Black TV chronicles 50 years of trailblazing television

Hachette Book Group
black tv

Black TV author Bethonie Butler

Hachette Book Group
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February 29, 2024
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Black TV Author Bethonie Butler on Why Black Viewers Are Key to Television's Future

"Things are sort of in flux," Butler explains, but "maybe moving in the right direction."

Malcolm Venable

Bethonie Butler spent nearly a decade covering pop culture for The Washington Post. Her tenure overlapped with what some have called the golden age of Black TV — the era that kicked off with Fox's Empire in 2015 and saw a flood of Black-led shows to follow, among them hits like Insecure, Atlanta, The Carmichael Show and Power.

Butler, a millennial who came of age watching the abundant Black sitcoms of the '90s and early 2000s, delighted in seeing this new bonanza of Black stories. Curious about Black TV as a whole, she spent more than a year researching the genre past to present. The end result is Black TV: Five Decades of Groundbreaking Television from Soul Train to Black-ish and Beyond, a comprehensive and insightful tome packed with interviews, behind-the-scenes stories, insights and fun trivia. Kicking off with Julia, the 1968 series that made Diahann Carroll the first Black woman to be Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy, Black TV goes on to highlight the many (and sometimes forgotten) shows from Black storytellers that shaped television and culture at large.

Butler recently spoke with the Television Academy about her new book and its important perspective on the medium.

Television Academy: Your book chronicles Black TV from Julia to the present day. Obviously, a lot has changed, but did you see a throughline? What unites Black TV other than just Black people being onscreen?

Bethonie Butler: I've come to think of Black TV as, like, canon or a universe. The shows aren't all the same, but they're still connected in ways that Black people recognize. One way is when you have a guest star on a Black TV show, there's somebody who's going to be recognizable — somebody usually important to the community. Like Ben Vereen playing Will's dad in that very memorable dramatic episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. There's this recognition of older Black talent and a desire to sort of put them in front of the audience and say, "This person is important." And there are other things, like the music; we've seen people like Meshell Ndegeocello and Raphael Saadiq scoring for shows (Queen Sugar and Lovecraft Country, respectively, the latter nominated for Outstanding Music Composition in 2021). And obviously there is a history with Quincy Jones (who won for the Roots score in 1977).

In your sections on The Cosby Show, Martin and The Wayans Bros., you point out how there's often pushback within the Black community about representation. Audiences want shows to be authentic but also aspirational, populist but not stereotypical. That seems like a difficult line for the creators to walk, so how has that impacted what we see onscreen?

This was one of the things that shifted my perspective when writing the book, because I think it struck me how unfair that is. Martin is an interesting example. I've written about Martin over the years, how instrumental that show was to me as a young Black person watching it. There was so much focus on the negative representation and not what was actually incredible about that show, which was, you know, we were seeing a young Black couple — Martin (Lawrence) and Gina (Tisha Campbell) — thriving.

Nearly all the shows your book highlights from the '90s and early 2000s are comedies. Why do you think there were so few dramas at that time?

It's a question of opportunity. There's this assumption that Black people only want to see comedies; that Black people aren't interested in drama. That's a huge misconception. Roots is proof of what we were capable of dramatically. And it's very interesting and sad that it took so long after Roots for us to start seeing Black dramas. It's striking to me that as a millennial, me and my generation did not have [dramas].

Speaking of Roots, you quote Will Packer, one of the producers of the 2016 remake, as saying one of the challenges with that retelling was that modern Black audiences have resisted "Black trauma." How has that critique changed what's seen and what people are willing to see?

Will Packer's criticism wasn't about the production itself. It was about this recurring trauma that we've seen. It's criticism Black creators get that their counterparts often don't. It's unfair that you would also have to contend with the question of "Why are we always exploring our trauma?" If you have more Black TV shows, and more opportunities for Black stories, maybe it won't be so outsized.

Your book mentions how The Game was picked up on BET after being canceled by CW. You know African Americans over index in using social media. How have Black shows benefited from social media?

I think with The Game, executives were just stunned to see the ratings do so well. Same with Empire. Social media kind of forced both the powers that be, but also viewers, to pay attention to Empire, Scandal and a series like The Game.

Other than visibility, do you think things have changed?

That's a hard question. I think change is in progress. The real question is not just are the shows getting made, or are they being greenlit, but are they being nurtured and promoted by the networks? Do they get four or five seasons or cut off after one? A show like Queens, which I was really excited about, had so much potential, But [it] wasn't given the chance to develop. I think it's also a question of whether it's a moment or a movement. In 2020, all anyone could talk about was Black everything, and it sort of fizzled out.

What's next? What do you think the future holds for Black TV?

I think Black viewers in many ways are the future because of social media, and because of the discourse out there — we're no longer going to just accept that these opportunities aren't available or that a great series isn't getting the visibility it deserves. Things are sort of in flux, maybe moving in the right direction, but definitely still a work in progres.

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