercial hits that featured Black characters, but they were portrayed as the comic relief, the dutiful servant, the Black sidekick, mammy, Jezebel, welfare queens, etc. As writer Christopher John Farley expresses, “when it comes to Black cinema, Hollywood is often cool to film concepts that don’t include pimps, drive-bys, sexual antics, or preferably, all three”. Like in previous interims, the only films to broach the subject of Black identity, experiences, and racism were those independently produced and distributed (Weaver 58; Wicker; Hall; Sheridan 186-187, 190-191).

    Which brings us back to the present-the 2010s. As expressed previously, there has never been a time where we have witnessed such an uncanny amount of Black representation. It seems as if the previous “flows” of Black media representation have been coalesced into a unified body of work. Race is at the center of a bevy of tv series and movies in this age. The only difference is that, now, they are receiving more mainstream attention and cross-over success than later periods (Wicker). Also, there are a lot more Black screen writers, producers, cinematographers, and filmmakers than ever in mainstream media (including popular streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, etc.) (Wicker).  Further, African American characters are featured in a variety of genres. For instance, there are Black characters and even predominantly African American casts showcased in the comic book genre such as Black Lightening and Luke Cage, the young adult/teen genre such as Everything, Everything, and in psychological thrillers such as Get Out. In addition, Black directors are being offered more lucrative deals from major networks and studios. For example, Ava DuVernay was the first African American woman to be given a production budget of $100 million for her A Wrinkle In Time.

    However, the question, will this mark the beginning of permanent change, remains. There are two factors that supports the potential permanency of the positive and diverse Black media representation. They are social media and demographic changes.

    Two Factors Indicating the Possibility of Permanent Change

    With the enormous success of online activism such as #BlackLivesMatter, social media has proven it has power beyond its platform. #OscarsSoWhite is another example. This hashtag was created by April Reign, in 2015, to protest the lack of non-White actors, filmmakers, writers, etc. being nominated (Anderson).  In the following year, the hashtag grew like wildfire and became a trending topic (Anderson). In response to the popularity of the hashtag, the Academy overhauled its membership in order to diversify it by “race, gender, geography, and age” (Shulman). This demonstrates that the power is certainly in the hands of the people. Especially, since the majority of Americans utilize social media (Smith and Anderson). Of that majority, most of the Americans are people of color (Smith and Anderson).

    Equally, the demographics of the American public is changing. Currently, America is more diverse than it has ever been. It will only continue along this trajectory. D’Vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont, from the Pew Research Center, reports that by 2055, “the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority”. Though the White population will remain the largest single group, a minority majority will be in effect (Wilson).  Also, by 2020, non-White children will make up the majority of children in America. This statistic may hold true considering that non-White babies are now the majority of babies in America (Yoshinaga). Therefore, there is a possibility that studios and tv networks are positioning their companies to profit from these demographic changes. Nevertheless, time is the only factor that will truly tell us whether Black media representation in the Age of Black Panther will lead to permanent change.

     

    Works Cited

    Merritt, Bishetta D. “Charles Burnett: Creator of African American Culture on Film”. Journal of Black Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2008, pp. 109-128.

    Sheridan, Earl. “Conservative Implications of the Irrelevance of Racism in Contemporary African American Cinema”. Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2006, pp. 177-192.

    Weaver Jr., Tony. “Analysis of Representations of African Americans in Non-linear Streaming Media Content”. Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, vol. 7, no. 2, 2016, pp. 57-67.

  • From Urkel to Issa

    Alisa Moore's picture
    by Alisa Moore — Old Dominion University view

    The history of black representation in American television and film has been largely informed by the lens of whiteness. Although undoubtedly integral to the progression of black representation on television, 1970s-90s sitcoms such as Family Matters, Good Times, and The Cosby Show reproduced white American ideals of family structure by focusing on the day-to-day lives of mostly middle to upper-class nuclear heterosexual families. This was due to the belief that white audience members would not be interested in watching shows that showcased the more unique aspects of black culture and the struggles associated with being a black person and having to deal with everyday as well as institutionalized racism, because it would not be relatable to them. This is not to say that every black sitcom on TV reproduced whiteness, or that those that did did so all the time. Plenty of shows (like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) highlighted non-hegemonic experiences of black people, and even touched on issues such as racism or racialized sexism, but these storylines were very rarely the entire focus of the show overall, instead taking a back seat to the more palatable narratives of finding out who will end up with whom romantically and watching the characters get into comic mischief. So, although black audiences were able to more readily identify with characters on shows like the ones I mentioned, they still had to make room for the perceived sensitive tastes of white people.

