The Unwritten Rules of Black TV
The Atlantic|October 2021
For decades, Black writers and producers have had to tell stories that fit what white executives deemed “authentic.” Can a new generation finally change that?
Hannah Giorgis

I. “ You Can Hear a Pin Drop”

Carl Winslow, the protagonist of the ’90s sitcom Family Matters, wore his badge with honor. On the show, about a middle-class Black household in Chicago, Winslow (played by Reginald VelJohnson) loved being a police officer almost as much as he hated seeing the family’s pesky neighbor, Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), popping up in his home. Carl was a quintessential TV-sitcom cop, doughnut clichés and all. In one scene, he announces that he’s just had the worst day of his life: “I was in a high-speed car chase and ran out of gas.” The humor did not always break new ground.

The cast of Family Matters was predominantly Black, but the series was written and conceptualized mainly by white people. A 1994 episode, “Good Cop, Bad Cop,” illustrates the degree to which a Black writer could be sidelined, even on a show about a Black family. In the episode, Carl’s teenage son, Eddie (Darius McCrary), storms into the house, visibly upset about a run-in with the police. Yet Carl insists that Eddie’s account of being harassed and forced to the ground doesn’t add up: “That’s unusual procedure— unless you provoked it.” Carl’s response is jarring. He may be Officer Winslow when he’s on duty, but he’s still a Black father— one who ought to know how police in America often treat young Black men. Eddie walks away angry.

Felicia D. Henderson, a Black producer and screenwriter who worked on Family Matters from 1994 to 1996 before moving on to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Soul Food, and Empire, recalls the tension in the writers’ room when the episode was being workshopped. Television shows are typically written by a staff that collaborates on scripts; trading ideas and criticism around a table is an integral and sometimes raucous part of the process. Yet there’s a hierarchy in the room: The senior writers hold sway and the showrunner is ultimately in charge. Family Matters was no different. Then a junior writer, and one of only a few Black staffers on a team of more than a dozen, Henderson was at first hesitant to weigh in when a white writer tossed out the possibility of Carl responding the way he did. But the line felt wrong to her, and she spoke up. “I just said, ‘Well, no Black father would tell his Black son that,’ ” Henderson told me recently. “And the room got silent. I mean, you can hear a pin drop.” The white showrunner defended the line, and it went in. “It was clear in the room and in the moment that I had offended them,” Henderson recalled. “Like, ‘What, are you saying—we’re racist?’ No, but I am saying that’s not realistic.”

“Good Cop, Bad Cop” ends with Carl confronting the officer and reconciling with Eddie. Viewers get the kind of safe conclusion that wraps up a “very special episode”: Eddie was right to be upset, because some police officers really are racists. Last year, a month after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, the Family Matters cast reunited on Zoom to look back at the story line from 25 years ago. “When they wrote the episode, we didn’t realize it would be so revealing and telling today,” VelJohnson said.

Revealing and telling, yes, but maybe not in the way he thought. For Henderson, working on Family Matters offered an introduction to a defining feature of her long career in Holly wood. Negotiated authenticity is the phrase she uses to describe what many Black screenwriters are tasked with producing— Blackness, sure, but only of a kind that is acceptable to white showrunners, studio executives, and viewers.

The nature of the “negotiation” that Black writers must conduct has shifted over the years. Half a century ago, just getting Black characters on TV was a hurdle, and Black screen writers were few. Today, as more networks and streaming platforms advertise the Black shows they’ve lined up—you’d be forgiven for thinking that every month is Black History Month— it is tempting to believe that Black performers and writers now have a wealth of opportunities, including wide creative latitude for those who make it to the top. This era of “peak TV,” in which the entertainment landscape is saturated with more high-quality series than ever before, has been a boon in some respects. According to data collected in UCLA’s 2020 “Hollywood Diversity Report,” an annual study of the entertainment industry’s progress, or lack of it, nearly 10 percent of lead roles on TV were filled by Black actors, likely the closest the industry has ever come to proportional representation (which would be about 13 percent). Shonda Rhimes, as titanic as any creative figure in the industry, is the force behind several of the most successful series in recent memory, ratings juggernauts such as Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish, has produced comedic series that take on deadly serious issues of race while appealing to a diverse group of viewers.

