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Black In America: Representational Realities pt. 1 The Reality of Love

A series, inspired by the CNN special, dedicated to race related identity issues concerning Black people in America.

The Story

The Good Times versus The Cosby Show is an excellent illustration of the debate over representations of authentic Black life. Black people diverge on their opinions of how authentic each representation is. No one can argue that Good Times presented an obvious reality that Black people experience; however, there are a surprisingly large number of Black people who are skeptical about The Cosby Show‘s representation.

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I have been in debates over these shows, I have heard people criticize and critique both shows in the positive and the negative. The only solid conclusion that I have surmised from these conversations is that there is a general misunderstanding about representations and reality.

When Black people are portrayed in films and television, the Black community is usually very vocal about their ideas about these images. Most times it comes down to authenticity and keeping it real. The Black community tends to resist those images that we view as misconstruing Black life. However, we often neglect the fact that Black life is just as multifaceted as that of any other culture. Black lives, like everyone else’s, is affected by socioeconomic status, regional geography, ascribed ideologies, and subjective family upbringing. For instance, I have friends from Black families that always sat down for dinner; I have those who will say that their family ate dinner in front of the television; and I have those who say that everyone in their family ate at different times and places. So which would be the authentic reality to be used to represent Black family life on television or in the movies? Both.

The Backdrop

Good Times is about a poor Black family living in the projects. The subject matter of the show included gangs, venereal diseases, Black Jesus, and school integration. The Cosby Show is about a Black family living in the suburbs. The subject matter of the show included learning disabilities, HBCUs, and Black history topics. One of the most interesting things about both of these shows is how socioeconomic status is used as a backdrop for the true substance of the show which is the Black family being portrayed.

james-floridaGood Times aired in 1974 which was just after the creation of Section 8 programs for subsidized housing. The Evans family lived in a housing project (implied through the visuals of the shows opening as Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago). Therefore, it is clear that the socioeconomic backdrop for the Evans family in Good Times that of a lower economic status. Much of the humor of the shows makes fun of the commonalities of being poor. However, both Florida and James Evans are hard working, loving partners and parents to their children. Despite their economic status they demand respect, hard work, and responsibility from their children. This family dynamic is the heart of Good Times; poverty is simply the backdrop.

The Cosby Show‘s backdrop is at the other end of the spectrum from Good Times. The Huxtables live in Brooklyn Heights, New York, a noted upper middle class area.cliff-claire Cliff is a physician and Claire is an attorney. While their upper middle class lifestyle takes away the struggle of just trying to make ends meet, the most humorous episodes surround the struggles of parenting. Cliff and Claire are loving partners and parents to their children. They demand respect, hard work, and responsibility from their children. This family dynamic is the heart of The Cosby Show; being upper middle class is simply the backdrop.

Most of the debates I have heard regarding Good Times and The Cosby Show neglect to mention that the most substantive part of both shows (which makes them more in common than not) is the struggles and triumphs of two Black people raising children and maintaining a family and that is deeper and more important than socioeconomics on any day.

The Forefront

At the forefront of these shows is that the most important representations that they set forth are exactly the same and have become almost obsolete in many television representations of Black people: loving sustained commitment.

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The heart of both of these shows was the loving relationship between the parents and how they together conspired to raise a family. The evidence of this is scene in the quick decline of Good Times when the show’s producers decided to kill James off and sent Florida away with a new lover. Contrary to the producers believing J.J. as the ratings draw, without the parents as the center of the show’s storyline the ratings plummeted. That is because the show that had appealed to so many wasn’t just about the laughs and the poverty, it was about a loving Black couple raising a family. I would also guess this to be the reason why The Cosby Show lasted so long despite the children growing up and leaving home. So what we, in the Black community, often miss is that reality is not rooted in our financial circumstances but in our relationships.

The Problem

Good Times was the first show featuring a Black family to become popular in the mainstream while The Cosby Show was the first show featuring a Black family that was not entrenched in poverty to become popular in the mainstream. The two shows have little relevance for a comparison as they both are equally as important in the history of Black media. It is what takes place after the advent of these two shows that is what is the chief concern because after these shows and others proved that Black people could be the stars of a show and gain the interest of the entire American populace, something began to consciously happen to the images of Black people in the media.

Because of our obsession with authenticity and the fact that our reality is almost always depicted in our struggles, the media gave us what we wanted. However, the issue is not whether the representations are authentic or illustrate some objective fact about Black life. The issue comes down to the answers to specific questions about each representation: why certain representations are chosen?; why certain representations are shown more than others?; and who chose the images being represented? We have to acknowledge that representations are constructed consciously due to the fact that media images are meant to cause certain reactions in the viewers.

The Point

Authenticity is not the central issue of Black representations. The central issue is consciousness behind the representations and the affects that those representations will have on the Black community. Both Good Times and The Cosby Show depict conscious efforts to portray Black life through different backdrops with the same motive: to display love between Black people in contrast to the “reality” that is fed to us by the news and the media images that use these depictions as a definition of our reality. Poverty is a part of many Black people’s realities just as education and material success is a part of many Black people’s realities. The fact that we had the opportunity to portray these images to the world while maintaining a context of love, respect, encouragement, and hope (which are a part of every Black person’s lives) is what matters most and it also what we need most. We have entered a loveless age that is hellbent on depicting Black people as incapable of love, but the reality is that we have always been and will always be a people who have survived because of love. That is a reality that needs to always be represented.

