Noreen Farooqui, writer, copywriter, behavioural scientist, strategy, strategist, University of Toronto, English, business psychology, behavioural economics

Negritude Portraiture: Part 3

The 1980s: Changing the Face of Blacks in Popular Media
The program that changed the face of blacks throughout the world, The Cosby Show premiered on September 20, 1984. Bill Cosby hired prominent black psychiatrist, Alvin Pouissant to work with him on developing scripts that were devoid of racial stereotypes. The result proved successful beyond anyone’s expectation. It was a top ten hit from the beginning.

The Huxtables were an upper-middle class family living in a Brooklyn brownstone. The mother, Clair was an attorney and father, Heathcliff was an obstetrician/gynecologist. Their five children, Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa and Rudy ranged in age from 5 to 20. They lived in a well-to-do neighborhood and their home was decorated with artwork by prominent black artists. Jazz music permeated the opening theme and was a subject of many episodes. The program introduced the world to a functioning black family whose idiosyncrasies were common to the population at large. Humour was found in dealings with everyday life, particularly surrounding the family. Racial pride was indicated with program themes, set decoration, references to black artists, writers and guest stars such as Stevie Wonder and Sammy Davis Jr. The Huxtable home was not rooted in a particular ethnic experience, and was therefore accessible to everyone. The characters were strong: Clair had wit and sensuality; Cliff was a responsible father; Denise was an individualist whose creativity was expressed in her clothes and speech and Theo, was a well-rounded individual.

ADifferentWorld

A Different World took Denise to the fictional Black Hillman College. There we met blacks in a celebration of diversity: different skin colours, socio-economic backgrounds, interests and personalities. Students had a strong sense of cultural identity, and college life revolved around the black experience. The program sent a message to the world that blacks were not a bunch of lazy coons, but contributing members of society who could accomplish great things.

It is important to note that all the above programs are comedic in nature. Dramatic series revolving around black characters had previously been unsuccessful. But, with The Cosby Show’s success, it was hoped that the world was ready to look at blacks and all of their complexities in Frank’s Place.

FranksPlace

Tim Reid played protagonist, Frank Parish, a college professor from Boston who moves to New Orleans when he inherits a restaurant. The city is a historically significant setting, with the experience of slavery and racial conflict. The program combined images of rich and poor, educated and uneducated, it had funny with serious reflective moments dispersed through the script. Brought to the forefront were themes rarely addressed in a series such as: racism, colour castes and suicide. The series won nine Emmy nominations and the 1988 Humanitas Prize whose motto is: ‘to affirm dignity and probe the meaning of life.’ Unfortunately, the show only lasted one season.

Why can’t a Black drama succeed? Is it because the world is not ready to deal with blacks as human beings? Is there too much guilt in the world over the history of slavery, or are whites unwilling to look at the realities of blacks and see how similar their lives are to their own?

The 1980s brought hope to blacks and were a defining moment in television history. Unfortunately, black programming would turn full circle and go back to the minstrel images created by the oppressors. But this time, more than ever, blacks would share the blame for perpetuating the negative image of their people.

Tomorrow: The 1990s: A Return to Minstrel Images



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