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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

40 Years Ago.The Last Sincere Depiction of Blacks on TV

Yesterday's posting elicited a lot of very positive responses though occasionally we admit, yours truly came across the occasional raised eyebrow.

But all in all, words like 'brave' and 'gutsy' were uttered on numerous occasions which of course was meant as compliments but in a small way, its sad that writing something truthful and factually honest can be deserving of such accolades.

But its important to expand on yesterday's points a bit where television and the greater TV watching society is concerned.
Some may wish to challenge the following assertion but its nonetheless 100% true:

There has not been a television show of genuine quality depicting what life is really like for black Americans in which blacks are primarily cast since the mid 1970's..

That is now 40 years and counting..  

The show:  'Good Times'
~ "Sugar Shack" painting shown in closing credits..

Anyone who wants to argue 'The Cosby Show'..  Sorry but..  No.

It was Highly unrealistic then as it is now to find a black family where the husband is a successful doctor in private practice while his wife is a successful trial attorney who magically find ample time and energy to dote on their 100% perfectly adjusted, sugar-sweet children in a TV 'world' without any pressures beyond periphery concerns.

Cosby originally proposed that the couple should both have blue-collar jobs, with the father a limousine driver, who owned his own car, and the mother an electrician but it was his wife at the time who insisted the unrealistic occupation premise used in the series.
~ Five kids and not a financial care in the world...

And from a dollars and sense perspective, she was right..

The show was a massive hit and made the Coz and NBC boatloads of delicious yummy money while portraying a very safe, sanitized and as stated before, unrealistic depiction of the average black family in the 1980s under Reagan.

Now since then there's been a couple comedies here and there depicting black families on TV..    For instance 'Family Matters' was a very popular show on ABC in the early 1990's
Of course in truth, it wasn't because of dealing with any family situations that mattered..

The success was due to an adorably sweet, intelligent, and occasionally klutzy character who started just as a minor character in one episode and due to popular response, blossomed into the show's star focus.. The first ever black nerd depicted on TV..

~ Notice how Urkel is portrayed in this ad poster with the rest of the cast as small as little squibs..

There's also been a ton of Tyler Perry themed TV shows that really few to no one ever watches and as most shows, falls into the trap of needing to show upward economic mobility to present alternate reality.

Now back to 'Good Times', the last show of quality depicting blacks as they sincerely were living at the time..

The show went on the air in 1974 and lasted until 1979 when it had jumped the shark as the saying goes...
It was produced by Norman Lear, one of the most important people in the history of television who went on to produce 'All in the Family', 'The Jeffersons', 'Maude' which 'Good Times' was spun off from, and others..

The premise:  Florida and James Evans and their three children live in a rented project apartment in a housing project in a poor, black neighborhood in inner-city Chicago.  and have 3 kids: James Jr., also known as "J.J.", Thelma, and Michael.

The show dealt with day to day realistic struggles for a loving two-parent black family to make it amid their poverty conditions and a bleak recession going on at the time while ultimately turned to malaise when President Carter replaced Ford in 1977.
James usually works at least two jobs simultaneously, from a wide variety such as dishwasher, construction laborer, etc. When he has to, he plays pool in order to hustle money, though Florida disapproves.. He is a man of pride who often states he will not accept charity.    Florida worked as well..

The show was sometimes gritty.. sometimes unflinching.. but it tackled real problems and issues with humor and truth.

And then like pretty much all TV shows, it got stupid and all thanks to the character of J.J. and his then-famous catchphrase "Dyno-Mite!!" which overshadowed the show's original intent.
In a 1975 interview with 'Ebony', actress Ester Rolle who played 'Florida' expressed her annoyance with the character of 'J.J'.:

"He's 18 and he doesn't work.  He can't read or write.  He doesn't think. The show didn't start out to be that...

Little by little—with the help of the artist comedian Jimmie Walker who played J.J.), I suppose, because they couldn't do that to me—they have made J.J. more stupid and enlarged the role.  Negative images have been slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child."
Yep..  that's how they do it..

Even Homer Simpson wasn't the complete insipid moron in season 1 of the Simpsons as he has been portrayed the last 15-20 years.  He had basic intelligence and when Bart sassed him, he took control and told Bart to "Shut up, boy!" making the son show more respect to his Dad.

But we digress..

As actor John Amos who played 'James' also expressed it:   "The writers would prefer to put a chicken hat on J.J. and have him prance around saying "DY-NO-MITE", and that way they could waste a few minutes and not have to write meaningful dialogue"

The chicken hat reference is to 'Chicken George' the character played by Ben Vereen who was a slave (and eventually freed) in the 70's ground-breaking mini-series 'Roots'
So the show devolved by season 3 into weekly plot lines concerning J.J. and excuses to hear that shitty catchphrase, and ultimately Amos fought with scriptwriters and the producers enough that they let him go and killed off 'James' making 'Florida' now a single mother..

By the end of season four, Rolle got sick of the show too and was allowed to leave.

In season five, one of their neighbors is always looking in on the kids, the shows got sillier and sillier and ratings dropped massively..
In desperation for season six (the final season) the producers wooed Rolle back with better salary and higher quality scripts that she demanded be more realistic and less stereotypical toward blacks..

Rolle also wanted producers to make the character of J. J. more responsible, as she felt the character was a poor role model for black youths.  

Nonetheless, ratings stayed flat and by 1979, that was that..

Forty years since 'Good Times' aired and really nothing of quality and substance about the black experience in America that is even remotely truthful.
~ Toward the end of 'Good Times' run, the character of 'Bookman' was introduced as a cheap device to get harmless laughs off his weight and laziness 

And the commercials?  10,000x more BS fake

Here's a brief example of the sincerity of 'Good Times' and how it dealt with issues of the day (some with resonance in the present as well)

The other day I was flipping channels and 'Good Times' was on the local UHF station..  In the scene I watched, Florida was at her primary doctor's office.. a black female in her early 30s
And there was an argument between the two:  The doctor was tired of having her practice in the poor neighborhood of Chicago where she was constantly dealing with break-ins to steal prescription drugs kept and mentioned she had to close her practice daily at 4p just to ensure she could get home without being mugged..

Florida empathized but pleaded for her to keep her practice open for there were few to no other options for her and those like her to go when someone was ill and need of medical attention..

The argument lasted a few minutes and in the script, Flo had the last word, but the scene was extremely well done..  Both sides' perspectives were presented honestly and without political-correct hesitancy of offending..
The doctor made it clear at one point she didn't put herself through medical school and incur student debt which she was struggling to repay and to be making next to nothing in her practice while constantly feeling at danger of physical threat from her kind..

Show me another TV show where you find two characters, black or white who speak so candid and address real problems, in this case med-flight to safer areas which cause the poor to suffer even more...

The biggest dilemma ever faced on the Cosby Show was which black university sweatshirt or bright-loud sweater was he going to wear while doing his goofy gibberish noises.
You will never ever find this honesty anywhere else..  Certainly not mainstream news..

What do they care?

To TV networks, every black person is merely a dollar sign to suck as much time and money out of via the watching of the shows and commercials and using their patronage to keep ratings up enough to justify charging the advertisers what they do..

Just like every other demographic
~ 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air'..  The eldest male was a judge.. and had a butler..  No really, its true..  Guess 'Fresh Prince of Burbank' wasn't exaggerative enough.. 

There's an ole' medical adage..  'When there's an illness needing treatment, no one ever gets better taking the placebo vs the medication'

And as long as people are content seeing themselves depicted in ways they never ever will be,  there never will be any chance of self-motivating people out of the complacency of where they currently are.