    However, in recent years there has been a shift in TV shows that feature a predominant or exclusively black cast. Shows like Insecure, (created and produced by Issa Rae) and Atlanta (created and produced by Donald Glover) have taken over the popular consciousness when it comes to black centered media. The main difference between these shows and those from the 70s-90s is their refusal to cater to a white audience. Insecure focuses on the lives of Issa and Molly, two young black women living in L.A., as they go through relationships, deal with problems in the workplace, and try to maintain their mental health. These storylines are widely relatable, but Insecure does not shy away from presenting Issa and Molly’s experiences as being uniquely informed by their social standings as black women, addressing subjects like unfair pay in Molly’s law firm, and Issa’s struggles with expressing her sexuality. Atlanta places its focus on the character Earn, a black man living in Atlanta, Georgia, trying to get back on his feet by managing his rapper cousin. Throughout the series, Earn and other characters go through relationship issues and work-related drama, but also deal with tough topics that are an everyday reality for the black community in America, like police brutality and homophobia/transphobia. Rather than shying away from subjects that have been considered taboo to mention on television, writers and producers like Issa Rae and Donald Glover are engaging with black culture unapologetically. Shows like Insecure and Atlanta are made by black people, star black actors, and feature black stories, because they are being made for the black community specifically. Additionally, the commercial and critical success of these programs show that non-black audiences can enjoy media that was not carefully catered specifically to them, much in the same way that people of color have been enjoying white-centered TV and film for decades.

    The idea of a “post-racial” America is directly challenged by these new forms of black media. Again, by mainly focusing on hegemonic ideas of black culture as replicating whiteness, the shows featuring black characters from the 70s-90s produced an assimilationist narrative that reinforced the notion that America had moved beyond race, and no longer saw color. Unfortunately this “we are all a part of the same race, the human race,” rhetoric only serves to glaze over hard truths of anti-black racism that is so pervasive in our society. By refusing to buy into this stance, the black created and centered TV shows we are seeing become popular now are a reminder that we have a long way to go before we can reach racial equality in the United States. In not shying away from the harsh realities that come with being a black individual in America, Insecure, Atlanta, and other shows and films like them allow black audiences to identify directly with what is going on, and demand that non-black audiences empathize with black people, and join the movement for true structural change in our country.

  • Responsibility in Representation

    Angela F. Jacobs's picture
    by Angela F. Jacobs — Livingstone College view

     

     

    Representation is a funny thing, really. It both creates and reflects expectations of what is and what is supposed to be. Though it's merely an image, a type of fabrication, somehow it's also a reality, a blueprint of sorts. There's a sort of responsibility inherent within representation, too. There's a responsibility to create an artifice that seems so real to its audience that, even with irrifutable fact, still topples truth. There is also the responsibility to meet particular expectations, no matter how insidious the motivation. If the expectation is to reflect a desired reality and/or reinforce a model for specific types of desired behavior, then so be it.

    Also intrinsic within representation is mimicry and ambivalence, concepts addressed by Homi Bhabha in exploring colonialist rhetoric. Mimicry is related to fetishization, a rather insidious aspect of representation, by which, according to Modleski (1997), there is a “play of presence and absence.” The greater culture absorbs the image of the people, but not the people themselves. This is typically deemed as cultural appropriation without social integration (Cripps, 1977).1

    When it comes to representations on screen, expectation and representation oftentimes go hand-in-hand in a reciprocal relationship, for better or for worse. There is the idea of giving the audience what it wants, while telling the audience what it wants. No matter the realism or plausibility of a situation, representation can overshadow the limits of the real world. This is seen quite often where blackness is concerned on screen, whether film or television. Much has been written regarding the negative images of blackness in the early twentieth century. While shows like Amos ‘n Andy provided black actors with acting opportunities, these representations reinforced negative images of the black experience, painting blackness as ignorant. I had the pleasure of meeting Aurin Squire, creator of This Is Us, at a playwriting Masterclass held at Catawba College in conjunction with Lee Street Theatre. In regards to blackness and minstrelsy, he states, “Blackness allowed people to say naughty things, be perverse, be magical, transcend the dull confines of being white, while always being enslaved to the task of taking care of white people's needs. Blackness did not exist without an audience to perform in front of, and that audience was predominantly white.”