Yet for all the strides that figures like Rhimes and Barris have made, the power in the television industry still rests mostly in the hands of white executives. The UCLA diversity report revealed that less than 11 percent of broadcast scripted-show creators, less than 15 percent of cable scripted-show creators, and less than 11 percent of digital scripted show creators come from any underrepresented racial group. (These groups, taken together, make up roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population.) At Netflix, for which Rhimes produces shows and Barris did until recently, only 12 percent of scripted-series creators are people of color—this from a study commissioned by Netflix itself. According to a 2017 survey of the industry as a whole, 91 percent of shows are led by white showrunners. Too often, as Henderson put it to me, “it’s still white people determining what the Black experience is and then hiring Black writers to ‘authenticate’ it.”

Since its invention, television has shaped this country’s self-image. To the extent that we share notions of “normal,” “acceptable,” “funny,” “wrong,” and even “American,” television has helped define them. For decades, Black writers were shut out of the rooms in which those notions were scripted, and even today, they must navigate a set of implicit rules established by white executives—all while fighting for the power to write rules of their own.

II. Othello in Watts

The history of significant Black representation on television is a short one. The medium’s racial progress has been like that of most other American industries: slow, cyclical, uneven. In the early years, Black Americans turned on their TV sets and found themselves written out of the American story—or, worse, appearing only as caricatures. Not long ago, I came across a photograph of the 1963 March on Washington that made clear how starved Black audiences were to see their lives depicted on TV. In the photo, a protest sign, referring to the popular program Lassie, reads: Look Mom! Dogs have TV shows. Negroes don’t!!

That wasn’t completely true. In the 1950s and ’60s, African Americans like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. headlined variety shows. But the discontent expressed in messages like that March on Washington sign spoke to something bigger than token representation: a belief, at least among the middle class, that most existing television shows didn’t account for the political or cultural interests of Black people. At the time, comedies and dramas with Black writers and actors were virtually nonexistent. The few early roles available for actors of color drew on offensive stereotypes and outright minstrelsy— Amos ’n’ Andy, which aired from 1951 to 1953, was the most notorious example. White television executives were reluctant to sign off on story lines that featured Black people in complex roles or depicted them as a central part of American society. TV advertising was aimed at the white middle class.

In 1968, NBC debuted Julia, starring Diahann Carroll as a single mother raising a son while working as a nurse. Julia was the first middle-class Black woman to be featured as the lead character in a prime-time series, and given the show’s conceit— she had been widowed when her husband was killed in Vietnam—it might have offered a pointed commentary on the politics of the moment. In practice, however, the series stuck to easy laughs about family life, rarely touching on race except to make jokes that Carroll in a memoir characterized as “warm and genteel and ‘nice.’ ” The show’s creator, Hal Kanter, was white, and as he told Ebony in 1968, he wanted “entertainment,” not “agony.” In a cover interview for TV Guide, published eight months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Carroll acknowledged the show’s shortcomings. “At the moment,” she said, “we’re presenting the white Negro. And he has very little Negro-ness.” She would later tell Kanter that the stress of playing a role so far removed from the Black life she knew had made her physically ill.

Not until 1972 did a network attempt something more daring. That year, Norman Lear, the creator of the hit series All in the Family, and the producer Bud Yorkin launched Sanford and Son, an adaptation of the BBC’s Steptoe and Son. The show starred the Black actors John Elroy Sanford (better known as Redd Foxx) and Demond Wilson as father-son junk dealers Fred and Lamont. The Sanfords were hardly the archetypal family next door. They lived in Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood that existed to most non-Black viewers as the focal point of the 1965 police- brutality protests that escalated into a week of violence. The series regularly addressed the racism its characters faced as Black men navigating a post-civil-rights-era America, and the passage of time has not blunted its edge. In one episode, Lamont, who dreams of the stage, is preparing to act in Othello. He has the title role—the dark-skinned “Moor.” A white woman plays Desdemona. When Fred stumbles on a rehearsal of the play’s murderous climax, he pulls his Black son and the white woman apart. He isn’t reassured when he’s told that it’s just a play. “Well you better have the National Guard standing by,” he warns.

