Black Situation Comedies: Then and Now

I’m still feeling nostaglic now that Black History month is over. I had serious writers block in February and now I can’t stop writing so some of these posts might seem reflective of that lost time. I wanna take a look at some black shows that paved and are currently paving a way for positive black representations and hopefully motivation for future and current scriptwriters. 

Let’s be honest! In the past Hollywood rarely jumped at the opportunity to produce television shows that are positive and genuine representations of what it means to be black in America. Since the emergence of the first black situation comedy, The Amos ‘n Andy Show (1951) which aired during the minstrel era. Which is another word for racist black roles for black actors. Now the 1970’s is where we start to get  bit more comfortable with the idea of successful blacks with The Jefferson’s in 1975 and The Cosby Show almost a decade later in 1984 and finally the most recent family black comedy Black-ish in (2015). (I know some of you out there are disappointed that I included Bill Cosby but regardless of who he is today to us I was and many others were very much influenced by his work)

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The Amos ‘n Andy Show was one of America’s most famous and controversial television/radio shows at the time.( I mean shit it was the 50’s-things still weren’t quite right to be black) During its airing it was essentially the only place blacks could be seen on American television. The show’s title is a bit misleading in that Andy and Kingfish played by Spencer Williams and Tim Moore are the two central characters while Amos has essentially become a supporting character in the series.

 

You’d think that the black community would have been on board with this but there was actually  a lot of controversy surrounding this show that mostly stemmed from the shows inspiration-a radio show. Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, two white men are the creators of the show. On their radio show, they often performed different voices that were based on popular types from minstrel shows in order to fill shows like Amos ‘n Andy with characters that created a kind of “aural blackface.” (Ihat) Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly the harmful stereotypes that plagued the minstrel era carried over into the characters that make up the show. The show’s reliance on stereotypes is precisely what separates Amos ‘n Andy from the more progressive shows of the 70’s into more progressive times seen today.

Andy is a dumb, shiftless layabout, Kingfish is a greedy, two-bit hustler who’ll rig up any scheme to keep his money and Sapphire played by Ernestine Wade is an overbearing black woman who constantly berates Kingfish as a failure. In season 2 episode 31 called “Mama Getting Married” Kingfish plays cupid to try and get his mother-in-law married so she can move out of his and Sapphires house. Take the scene where Kingfish drives up to Niagara Falls to stop Mama from marrying Mr. Hubert instead of telling Sapphire he lied about the whole thing. Many black organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League fault against this show for reproducing these harmful stereotypes, however, today comedians seem much more accepting and understanding towards the black actors.

In the Why We Laugh documentary the Wayans brothers describe Amos ‘n Andy as paving a way for people like themselves so they weren’t forced to work with degrading material in order to work at all. Choice and variety are two of the biggest difference between the minstrel television era and every other era that followed.

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In 1975 The Jefferson’s was the first longest running American black sitcom. This show was quite progressive in that it was the first to prominently feature an interracial couple and it also showed a black family that was self-employed that became successful enough to move from Queens to Manhattans elite. There are many differences between this show and Amos ‘n Andy the first being the writing on the show. Although, the writers of the show were white there was a conscious effort to present The Jefferson’s as socially and economically conscious.  The central characters are Louise and George played by Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley. Louise often argues with George because she feels he allows money to make him act entitled while George feels he is special because he has earned his own money. He desperately wants his wife to just enjoy the ‘good life’ as a housewife. The characters themselves are also quite diverse for instance this show features and upstanding black family that interacts and are friendly and often rude to their white neighbors. They also have an outspoken black maid (Florence) which is a really interesting juxtaposition given that in the past black actors could only get roles as the help.

Jeffersons-Florence.jpgMarla Gibbs as Florence Johnston The Jefferson’s

I watched the pilot of this show and the entire episode dealt with the central question of if it’s right to have a maid, especially after Louise, used to work as one. The idea of how one’s life becomes gentrified is a central theme of The Jefferson’s and the writers do a pretty good job at being as genuine as possible with the ups and downs blacks in particular face when they come up and their friends and family remain stagnant.