    However, these representations have also provided an inroad for the creation of more appropriate images. When Langston Hughes wrote his poem, “I, Too,” he imagined an America that would eventually see the errors of subjugating African Americans and allow them a seat at the table. With the promulgation and expansion of black representation throughout a multitude of media platforms, the old tropes from minstrelsy have greater competition. No longer is the American audience at the mercy of seeing the Mammy and the Angry Black Woman (the Sapphire) as the only images of black womanhood; now, there’s Olivia Pope (Scandal) and Rainbow Johnson (Black-ish), and before them, Lt. Nyota Uhura and Ororo Munroe (Storm). Now, instead of the lazy black man and the criminal, there’s Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning) and Randall Pearson (This Is Us).  As Squire says, “Black characters can be dramatic without being tragic. When we are allowed to be our whole selves we avoid getting boxed into archetypes of the past. Black storytellers and creators have to have a knowledge of the past to know what to avoid, and a creative and dynamic outlook to create well-rounded characters.”

    In this regard, despite the continued work needed to reach this ideal of a ‘post-racial’ America, especially as it regards media representation, it is encouraging to see that this struggle, this work, still is regarded as important.

     

    Modleski, Tania. “Cinema and the Dark Continent: Race and Gender in Popular Film.” Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. Edited by Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, Sarah Stanbury. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 208-228.

  • Technology Shapes Black TV Representation

    Aymar Jean Christian's picture
    by Aymar Jean Christian — Northwestern University view

    It is not clear the recent rise of Black representation is an overall increase in the number of black workers and stories in media. If we consider television, there were arguably more black sitcoms in the 1990s than the present. Throughout most of the 2000s the number of black writers either stayed flat or declined while the number of series dwindled, mostly a result of deregulation that gave more power to corporations in the late 1990s. The recent rise in black representation must be seen in the context of years of neglect of the black market and changes in technology and distribution.

    The advent of cable and then web distribution profoundly impacted black representation. Cable introduced competition for audiences in the 1990s and broadcast networks responded with more black shows. Black audiences historically serve this function of “surplus,” an audience to be drawn upon when more “valuable” audiences are in short supply, as documented by Kara Keeling, Kristal Zook, Herman Gray and other scholars. Similarly, by the 2010s, broadcast and cable networks started to face more competition from each other and from new web-based entrants like Netflix. For the new players, black representation became a way to brand distributors as “edgy,” like when Netflix ordered Orange Is The New Black or how VH1 used Love & Hip HopBasketball Wives and later RuPaul’s Drag Race to re-brand that channel. Jennifer Fuller found evidence of this trend as even in the early 2000s, when new cable networks like HBO and Lifetime used black shows to attract buzz and differentiate themselves from legacy players.

    Blackness as a branding strategy in a more competitive TV landscape has meant black characters are more likely to show up in a wider range of genres. With almost 500 original long-form series released every year, it no longer makes sense for networks to restrict black representation to sitcoms. Now we have more dramas like Queen Sugar and The Haves and the Have Nots, genre hybrids like Empire (musical and drama with some comedy) and Atlanta (a more dramatic and experimental sitcom), narrative reality shows like the Real Housewives of Atlanta and Black Ink Crew and competitive reality shows like MTV’s Wild N’ Out and Drag Race.

    Short-form indie TV shows are also playing a role in this open (if temporarily) market. Best exemplified by Issa Rae, who went from YouTube to HBO in a few years with her hit series and range of efforts in indie distribution and development, web-grown content is filling gaps bigger players are missing. Long before Black Panther the film, there were a number of indie web series about black superheroes, not to mention pirated versions of BET’s animated series on YouTube. Black characters in indie shows are more likely to be queer, gay, lesbian, transgender, Muslim, non-American and generally more flawed than their mainstream counterparts carrying a heavier burden of representation. Recent web shows range from The North Pole about a Muslim woman and black men explicitly fighting gentrification in Oakland, Seedsabout four black women in their early twenties unconcerned with respectability, and two feature-length musicals by Todrick Hall, including Straight Outta Oz, a biopic of a gay black man, and Forbidden, which imagines an alternate universe where black gay and lesbian relationships are the norm and straight white people are an oppressed minority. There is also a new generation of talk show hosts like Franchesca Ramsey (Decoded), gurus and vloggers like Evelyn From the Internets, and sketch artists like Quinta B. These are just a handful of the stories and storytellers not traditionally counted as part of the rise in black representation.

    Therefore, we might say that if there is more black representation in the current moment, it is more likely distributed through new distribution platforms and perhaps with fewer resources – shorter episode orders, smaller writing teams, fewer producers, lower production budgets – than in previous moments when black culture was in demand.