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 Hollywood. 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 screenwriters 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 full-time 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.
The Cosby Show was the great exception. Today, Bill Cosby’s name is synonymous with his crimes: The 84-year-old actor was convicted of felony sexual assault in 2018 and sentenced to a prison term of up to 10 years. (Earlier this year, he was released from prison after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction.) But The Cosby Show remains a touchstone. It was one of the few television shows in the 1980s with a predominantly Black cast. It was also hugely successful—among the highest-rated shows in the history of the medium.
Cosby told one producer: “We’re leaving all of the racial issues up to Newhart.”
By the time he developed his eponymous show, Cosby was a beloved comedian, and had co-starred with Robert Culp in the 1960s drama I Spy, a show whose international settings provided a convenient topical distance from civil-rights protests and urban strife in the U.S. Given this background, Cosby had far more control than other Black creators and performers in the industry. He envisioned his new series as a portrait of a family that any American could relate to. “I want to show a family like the kind I know: children who are almost a pain in the neck, and parents who aren’t far behind,” he told TV Guide in 1984. The series presented a rare vision of upper-middle-class Black life on TV. Cliff Huxtable (Cosby), a doctor, and his lawyer wife, Clair (Phylicia Rashad), lived in a Brooklyn brownstone and guided their children toward aspirational excellence—television’s very own Du Boisian “Talented Tenth.”
Cosby’s determination to depict an affluent Black family was radical in its way. For one, it challenged viewers who could only conceive of a Black household that looked like Fred and Lamont Sanford’s junk-strewn living room—or, at best, the bootstrapping success of the Jeffersons. But it also pushed back on a pernicious idea that had taken hold among television executives and critics alike: that Black programs must not only be compelling creative productions—good TV shows—but also somehow manage to capture Black life in a way that white people deem “realistic.” Susan Fales-Hill, one of just a handful of Black writers on Cosby’s creative staff, recalls a white Viacom executive dismissing the Huxtables as not representative of Black life: “Yeah, it’s a good show, but this family is not Black; they’re white.” When Fales-Hill asked him what made them white, the executive said, “Well, look at that house they live in.” Fales-Hill replied, “My mother grew up in Brooklyn in a house that looked a lot like that, taking violin lessons while her sister took piano lessons.”
The writer John Markus, who is white and was an executive producer on Cosby, remembers the show’s star explicitly pushing back against the expectation that his show be “Black” in a way that conformed to the perceptions of people who aren’t. Cosby also resisted the demand that a series about Black Americans be about race. The characters occasionally made references to global events, such as anti-apartheid demonstrations in South Africa, but they were rarely seen having experiences with homegrown racism, despite living in a deeply segregated city. An episode that aired close to Martin Luther King’s birthday didn’t dwell on the politics of the holiday, instead marking the occasion more subtly: A squabble over borrowed clothing is exposed for its pettiness when the family becomes transfixed by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech playing on the Huxtables’ TV set. At the start of the second season, Markus told me, journalists “wanted an answer to the question ‘When will the show get into issues like multiracial dating—like, when are these kids going to date a white; when are you going to do that story?’ And at some point I said, ‘I’ve got to go talk to Bill about this,’ and I went to his dressing room. He didn’t even hesitate. He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘You go back to each one of them and tell them we’re leaving all of the racial issues up to Newhart,’ which was the whitest show on the planet.”
White executives weren’t alone in thinking that Cosby was an unrealistic representation of Black life. The series elicited barbed reactions from some Black critics as well. Ostensibly a “positive” image of a Black family, the show was criticized for inviting white viewers to believe that racial progress had already been achieved. “As long as all blacks were represented in demeaning or peripheral roles, it was possible to believe that American racism was, as it were, indiscriminate,” the Harvard historian and literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in a 1989 column in The New York Times. “The social vision of ‘Cosby,’ however, reflecting the minuscule integration of blacks into the upper middle class (having ‘white money,’ my mother used to say, rather than ‘colored’ money), reassuringly throws the blame for black poverty back onto the impoverished.”
Gates’s critique and the white executive’s incredulous reaction to the Huxtables’ lifestyle reflected the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma that Cosby writers faced: Be Black, but not too Black. Or: Be Black, but not like that. White writers were never whipsawed this way. The characters on Three’s Company or Cheers were not expected to convey some universal white experience. As even Gates allowed, the problem was bigger than Bill Cosby: “It’s not the representation itself (Cliff Huxtable, a child of college-educated parents, is altogether believable), but the role it begins to play in our culture, the status it takes on as being, well, truly representative.” A television landscape with a single prominent Black series gave viewers a single perspective on Black life.