The Cosby Show (1984) completely eliminated the stereotypes from the 1950’s and on. The Cosby showwas truly the first of its kind in that this was the first time we saw black elites on television. The show centers on the Huxtables: the father Cliff an Obstetrician and his lawyer wife Claire, their daughters Sondra, Denise, Vanessa and Rudy, and son Theo. The show was based on Bill Cosby’s comedy specifically his observations of family life. One of the biggest differences between this show and previous ones besides the family’s wealth is Cosby’s conscious effort to include aspects of the black culture such as historically black colleges, African art and the show covered serious issues such as drugs, teen pregnancy, and learning disabilities. Cosby was anxious to bring a sense of blackness to television that had never been seen before and probably never would’ve happened had it not been him.

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In season 1 episode 17 Cosby tackles drugs in this episode someone puts a marijuana blunt in Theo’s book, unfortunately, his parents find it and question him about it. Although compared with other episodes this is much milder than othersbecause it addresses the serious issue of drug consumption, especially during the 1980’s NY.Part of what made this show so successful was the ability to be just as serious and moving as it was comedic and lighthearted. The barriers that The Cosby showbroke down made it possible for many other black sitcoms to emerge in the 90’s such as Living Single, Martin, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Moesha, Sister Sister etc.

Today it seems television has taken a step back and a step forward. Although there are more roles that put women of color in leading roles television has become much more segregated than it ever was and black children in America aren’t as connected to their black history as they once were in the 80’s and 90’s. Black-ish (2015) starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross is the latest of black sitcoms to successfully portray sophisticated blacks that despite their efforts to connect with their ‘African side’ they realize that they’re just blacks trying to raise a family in LA.

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In the pilot episode, Andre (Anderson) is trying to connect his biracial son with his black side by throwing him an ‘African bash’ instead of a Bar Mitzvah like he wanted.  Similar to the Huxtables; Black-ishalso features educated blacks Andre is the Senior Vice President at an influential advertising agency and his wife Rainbow is a doctor and they have two boys and two girls.  The first episode is similar to the pilot episode on The Jefferson’sbecause it deals with the effects that money or gentrification has on one’s family. In Black-ish Andre worries that because his kids are growing up privileged in a post-Obama era they are not familiar or in touch with their ‘real’ black side. Now the punch-line in all this is that black is too broad to be defined by one central concept of ‘realness’ but it is important to be in touch with what it once meant to be black and where/how those same limitations and stigmas stand today.

The progression of blacks on American television is everchanging. Although all of the shows discussed in this here may not appear to be relatable for everyone there is undoubtedly something that can be pulled from each of these that black people especially can relate to. Whether it’s raising a family or dealing with prejudices within one’s job there is something or was something for everyone at one point and time and I think black progression on television and in reality should always be celebrated.

 

 

 

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Ethnic Notions: Popular depictions of… Blackness ?

Clearly Black History month is over but I’m black so its pretty much everyday for me.  Enjoy!

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Marlon Riggs documentary “Ethnic Notions” (1986) traces the deep-rooted stereotypes which have fueled anti-black stereotypes. The film is very raw, Riggs is completely unapologetic with the amount of overwhelming false and woefully racists representations of blacks in American culture. The film explores the many but similar caricatures produced during slavery and well after depicting white societies ideal “black person.” The caricatures depict exaggerated black features such as: big lips, unkempt hair and, often lazy insipid expressions/behavior, this is especially prevalent in cartoons. Cartoons often portrayed blacks as more wild animal than human.

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Other false, yet popular representations of blacks were broken down into five categories: coon, uncle, pick ninny, Mamie and the sambo. The five categories served as the dominate representation of blacks in America. Mamie is probably the most familiar figure out of this group, described as being quite large, docile, asexual whom is often very protective of her master’s home.   Indicating that the Manny understood the value of the society. The sambo character was also discussed this character began its life in the late 1820’s a man named T.D Rice – a white comedian who performed in blackface the name of his routine would become the symbol of segregation in the south.

iuqjwpsvGone with the Wind (1939) Dir. Victor Fleming- Mammy (Far left- played by Hattie McDaniel) Whom was the first black person to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy.

