Present day Black television comedies have sunk to a nadir not witnessed by this viewer since the days of the old Amos n’ Andy series.
Good Times; The Jeffersons; Baby, I’m Back and What’s Happening? depict Blacks, particularly the Black family, in such a blatant stereotyped manner, one wonders why the NAACP hasn’t raised the issue of racial insensitivity and degradation as it once did against Kingfish, Calhoun, Andy and Sapphire. Compared to some of today’s programs, the old veteran sitcom was a joy!
Black males are portrayed as powerless eunuchs while matriarchs straight from the Mammy Knows Best school-of-sociological-thought dominate the plot situations. George Jefferson is the only strong father figure in the four programs currently airing but George projects the wrong kind of strength: he’s a loudmouth, egotistical barnyard rooster who is not only nouveau riche but also comically outdated.
Good Times originally had a father figure, if you can call a hot-headed, overgrown adolescent someone Black children could look up to; the man couldn’t hold a job down for a week while his cretin son, JJ, seemingly ran the clan.
Where is the series about the Black father holding two jobs to send his daughter to medical school? When will we glimpse the more accurate scenes of Black life?
Also, Blacks on television seem to suffer from either severe hypertension or amphetamine addiction; nervous energy runs rampant across the screen whenever two or more blacks are on camera at the same time. Where are the people who coined the words cool? and hip? The last cool Black I saw on television was Sidney Poitier, and that was in a rerun of In the Heat of the Night.
We as a racially oppressed and harshly discriminated against minority, cannot afford to laugh at our foible until we can see something on the tube that makes us proud of our collective achievements. Where are the doctor and police shows featuring Blacks in anything other than token performances? Seeing Antonio Fargas as a police informer on Starsky and Hutch not only is a tremendous waste of talent but also an insult.
TV stereotyping, fortunately, isn’t consistent. Roots managed to slip through, as did King [notwithstanding its dubious plot line]. Cicely Tyson’s performance in the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman remains a video classic. But, the majority of the shows now being broadcasted are nothing more than the same racist role models done up in seventies drag, that were first propagated by D.W. Griffith in the film Birth of a Nation (1915).
Why are the networks pursuing this form of entertainment? Money! The networks internecine war for the number one rating position has led to a mass market mentality on Broadcast Row that drops a program the moment it doesn’t reach a minimal percentage of the viewing public. The mass market mentality is manifested in stereotypical programming. Blacks are never involved, to any measurable extent, with the films commissioned to survey American viewing habits [Nielsen claims it is impossible to install and service rating devices in Black communities]; hence Black programs, regardless of casting, are geared for the great silent majority who live west of the Hudson and east of LA. Meanwhile, Blacks continue to purchase more than one-third of the goods advertised on television.
Like their motion picture predecessors, TV producers have taken the Black lifestyle and ridiculed it for a mass audience, in the process of developing a whole new crop of Stepin Fetchits and Lightnings. So, we give you ROUTES First Annual Plantation Awards. We don’t blame the actors and actresses involved they’ve got to pay the rent too — but the networks and producers who continue to allow such mediocre garbage to be aired:
Actor: Fred Berry of What’s Happening? This was a close one to call since Jimmy Walker’s JJ character on Good Times seems the likely choice. But Fred has to be considered the actor we would like to see change his act most; there’s no hope for Walker since he is already a member of the Stereotype Hall of Fame. Berry not only allows racist plot lines to revolve around him — he also allows his bulk to be abused. Fat people unite!
Actress: Isabel Sanford of The Jeffersons — Never has a woman been so luxuriously gowned and coiffed while being bossed around by her very own maid. Ms. Sanford is a fine actress: unfortunately she doesn’t get a chance on this program to be one as the straight woman for Sherman Hemsley’s hyperthyroid clown act.
Supporting Actor: Johnny Brown on Good Times — Good old Buffalo-Butt has seen better days on the old LaughIn show. Brown is a funny man but the jokes written for and about him definitely are degrading.
Supporting Actress: Shirley Hemphill of What’s Happening? — As a waitress, Ms. Hemphill is brassy, bold and unkempt. Would you want to eat anything she served?
Plantation Show of the Year: What’s Happening? wins this award hands down. The entire cast, with the exception o f the very talented Danielle Spencer, should strike until ABC provides them with better material.
The Last Laugh Award: Eric Monte, the Los Angeles-based writer whose highly acclaimed film Cooley High served as the model for the spin-off What’s Happening? The producers didn’t stick with the original premise, giving us instead a retrogressive and racially insulting half hour. No wonder Monte is bringing a $1 million lawsuit against ABC Network and What’s Happening? producers.
Let us know what you think about the current state of Black television by writing: Media/ROUTES TV Shows 230 W. 41st Street New York, New York 10036