A Black History Month Retrospective: Six TV Milestones That Broke Racial Barriers in Entertainment
When it comes to racial diversity and representation in television, we’ve come a long way from the all-white cast of Leave It To Beaver (first aired in 1957) to the diversity displayed through the cast of FX’s award-winning Pose (now entering its third season). As we celebrate Black History Month in February, it’s clear that television has come a long way in telling stories that are inclusive and representative of the Black community. While there is still a long way to go, here are six pivotal television milestones for Black Americans.
- Gambia and Back Again
In 1977, the miniseries Roots: the Saga of an American Family, starring Levar Burton as the legendary Kunta Kinte, brought the story of slavery – and its ripple effects through the generations – into living rooms across America. To this day, its finale remains the fifth-highest rated episode in television history. The History Channel remade Roots in 2016 with Malachi Kirby in the leading role. With subtle differences like depicting African characters speaking their own languages (instead of English) and removing an invented sympathetic white sea captain who didn’t exist in Haley’s novel, the remake shows how far television has come in multicultural storytelling since the 1970s.
- Breaking the Sitcom Ceiling
In the 70s TV began shattering stereotypes, moving from shows where Black characters were portrayed as sidekicks, caricatures, or villains to series that centered on Black characters and portrayed them as middle class – or even wealthy. For instance, The Jeffersons portrayed dry-cleaning magnate George Jefferson and wife Weezy in a New York penthouse, while the 80s were dominated by The Cosby Show, featuring a Black family headed by a doctor-lawyer power couple. The rise of cable networks offered new avenues for continuing this trend in the 90s, seeing successes like FOX’s Living Single and Martin, and Disney’s Sister Sister and The Famous Jett Johnson.
- From Shows to Networks
The popularity of shows like Martin and Living Single indicated a demand for more stories that centered around Black characters, which led in turn to the development of TV networks that could cater to the African-American audience. Premiering in 1980 as a two-hour weekly block of programming on the USA Network, Black Entertainment Television (BET) launched an independent channel in 1983. Today it’s expanded to three networks reaching some 88 million American households. Many other channels soon followed suit, including TV One, launched in 2004 and focusing on a broad mix of original programming and reruns. Other cable networks include Aspire, Bounce, Cleo, and Revolt, a music-focused network founded by Sean Combs in 2013. Today, these networks offer both scripted and unscripted series that follow Black protagonists.
- The Queen of All Media
It’s hard to overstate Oprah Winfrey’s influence on TV. As a beloved icon she crossed racial boundaries to inspire and counsel millions of Americans of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Cable-network owner, producer, philanthropist, author, magazine publisher, and Academy-Award nominated actress, it was no surprise when Winfrey was ranked as the world’s most powerful celebrity by 2007. Today, her cable channel OWN (The Oprah Winfrey Network) is still the first and only network named for, and inspired by, a single iconic leader, reaching some 82 million households worldwide.
- More Than Just Laughs
Television networks also offered new platforms for diverse – and more edgy – comedy. From Whoopi Goldberg to Chris Rock, and from Dave Chappelle to Wanda Sykes: Black standup comedians have long been pushing the envelope. In the 90s, FOX’s pivotal sketch show In Living Color pushed creative boundaries, inspiring a whole new generation of Black comedians in the process, including Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, whose show Key and Peele spanned five seasons, culminating in their 2015 Super Bowl Special. Today, Comedy Central’s new show, The New Negroes, exclusively features African American comedy and music acts. Hosts Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle created the show as a platform to amplify new Black creative voices.
- Behind the Scenes
As the creator, head writer, and producer of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and the political thriller series Scandal (with an African American female lead, Kerry Washington, portraying the powerful Olivia Pope), Shonda Rimes is the first African-American woman to create and executive produce a Top Ten Network series. Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 People Who Help Shape the World in 2007, Rimes has also found the time to pen her memoirs. Writer, director, and producer Ava DuVernay is also setting records for Black women in entertainment. After directing Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, she became the highest grossing Black woman director of all time. She’s currently overseeing production on Queen Sugar, a critically-acclaimed TV series on the OWN network.
Despite formidable obstacles, African-American actors and actresses, directors and producers, have made their mark on every aspect of American television, and have helped break racial barriers along the way. As Americans open to an ever-greater diversity of programming options, we can only imagine what the 2020s will have in store.
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