In light of all the truly horrible things happening in the world, it rips me in half when I see Black folks complaining about things that aren't really that bad in the grand scheme.
What I'm talking about specifically is the never-ending cycle of whining and complaining about movies and TV series that have predominantly Black casts. In the last three years, there's been a slew of Black movies and TV shows that have served to do nothing but divide the Black audience for purely superficial reasons.
Let me jump right to the point by discussing the latest Lee Daniels (who I'm not a fan of) production EMPIRE which debuted to high ratings this past Wednesday (01/06/15) on FOX. In the midst of the news of the ratings success, some Black folks on Facebook and Twitter have been circulating this meme:
What's interesting about this meme is that it flies in the face of a major fact that flew over the heads of the general audience:
The strong “Empire” premiere means that three of the top four launches of the season in adults 18-49 — “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Empire” and “Black-ish” — are shows fronted by African-Americans.
That's pretty fucking huge. Three shows. Three different casts. Three different universes of storytelling all with significant African-American participation. Three shows debuting at the top of the charts.
As recently as mid-2014, there's been a lot of hand-wringing over the lack of Black representation on television. Going back to 2008 - 2013, there weren't many shows at all with Black leads or stories centralizing African-Americans. I don't count those ridiculous Tyler Perry sitcoms as "Black" because they exist in a parallel reality where all spoken lines have to be delivered by actors at the top of their voice - as if they were playing to a crowded playhouse.
We went from famine to an adequate dinner in the span of two years.
Now, before I continue, I must say that no one should be "satisfied" with just "any old Black show" nor should we be satisfied with "crumbs." I've heard the arguments for years. Actually, I've heard the arguments for decades.
Let me recount a few of these discussions:
1) When I was a kid, I remember The Cosby Show being criticized for not being "Black" enough because the parents were upper-middle-class professionals and their kids didn't act like street kids. Black folks complained because it wasn't representing the streets.
2) In the early 1990s - during the hood movie boom - movies like BOYZ IN THE HOOD, MENACE II SOCIETY, STRAIGHT OUTTA BROOKLYN, NEW JERSEY DRIVE, etc. were criticized because it presented the inner-city Black community as savage and ignored the overwhelmingly law-abiding African-American working class.
Not only that, but during this same period, we were treated to an array of films highlighting the Jewish Holocaust - the most notable of these films being the excellent SCHINDLER'S LIST from Steven Spielberg.
I can tell you as someone who was in college during the bulk of the 1990s, all you would hear from the pseudo-revolutionaries was: "Of course Hollywood gonna show the holocaust. Jews run Hollywood, they gonna show how their people were treated. They'd NEVER make no movies showing how horrible slavery was! They don't want nobody to know the truth!"
I heard this for about 15 years straight.
3) Fast forward to 2012: Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO, UNCHAINED is released. The film isn't perfect, but one of the central points to the narrative was showing how indescribably horrible slavery was in the U.S. The story didn't flinch from the torture, rape, dehumanization, hopelessness and overall demonic nature of America's greatest crime.
Then in 2013, Black British filmmaker Steve McQueen and African-American screenwriter John Ridley bring 12 YEARS A SLAVE to the screens. Here's yet another well-crafted film that does not flinch from the horror of the American slave trade. It's all on the screen for you to see. Uncompromising, relentless, painful, real, inhumane. Just like slavery.
And what's been the general reaction from the Black peanut gallery?
"Why does Hollywood always want to show us as slaves? We done more than that! They always want to see us as subservient! They like those old time movies showing us as their servants... etc."
Judging by the box office returns of 42 (the WONDERFUL Jackie Robinson biopic starring Chadwick Boseman) and SELMA (currently in theaters) and the astonishingly fun/brilliant satire DEAR WHITE PEOPLE all the complainers found a reason to ignore these more balanced representations of African-American life.
And with that said...
4) In 2014, a new Black family sitcom debuted called BLACK-ish. I don't like the title, but it grew on many of us pretty fast. Starring Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Laurence Fishburne and a slew of other talented veteran and new faces; Black-ish started shaky, but quickly settled into a quirky examination of how "success" challenges personal ethnic identity and how the intersection of class and race alters the perception of life itself.
And it's damn funny.
But according to a lot of Black folks online... (mind you, I copied and pasted all of these quotes from message boards, Twitter and Facebook discussions): "Black-ish is wack! It's coonery. I'm tired of coons and shuckin' and jivin'. Of course it's gonna be popular, it makes us look like clowns and fools!"
I've watched every episode of Black-ish twice and have yet to find "cooning."