At first, the Cosby spin-off A Different World seemed unlikely to escape this bind. The show followed Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) to Hillman College, the fictional historically Black institution that Cliff and Clair Huxtable had attended. When that series was first conceived, it focused just as much on a white student at Hillman (and the bias she experienced) as it did on Denise. Only later did the premise change, with Denise becoming the central character and her white roommate, an aspiring journalist played by Marisa Tomei, taking a supporting role. Throughout its first season, A Different World depicted a college atmosphere that failed to capture the spirit and nuances of HBCU life. Jasmine Guy, who played the snobbish Whitley Gilbert, remembers an early script in which students called professors by their first names. “My father taught at Morehouse,” Guy told me. “There’s just no way.”
The tone changed when Debbie Allen, an alumna of Howard University, was brought on as executive producer and director. “When Debbie came on board,” Susan Fales-Hill told me, “she was the one who really shook it up.” Allen was a formidable presence. While Cosby’s show largely ignored issues of race, Allen told Cosby that people on her show needed to talk about Blackness and about the issues of the day. “I almost fell off my chair,” Fales-Hill recalled, “when he said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ ”
Under Allen, A Different World went all the places its progenitor wouldn’t. The series never occupied the place in popular culture that The Cosby Show did. But it was far more radical, subtly altering the trajectory of television—both through its handling of race and through the opportunities it gave to Black writers who have shaped the industry in the decades since.
A Different World explored racism, AIDS, homelessness, and rape, grounding its treatment of these subjects in the experiences of characters who varied in personality, appearance, and social status. Denise, of course, came from a comfortably upper-middle-class family. Her other roommate, Jaleesa Vinson (Dawnn Lewis), had enrolled at Hillman at the age of 25, after a failed marriage; she was typically shown working at a job. Guy’s Whitley Gilbert was the daughter of well-to-do Hillman alumni; she had arrived at school with the express intention of finding a husband. Other characters included the playboy Ron Johnson (Darryl M. Bell), the freewheeling activist Freddie Brooks (Cree Summer), the athletic graduate student Walter Oakes (Sinbad), and Whitley’s eventual romantic interest, the lovable nerd Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison). “What I loved about doing A Different World was the diversity of Black people that we had on the show,” Guy told me. “So none of us felt the burden of being all things to all people.”
This isn’t to say that the series avoided the scrutiny of white executives. Fales-Hill remembered an encounter with the network over a scene in which Whitley and Dwayne were arguing about the Amistad, the slave ship whose Black captives took control but were eventually apprehended and put on trial. She recalled, “The network came to us and said, ‘You know, can’t Whitley and Dwayne be arguing about their date on Saturday night?’ ”
One writer recalled white colleagues looking her way and asking, “Does that sound right to you?,” as though there were a single way to be, or to sound, Black.
In 1992, Allen and the show’s writers wanted to take on the riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. For the white executives to whom Allen, Fales-Hill, and the other writers reported, the riots were dangerous narrative territory. The Los Angeles that the executives knew best looked very different from King’s Los Angeles; they saw the riots as an ugly chapter in the city’s history, something to get past, not memorialize. Eventually, Allen and Fales-Hill persuaded the network to let them write a two-part episode that directly addressed the riots. Fales-Hill remembered having an ominous feeling after the meeting—as if it had been a pyrrhic victory. “They backed off, and she and I left that meeting going, ‘Okay, Thelma and Louise—we’ve driven off the cliff here.’ ”
The two-part episode, “Honeymoon in L.A.,” opened the show’s sixth season. Whitley and Dwayne are on their honeymoon in Los Angeles, and the couple is separated just as the city erupts. Whitley, ever the sheltered southern belle, takes refuge in the luxury-goods section of a department store; at one point, she pretends to be a mannequin. Dwayne, meanwhile, unwittingly helps some looters. Thirty years later, some of the dialogue feels trite or didactic; Sister Souljah makes a guest appearance to inform Whitley that “they can beat us, kill us, do whatever they wanna do—and get off, just like they always have.” But for Allen, the writers, and the cast, the episode was an important reflection of the reality that Black people, especially young Black people, around the country were experiencing. Getting such raw material onto prime-time television meant affirming that pain—and showing white viewers how the verdict had reverberated across Black households. At the end of the sixth season, the series was canceled.
IV. “Under-Paid Negroes”
The writers who came through A Different World went on to create some of the most prominent Black sitcoms of the ’90s, a period that proved to be a golden era for the form. Among these alumni were Yvette Lee Bowser, the force behind Living Single (the first prime-time TV show created by a Black American woman), and Cheryl Gard, a producer of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Those series ran on Fox and NBC, respectively, and won the wide audiences that more traditional broadcast networks could still command. Opportunities for other Black creators came from the newer networks UPN and The WB. An early example of the market fragmentation that was to come, these new outlets were less concerned with bringing as many viewers as possible to national advertisers. Rather, they were content—in their first few years, at least—to reach specific demographic groups and build intense loyalty.
