As a young boy, when I watched television, I often felt a longing and connection that I couldn't describe. It wasn't that there weren't Black television shows on the air. On the contrary, I remember the one about the junk dealer and his son who lived in their junkyard. There was one about a Black family living in a Chicago project building. There was also a dry cleaners entrepreneur who moved on up to Manhattan's upper east side. And there were the two unforgettable little Black dudes from Harlem who moved on up the socioeconomic ranks via their kind hearted adopted white dad. These are but a few television classics that were watched and celebrated by Blacks because we were so happy to see ourselves on TV, and by whites because, for those who had minimal interaction with people of color, the shows served as their "education" on Black people. Despite being an avid watcher as well as being quite low on the socioeconomic spectrum myself, I didn't relate to any of these shows or the roles.
The irony, however, was that I loved this show about this Black butler in the Governor's Mansion. Robert Guillaume played Benson for seven seasons on ABC and though he was the butler, Benson did not suffer fools gladly and was always the smartest person in the room. This everyone knew, including the Governor. Benson wasn't a Black show, per se. He never "acted" Black in the way Black sitcoms often seem to require, but was very much Black by nature of his being. Unabashedly and unapologetically Black. And funny as hell.
When The Cosby Show came along I, like everyone else in the world, short of the people who panned the show for not being "Black enough," fell in love with the portrayal of this loving Black family, one that we were not accustomed to seeing on a weekly basis. NBC and Mr. Cosby differed on their take on the show, however. NBC described it as a show about an upper-middle class Black family. He saw it as an upper-middle class family who happened to be Black. Though it may seem like semantics on its surface, they are two very different approaches to storytelling. Only then, at 14, did I realize why I loved Benson so much. These were comedies with Black people where the comedy wasn't predicated upon being Black.
Though it is understood that television is entertainment and that entertainment distorts reality, television has always managed to masterfully influence how society sees reality. Throughout history, television has always treated people of color, or anyone not white for that matter, as a stereotype. From Stepin Fetchit and Amos 'N Andy to our modern day contemporary versions, television has dictated how we as a society should feel about Black people. Yes, there have been exceptions. And they have been just that.
For years we have regaled you with countless colorful stories of Black actors being directed at auditions to be more cool, to play it "bigger," have more attitude, or even more "sass." White network and studio executives, white writers/producers, and white directors have long been the gatekeepers of Black images on television. During the cycles where the gate hinges loosen slightly and Black creatives are given some input and illusion of control, the stereotypes often continue, even if the Black characters are given professions and higher socioeconomic status. I am humbled and very thankful that I have been able to work consistently in my adult life, yet I don't work as much as I'd like to because I refuse to take work that perpetuates negative stereotypes of who we are as a people. But not everyone is in the position to say "no, thank you". And as anyone reading this knows, the audition grind is a beast for artists of all racial backgrounds. Sometimes we have to take what we can get.
We Black artists who are fortunate enough to sustain careers in television, in front of and behind the camera, walk a fine line. We are grateful for every opportunity, even those for which we've had to bust our behinds. We graciously acknowledge how far we have come in this industry, yet at the risk of sounding unappreciative of the progress, we are compelled to keep the light shining on how much more needs to be done.
Presently, there are more Black actors, writers, and producers working than ever before. And yet we daringly proclaim there are not enough. Additionally, when we do work, the scope tends to be limited from a creative perspective. There has been quite an enlightening amount of research found in the recent data report by McKinsey & Company and the BlackLight Collective, a coalition of Black leaders, artists, and executives who work in the film and television industry, that shows how Black creatives in significant positions -- whether in front of or behind the camera -- get "funneled into race related content, which often plays into stereotypes."
There is such a wide array of rich and colorful stories of our history as Black people on a global level that have nothing to do with being slaves. There are so many varied stories of Blacks as entrepreneurs that have nothing to do with the drug business. And there are even more stories about our shared human experiences that involve people who just happen to be Black. And though it is perfectly valid for Black creatives to take over ownership of our stereotypes and out of white hands, there are also so many expressions of Blackness that do not fit into the checked stereotype boxes we generally see on television.
As entertainment companies begin to make strides in diversity and inclusion, it's my hope that networks and studios expand their scope and vision by diversifying and including people of color in executive capacities that have power to greenlight more diverse projects with regard to people of color. And I also hope that we Academy members be even more proactive in supporting our peers who are doing important and forward moving work. I openly celebrate the progress television has made and will continue to push for more inclusive television programming that is more reflective of the colorful world in which we live. Stereotypes abound, but there is so much untapped richness in the space beyond.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner is an Emmy-nominated performer, producer, director, and writer.
The statements and viewpoints expressed in the article above are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the Television Academy, the Television Academy Foundation, or their members, officers, directors, employees, or sponsors.