I’m not sayin: I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

6 Comments on Black In America: Representational Realities pt. 1 The Reality of Love

  1. Agreed. Just wondering how you think say Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, and Steve McQueen are faring in their depiction of blacks loving?

    • Lol it could be another blog post. But I must confess I have not seen McQueen’s work but I plan to check him out. I didn’t give “The Butler” a fair watching because I didn’t like the movie (but it’s on DVD and I plan to actually watch it all the way through this time for the sake of critique).

      Now Spike Lee…it’s difficult to say because Spike isn’t just a film maker, he’s an artist and I think he utilizes his poetic license to make broader statements such “She’s gotta have it” or “Love and basketball.” I think a lot of times what he’s getting at expressing is metaphorically displayed, which sort of transcends the kind of discussion I was having in this post. (I hope you get what I’m saying lol). But I think he does so consciously which is my ultimate point I’m going to get more into in the next parts of this mini series of posts.

      Tyler Perry…bless his heart. He makes the effort. He really does. But I think (and I’m being presumptive because I don’t really know) he either hasn’t had a truly genuine loving experience with a Black woman or that he doesn’t really understand the romantic aspect of love. I say this because he goes off in the right direction but then it turns cliche, trendy, and stereotypical. This to me is always the evidence of a writer writing about something they don’t know or have connected with in some deep way. Again I commend his efforts but I do think that because of the platform that his fame has given him, the depictions he puts out there have a lot more weight and, therefore, when he gets it wrong, it does affect the public mainstream identity of Black love and Black people. I actually do plan to do some posts just on Tyler Perry’s work and Spike Lee’s work because it’s a lot of discussions to be had just based on a review of either body of work.

      What do you think about Tyler Perry and Spike Lee’s depictions?

      • Thanks for answering that, I know this isn’t really what your post was speaking to, but it dawned on me I’d be curious what you thought of this. I knew it’d be an interesting response so I couldn’t refrain. Lol.

        Well I think everything you said about Spike Lee is true. I see him as a filmmaker and artist, a provocateur, social commentator, just an incredibly important voice.

        I think he really gives audiences something to work on all, each time. Something to throw around in your head, even build upon when you return to your own life through that.

        He’s an incredible filmmaker in my book, and I think his depiction of black characters loving have rung completely true – in terms of what I’ve seen.

        Steve McQueen, I can’t speak on too extensively. I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet, but I saw Shame and although it was a mixed cast all the way. I recognized those people and so I really appreciated it. His work is really ‘get-down-in-the-dirt-and-look-at-all-the-grains.

        Unflinching way of filmmaking with no softening of the edges, even when you’re looking at something that should have some. Softening. It’s a very fresh, kind of different experience. A harsher one. But I believed the relationship in Shame, which was an interracial one.

        Um. Perry. Well, I love his intention. I feel you on that. I think he means well and is trying at this. But I agree with you 100,000% in that, I don’t think this man has had a significant love relationship yet. Straight or gay, because a storyteller can always take one thing and plug it into the next. But in order to write and direct relationship in a layered, multidimensional way, you have to HAVE HAD ONE.

        And you’re right, his construction of love feels *very* unfamiliar. Most won’t really pic it up if he sticks with comedic and fast moving plots.

        But when he jumps to drama, it will be more and more apparent, because in his more dramatic films, I felt like I was suffering through the depictions of the relationships.

        They were just way to on the nose or one dimensional.

        And I know enough to know, actors can only do what you have on your page, somewhat, and you can’t get anything else out of those depictions unless you suggest. But you probably won’t if you don’t know the terrain. Yikes.

        I also agree with you about being widely watched/listened to director, so the impact is strong.

        But I like how earnest he is? He really is throwing himself at alot. I sort of want him to produce now though, and live a little, then come back and story tell. As for Daniels, he really impressed me with the Butler.

        However, I’m not sure if showing love was his focus before. Least not in Precious, or Shadow Boxer.

        And in Shadow Boxer, I don’t think the detective had a relationship. So I think he is just now, entering in the relationship depiction arena.

        But, I liked what he did with the Butler. I really enjoyed it.

        Can’t wait to see your posts on this, sorry for jumping the gun. I just couldn’t not ask! Lol.

        • No, no problem…it’s dialogue like this that inspire me to read or watch or investigate something so that I can add to the dialogue in the most knowledgeable way. And I loved that your comment was in depth and so thorough.

          Yup yup yup, just what you said about Spike Lee! He’s so relevant yo. And I agree that when you see the love between Black characters it feels honest.

          I had forgotten about Precious…I actually want to re watch that because I read a very interesting critique on that. D. Marvin Jones called it “a parade of stereotypes” in the guise of authenticity. I remember watching the movie felt like standing in the bathroom while a stranger is shitting…just awkward and uncomfortable.

          But I’m definitely going to check out these that you mentioned and I’m sure they’re going to turn up in a post.

          Since we’re talking films and producers what do you think about John Singleton’s work? And the depictions in Love Jones and Jason’s Lyric?

  2. Ah! And Lee Daniels!!!!! 🙂 Or is that another blog post?

  3. So sorry for any typos, haven’t slept yet…

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