The documentary also briefly explores constraints blacks were under due to minstrel shows. Blacks saw this as a doorway out of poverty into a theatrical workforce however the racism was perpetual and direct. The reality was if a black person wanted to perform they had to wear blackface and play towards the perceived image of what a black person was. Burt Williams became America’s preeminent blackface performer despite his top pay and praise from critics he this he experienced an overwhelming amount of racism.

Watching this documentary made me cringe, cry and want to turn away. The amount of blatant racist memorabilia was very troubling an overwhelming to see. After watching this I’m not surprised that so many blacks had to degrade themselves further by playing blatant racist roles in order to break into the film industry and for some to simply make a living. However, I can’t shake the harsh reality that these false images are still prominent today. Blacks often have to boycott just to gain fair representation in industries such as Hollywood (i.e. Viola Davis most recently). I’ve also noticed that when we do win performance roles it’s often for portraying stereotypical roles that blacks have been ascribed to such as drug dealers, thieves, promiscuous women etc.  It’s important to be aware of these representations not because they’re still seen today but for future generations to be aware of the dark conscious of American history and culture.

Two Examples of sterotypical performances commemorated with Oscars

I love Denzel but it doesn’t esacpe me that he won his first best actor oscar for playing a crooked cop or a ‘n*gga’ if we want to be blunt about it. Halle Berry a beautiful woman was the first black woman to win a best actress oscar and had sex esscentially on camera. I’m always greatful for progress but at what cost is all I’m saying.

Unknown-2.jpeg            Traning Day (2001) Dir. Antoine Fuqua                                  Halle Berry in Monster Ball.jpg    Monster’s Ball (2001) Dir. Marc Forster

 

 

 

 

 

Cinema’s Feminist Mirage: The Ideological illusion of Cultural Progress in the 21st Century

Hollywood loves weak women. There seems to be this strange undeniable notion that a strong alpha female is unattractive and must not only show but prove their feminity to be liked, loved and respeceted. But is this true in real life? Sometimes yes, but often no (hence why I’m wrote this).

I’m going to discuss the disparage of women in cinema through the lens of a couple of cinematic works. Hercules depicts the reality that women are dominantly sexualized beingsin American cinema.  Mad Max: Fury Road is a failed attempt to contradict sexualized feminine representations due to its common ideologies that women must be attractive and that the female role is only to bear children.

Throughout history it’s seldom that women are depicted outside of the stereotypical roles centering on ideologies of the dominant highly sexualized female body.   These notions not only limit females, but they also lead to false constructs of what femininity is.  As well, they depict the submissive mentality that women are naturally weaker; and not only yearn for a tough male, but need one to be secure in life.

For the purpose of this paper, I’d like to define cinema and feminism.  According to the Oxford dictionary cinema is “the production of movies as an art industry.” Cinema can also generally refer to the distribution and exhibition of different films throughout history.  Feminism broadly defined is “a set of political practices founded in analysis of the social/historical positions of women as subordinate, oppressed or exploited either within dominate modes like cinema or production such as capitalism and/or by the social relations of patriarchal or male domination.” (Women’s Pictures 4) A feminist theorist examines this history of females in cinema and attempt to breakdown the illusion of progression of the feminist ideological image.

The images in Disney’s 1997 Herculesdepict the conventional representation of women as sexualized beings, which use their bodies specifically to manipulate men. When it comes to what we choose to watch as consumers most of us are familiar with what to expect from certain genres of film.  Most of our choices depend upon what we find entertaining.  We also tend to follow what the majority of consumers find interesting.  Feminists work in a prescriptive sense of false ideologies; they ask questions and look for solutions on the cultural evolution of women in American society.