However, I can recall a show that made Blacks look like animals:
I love Martin Lawrence. I love Tisha Campbell. Who doesn't love Cole/cockroach? But MARTIN - the show - managed to degrade Black people at every single turn. For whatever reason, Martin is held up as some paragon of Black progress from the Black peanut gallery. You can't go far without hearing someone say "I wish they made more Black shows like Martin!"
Martin was a show that traded in the light-skin vs dark-skin Black woman stereotype. Don't know what that is?
Light-skinned Black women = professional, intelligent, kind, warm, gentle, beautiful.
Dark-skinned Black women = mean, cruel, cold, callous, dirty, stupid, ghetto, wrong, ugly.
As the show went on, the majority of the jokes were based around how Pam was disgusting and unattractive. Her "nappy" hair was constantly derided (remember "bee-dee-bee on her neck").
The Sheneneh character was a parade of every single horrible stereotype of lower-class Black women that has existed. And yet, this show is still held up as some wonderful, transformative moment in Black pop culture.
5) Now we've got EMPIRE. The peanut gallery seems to be forgetting what a nighttime soap opera looks like. Apparently, they've never seen DYNASTY, MELROSE PLACE, FALCON CREST or anything soap opera ever.
Soap operas trade in drama. Without people in jail, or people sleeping around, or people scheming to get money/power, most soap operas don't work.
Here's some random quotes taken from Facebook regarding Empire (I swear I'm not making this up):
"The Folks who produced and are in the show, have ALL SOLD THEIR SOULS TO THE DEVIL FOR THE MONEY ! LET'S SHUT THIS GARBAGE DOWN NOW ! AMOS AND ANDY 2015 !"
"They disrespect us. They have no regard for us. They want us stupid...just play some music for these niggers, they love that, lets just shove some drama down their throats, make them fight, have a son call his mother a bitch. Make the colors bright cause niggers love colors. NO THANK YOU. I'LL WATCH RERUNS OF WHATEVER..."
I don't like negative portrayals of Black people in any medium. I feel those Housewives/Basketball/Hip-hop/Love reality shows do more damage to Black images than any scripted drama currently on air.
So many folks have decided the totality of the series is problematic based on one episode. Just one episode.
These are the same kinds of folks who whine about the laws and political mistreatment but won't vote - they won't even register to vote.
These are the same kinds of folks that complain about the lack of positive Black imagery but don't support movies that show a hyper-noble Black community.
A trait of millennial culture is an overwhelming sense of entitlement. You see this in the genre world and you're seeing this regarding the proliferation of new Black TV shows and movies. Apparently, if a product doesn't appeal to every single possible whim - if it doesn't satisfy some imaginary goal of representation - then it is to be fully trashed and discarded under the pretense of protecting the legacy of African-American imagery.
This is an important thing to believe in, but it is completely misdirected. What's replaced real activism is keyboard activism. Re-tweeting important news of liberation and freedom struggles is considered just as legitimate as grass-roots political organizing.
Complaining about media is considered by some a worthy replacement for creating your own stories for distribution. Whining about "bad" imagery is a substitute for seeking out the images you feel "properly" reflect the realities of Black life. Calling something "coonery" or "clowning" is a replacement for in-depth analysis of story structure and behind-the-scenes production news.
Giving something the benefit of the doubt is considered "selling out" while simple-minded, reactionary reviews based on minimal information is now the standard-operating-procedure for critical understanding.
What terrifies me is that many Blacks fall right into the stereotype of being relentless complainers. No matter what the story is, no matter how well we're presented, no matter how fantastic a performance is, no matter how well the script is written, there's going to be a loud chunk of Black folks who equate internet access with the freedom to tender nonsense complaints. Nothing satisfies them.
I'm well-aware that the Black community is not a monolith. Things that I consider to be "normal" are completely weird to Blacks who've grown up under different circumstances. However, I do feel the proliferation of electronic media as well as the tidal wave of entertainment options has led to a compartmentalization of Black interests in media. This is a double-edged sword because it shows the incredible diversity of the Black marketplace, but it also creates an unrealistic expectation of satisfaction from every media product that cannot possibly be satiated.
What's worse, it removes the commonality of African experiences that shows/movies like The Cosby Show, Roots, The Best Man, Soul Food, Barbershop and even Black-ish centralize and celebrate.
I'm aware that many will disagree with my assessment, and that's cool. I don't mind differing opinions as long as they're informed opinions. People can have an opinion on anything, but some opinions have the benefit of deep consideration with real-world facts to back them up.
In the past 30 years, I've seen Black people get exactly what they want and then complain about something else in movies and TV. If some of you want a mainstream show where the Nation of Islam blows up a city block every week, that's not going to happen. While I don't EVER advocate that kind of stuff, there's nothing stopping any of the complainers from buying a digital camera system and creating a webseries showing all the revolutionary rhetoric they want.
But that would take time away from all the whining online.