Last night after a marathon cleaning spree, I cozied up in bed and flipped through the few channels that my antenna picks up (no, I don’t have cable. yes, I’m still breathing without access to all those other channels that mostly play reality tv.). While searching for the show that would woo me into sleep, I stopped at The Tavis Smiley Show. I hadn’t seen Tavis on television in quite some time, so I decided to see what he and guest Jimmie Walker, of Good Times fame, were discussing.
Jimmie Walker, most known for his portrayal as “J.J.” on Good Times, was promoting his new book and had mentioned a few highlights from his time on the somewhat controversial yet culturally significant series which ran in the late seventies. I had no idea that for the most part none of the cast members spoke to one another. Walker said he never spoke to Janet Jackson, ever, and that during his entire time on the show he had never had more than five minutes worth of conversation with John Amos or Esther Rolle. Great acting, right?
What really sparked my interest, however, were his views on television’s “black out”. According to Walker (and I’m paraphrasing here) with the exception to what Tyler Perry is doing (and paying for), there will never be another Black family portrayed on primetime television. I found this revelation to be quite shocking, but I get it. He went on to say, “if there’s a Black person (on a white show) he or she has to be an FBI agent, the President of the United States, the head of a medical department, not someone zany or funny.”
That got me to thinking. He might be on to something. While I don’t watch a lot of cable television I have caught a few episodes of the many reality shows that display people of color in a not so flattering light. As a black woman, I know that we’re not all one way. So, why are we not portrayed on television as such?
Is it that we as a people tend to take ourselves too seriously? Jimmie Walker brought up the characters of Phoebe on Friends and Kramer on Seinfeld. “If any of those characters had been Black, they would’ve been cut off the show.”
Walker spoke about the backlash of The Cosby Show in the 80s.There were Blacks who only saw one side of the Black family story (those who embraced Good Times). Writers were asked to come up with a counter to that show. Instead of the successful dual earner household, there would be a dysfunctional working class family. According to Jimmie Walker, once the concept came to the table Black writers decided that other Black families would not go for such a show. The characters were changed from a Black family to a White family and Married with Children was born. Interesting, right?
Can Black actors not be funny or silly without “setting the race back”? Personally, I’m not one who enjoys the minstrel show-type actor but tasteful funny works for me.
I delved even deeper. I thought of all the “tokens” on predominantly white cast shows and not one of them is portrayed as the silly or funny one. Though there is no quick fix to this, it is something to consider. As a writer for stage I am VERY careful about how I portray people of color. I never want to put out anything that will be taken as putting us back a few years. (My partners and I sometimes disagree on what will and will not make the cut but there’s always a happy medium.)
I respect Spike Lee and Tyler Perry; Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil. I could go on and on about how things could change or how Blacks should be portrayed, but at the end of the day, it’s like trying to repaint a rainbow. There is a spectrum of what Black is. We’re people. On tv though, we’re Black, strong, smart, or not at all.