Sexuality is a discourse often used within Disney movies to show how females should look and behave.  The seductress or femme fatale is probably one of the oldest character’s women have portrayed. For instance, the female protagonist Meg embodies the dangerous physicality women often portray in movies.  Meg is a beautiful young woman, whom along with all Disney female characters possesses an exaggerated hourglass figure.  She also wears heavy eye makeup to give her a heavy-lidded bedroom expression.  Her walk is a seductive dance, where her hips appear to move hypnotically to silent music.

These images can be dangerous to consumers, especially young children. They can be “harmful because they teach young girls how to use their bodies to get what they want.” (Mickey Mouse Monopoly) Meg’s character not only looks seductive, but also plays the stereotypical damsel in distress.  This female role of weakness is directly linked to a woman’s sexual disposition. It’s also essential to a female’s game of manipulation.  In the film Meg is desperate to earn back her soul due to losing it to an unfaithful lover. This follows the ideology that women often make foolish decisions for men.

Disney has been most successful at selling these sexist ideologies due to their years of experience and level of power within the media.  The main message being conveyed to consumers is that sex is not just the only power women have, but it’s also the only relevant one.  This mindset is completely contradictive to the feminist discourse that has been embedded into the 21stcentury. A 2014 study at UCLA Bunche center further emphasizes this.  Out of the top 500 films from 2007-2014, 28.8% of women wore sexually revealing clothes as opposed to 7% of men who did the same.  Additionally, 26.2% of those took their clothes off compared to 9.4% of men.  These statistics suggest that men are taken more serious and given far more opportunity than women in cinema.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a remake that gives the illusion of feminism.  In the 2015 film there are obvious attempts to portray strong women, however this film is a false representation because it still depicts women in a misogynistic image.  The film does succeed somewhat with its main character, Imperator Furiosa’s.  She is unconventional in the beginning of the film because she uses her genius tactics and overall personal strength to survive. But the film later contradicts her strength by making her attractive through make up and the revealing of sensual cleavage.  This takes away the seriousness of her character.  This film is also very sexist because the essential role women play is as biological breeders, whose beauty is their savior from starvation and death. Feminist experts agree that it’s easy to watch Mad Maxand believe you’re watching a film that praises feminism but given the points I made earlier it’s clear that it’s not.  Woman’s history experts believe a key to evaluating feminism in film comes from “identify with female characters” it’s a way of challenging the male-centered outlook of women.  If you look at Mad Maxand think about the desert milieu that completely lacks natural resources it’s understandable why a women’s role to give birth is so important.  However, it’s still not justifiable because there’s no way anyone let alone women would be concerned with getting pregnant or keeping up their appearance.  It’s precisely this reason why Mad Maxfails to be a feminist representation.

Women have a very long way to go before progress can actually be said.  My hope is that through my analysis of the sexualized women in Herculesand the illusions of progress in Mad Max: Fury Road have proven that there’s no need for celebration for women in film, because even when there are advances made to portray females in a feminist representation there is often an unnecessary contradiction accompanying it.

  Works Cited

Hercules. Dir. Ron Clements. Perf. Tate Donovan and Susan Egan. Walt Disney           Home Video, 1997. DVD

Mad Max: Fury Road. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy.          Warner Bros, 2015. DVD.

Kuhn, Annette. Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. London: Routledge & K.    Paul, 1982. Print.

Mickey Mouse Monopoly. Dir. Miguel Picker. Perf. Dr. Henry Giroux and Dr.    Elizabeth Hadley. YouTube. 15 Nov. 2015. Web. 8 Mar. 2015.