For many Black viewers, seeing that kind of exchange between father and son in prime time was thrilling, a fact that Lear picked up on when he looked out at his studio audience. By then, he had been working in television for two decades; he knew firsthand how white most of those audiences were. The live audience for Sanford and Son was different. “There’s no experience like standing behind an audience composed like that—half Black, or half Black and brown, but all kinds of people— and watching them laugh hard, like, belly laugh,” Lear, who is 99, told me recently. “I’m very confident that added time to my life.”

Sanford and Son soared to the top of national ratings, challenging the long-held industry assumption that white audiences wouldn’t tune in to a series about Black characters. To some degree, this was a function of Lear’s earlier successes: Fred Sanford drew easy comparisons to Archie Bunker, the blue-collar patriarch of All in the Family. Both characters were cantankerous middle-aged men; both tossed around racial slurs and misogynistic commentary. Some of the humor has not aged well. Still, the later series, which ran for six seasons, exposed the prime-time audience to Black performers and Black modes of comedy. Foxx didn’t regularly write for the show, but Sanford’s incisive commentary on the indignities and joys of Black life in America worked so well thanks to his training as a stand-up comedian, with a style and sensibility the writers could channel. “He was a lounge act in Las Vegas, and we happened on him and couldn’t get over how much he belonged on television,” Lear recalled. Sanford brought the creative genius of Black comics to viewers who would never set foot in the kinds of clubs where Foxx and his peers performed. The show later pulled in the writing skills of other Black comics, including Paul Mooney and Richard Pryor, and employed Ilunga Adell, one of the first Black writers to work fulltime on a network series.

Sanford and Son made possible the spate of Black sitcoms that followed, including others from Lear. The Jeffersons had a direct All in the Family connection: George (Sherman Hemsley) and Louise (Isabel Sanford) owned a dry-cleaning chain in Queens and had lived next door to the Bunkers. Their own series saw them shine, as business success allowed the couple to move from Queens to that “deeeeluxe apartment in the sky,” on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Black writers on the series included Sara Finney- Johnson, who would go on to co-create the sitcom Moesha, and Booker Bradshaw, an actor who later wrote for Good Times and The Richard Pryor Show.

Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons proved that series with predominantly Black casts could be hits. Yet white executives continued to view Black shows as too much of a gamble. They didn’t want to risk losing a large, affluent white audience by appealing to what they dismissed as a smaller, poorer Black one. Television therefore remained almost entirely white; to be a Black writer or actor in the TV industry of the 1970s was to face exclusion at nearly every turn. When it came to staffing creative teams, the presumption was that white writers could write anything at all, but Black writers could contribute only to Black shows.

III. Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

The 1980s produced little programming that focused on Black performers, and few of the shows lasted more than a single season. At the time, JET magazine published a weekly list of every Black appearance on television, a list that generally showed African Americans playing “comic support” or “minority sidekick” roles. The August 13, 1984, issue included the following: Kim Fields as the precocious Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey on The Facts of Life, Roger E. Mosley as the helicopter pilot T.C. on Magnum P.I., Tim Reid as Lieutenant “Downtown” Brown on Simon & Simon, and Paula Kelly as the public defender Liz Williams on Night Court.

The lack of opportunities can partly be explained by the waning dominance of sitcoms, where Black writers and actors had made some inroads. Some of the explanation is cultural. Ronald Reagan was president. Family Ties, with its former-hippie parents raising a conservative son, was a reverse All in the Family, but there was no Sanford-style counterpart. On both Diff’rent Strokes, which ran from 1978 to 1986 on NBC, and Webster, which ran from 1983 to 1989 on ABC, Black youngsters (played by Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, respectively) were essentially rescued from poverty by rich white families, a parable of trickle-down harmony. The Blackness of the two boys existed in opposition to the white affluence surrounding them.

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