Hunt, Darnelle. 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report. Rep. Feb. 2014. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

 

Some films that push these weak female notions:

  1. Viola Davis- Suicide Squad, How to Get Away With Murder, The Help)
  2. The Hate you Give-Amandala Stenberge (strength through adversity no matter what)
  3. Miss Bala 2011 (the orignal not that Hollywood bullshit recently released
  4. Edge of Tomorrow Captain
  5. Wonder Woman- Diana (strong af, just happened to be gorgeous)
  6. Kill Bill Volumes 1-3 (The unstoppable Bride)
  7. Silence of the Lambs- Clarice Sterling  ( strong, clever and somewhat vulnerable FBI agent)
  8.  The Hunger Games-Katniss Everdeen (wouldve preferred Hollywood not white-wash it but hey,  it’s Hollywood)

Auditory Euphoria-Why I can’t stop listening to Little Dragon

Little Dragon, “Nabuma Rubberband” (Because Music, 2014)

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If Prince, Thievery Corporation and Flume had a baby, then that baby would be Little Dragon.  This four-person Swedish band is led by vocalist/percussionist Yukimi Nagano, Erik Bodan on drums, Fredrik Wallin on bass and Hakan Wirenstrand on the keyboards. Since 2007, they’ve released four studio albums.  In 2015, the group’s latest album “Nabuma Rubberband,” managed to combine the heartbeat melodies of the bands last three albums with an emphasis on Soul.  Their latest album is primarily interested in expanding their audience by building moods that evoke moments of melancholic reflection, nostalgia, and catharsis that frequently feels matched with a nocturnal undertone. Through four albums over 14 years, they’ve convincingly made a case for the durability of electronic music through songs like “Mirror, Pretty girls, Nabuma Rubberband and Cat Rider.”  All these songs cover diverse genres-funk, hip hop, R&B, Soul, indietronica and soft rock-while maintaining a consistent musical language.

In fact, Little Dragons language is so strong that they managed to create a new album in just three years that captures all the tempos that their last three albums contained. As soon as the dream-like tempo for “Mirror,” (the albums opening track) begins playing and the soft unusual voice of Yukimi is heard one is swept into a blanket of musical euphoria. The song is magically depressive depicting themes regarding failed relationships and unrealistic expectations-resulting in a cathartic introduction to the album.

The only difference between “Nabuma Rubberband” and its predecessors is its commitment to sounds they previously explored in the past.  In spite of this, there is a strive not to produce something unjustifiably new. The goal is to expand but it’s never the main point. Mood building is essential to the bands longevity but complex metaphorical lyrics also support their multifaceted sound.

“Pretty Girls” and “Nabuma Rubberband” are both relaxed-upbeat songs on the album. To understand “Pretty Girls” one has to listen to the song a few times but it tells the common coming of age story of a young girl moving to the big city in pursuit of the fast life.  The songs commercial sound (without being commercialized) and catchy lyrics such as “The green mermaid and the wavy mane” and “Pretty girl don’t get stuck, your aiming for the royal scene” make it one of the most notable tracks on the album. “Nabuma Rubberband” takes a different direction with its lyrics as it describes how a woman’s dependency and lack of money lead to her dark future. Lyrics such as, “Can’t think out loud, cause now’s the time, don’t lose your job, stare in and smile.” These are universal themes that many people can connect to.  Despite, the two songs lyrical differences they both share a vintage-funk sound that has a somber reflective feel to it. Both of these songs rely heavily on the keyboards and the consistency of the upbeat drums.

“Cat Rider” is the slowest track on the album coming in as the second longest song on the album at almost five minutes. The song rivals the similar technique of chopped and screwed music that emerged during the 90’s. A cathartic and self-reflective song about a girl’s ex-boyfriend realizes what he’s lost too late.  Lyrics such as, “Now you’re left with names to forget, trying to heal from the pain, if only you could remind it, would not have acted the same.” Songs like “Cat Rider and Mirror” speak profoundly towards this albums depressive undertones. However, these songs also keep the balance of somber self-reflexivity and feel-good, everyday music.

Little Dragon has found their mood with this last album. Through the emphasis on soul this electronic band has captured the nostalgia one feels after a failed relationship and the self-reflexivity one goes through- thinking about an unknown future. Emotionally resonating lyrics and cool vintage yet melancholic tempos have led Little Dragon to add another solid story to their peculiar sound.