By the late ’90s, UPN and The WB had evening slates full of Black shows and employed a disproportionate share of the writers of color in the television industry. In 1996, UPN debuted Moesha, starring the R&B singer Brandy Norwood. With her dark skin and braids, the title character of Moesha was—and still is—a rarity in the coming-of-age subgenre. (While Moesha was on the air, and for several years afterward, Brandy’s photo seemed to be tacked up on the wall of every Black beauty salon in America.) The WB was home to family shows such as The Parent ’Hood and Smart Guy, which mostly served up earnest lessons and tender moments, though they occasionally took on weightier issues such as substance abuse and racism in sports. In 1995, the network also picked up Sister, Sister from ABC, a teen comedy co-created by the writer and director Kim Bass.
For Black writers, especially those who’d previously worked only on series with white showrunners, these new opportunities were a revelation—a chance to learn the craft in a space where at least some of the others in the room understood the lives of the characters they were tasked with depicting. During the season that they worked together on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Felicia Henderson and Larry Wilmore were the only Black writers on the show, which had been created by a white couple, Susan and Andy Borowitz. When we spoke, Henderson recalled that much of her job amounted to answering a single question: “Is that what Black people do?” She remembers white colleagues on another show looking her way and asking, “Does that sound right to you?,” as though there were a single specific way to be, or to sound, Black. Henderson would reply, “I was at a meeting of the All Black Writers Who Know What All Other Black People Think just last night …”
Henderson later went to work on Moesha—a very different atmosphere. Working under the creators, Sara Finney-Johnson, Vida Spears, and Ralph Farquhar, Henderson at last felt the creative freedom that comes from not having to explain yourself: “They made the decision that the room would reflect the people who knew the experience of the star.”
Working in such an environment required a trade-off, however. As the share of the audience claimed by the traditional Big Three networks continued to erode, TV was becoming less a single country than a collection of neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods where Black writers were welcome were shabbier than the white ones. The pay scale on many Black shows left something to be desired. A 2007 report released by the Writers Guild of America, West, found that the gap in median annual salary between white and Black writers was nearly $15,000 in 2005. The grim joke among Black writers and performers was that UPN stood for “Under-Paid Negroes.”
Black writers who tried to work on shows that weren’t pitched to Black audiences ran into a familiar double standard: White writers could—and did—work on Black shows. But Black writers on white projects remained rare. Kim Bass recalled being asked by a white executive to rewrite the screenplay of a buddy comedy—with the caveat that he touch only the Black character’s dialogue. Another executive once worried that Bass couldn’t “write white.”
In 2006, after years of struggling to make money and attract audiences, UPN and The WB were dissolved in a merger. The move coincided with the early days of peak TV, when cable networks, which by the turn of the century were reaching some 65 million homes, began producing an array of sophisticated series that have been compared to great cinema and even high literature. But few of these shows afforded more opportunities to Black writers or performers than many of the prestige broadcast series had. The Sopranos on HBO, Dexter on Showtime, Mad Men on AMC—these were shows created and performed primarily by white talent. Even HBO’s The Wire, which explored the drug trade in Baltimore and provided ample roles for Black actors, was scripted primarily by white writers. (The series creator, David Simon, has said that the late writer David Mills referred to himself as the “lone Negro” in the writers’ room.) Most Black writers didn’t have the luxury of wringing their hands over “representation” or “authenticity,” however. They were worried about their livelihood.
V. The Shonda Effect
On a recent morning, I sat down with Kim Bass at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where he sometimes meets with independent producers who have the power to finance his projects. We talked over breakfast about the ways in which Hollywood has shifted when it comes to Black America, a set of changes that Bass, 65, could not have imagined when he first broke into the business.
During the heyday of Black sitcoms, Bass created two multiseason series built around Black characters: Sister, Sister and Kenan & Kel, which made the young comedians Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell into beloved figures. (Thompson, long a fixture on Saturday Night Live, now also has his own series, Kenan, on NBC.) Sister, Sister, which ran from 1994 to 1999, revolved around twins who were adopted by different parents as infants and then encountered each other unexpectedly as teens. Bass recalled describing the character Ray (Tim Reid), the adoptive father of one of the twins, as a successful businessman whose name graced his company’s headquarters. A white executive insisted that no one would believe a Black man could be a millionaire. Ray’s corporate business would have to become a limousine service.
In part because of his landmark ’90s productions, Bass told me, he hears from a lot of aspiring Black screenwriters, who at last have a significant cadre of Black creators they can reach out to for career advice. For Bass and for others who elbowed into the industry at a time when there were far fewer opportunities, mentoring a new generation of talent is both a responsibility and a challenge. “I feel for each and every one of them,” Bass said. He tries to help as much as he can, but he noted another reality: “If I spent my time focused on what everyone is trying to get me to do, well, I wouldn’t have time to do what I do.”
Some of the biggest changes Bass has seen in the industry are tied to the success of one woman: Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes came to television from the movies; she wrote her first TV pilot for ABC in 2003. The network didn’t move forward with that series, about female war correspondents, but it did take an interest in her next idea: a drama set in a Seattle hospital. Grey’s Anatomy became an immediate hit—it is still on the air after an astonishing 17 seasons—and one of the rare major network shows led by a Black showrunner. It follows a diverse group of doctors navigating chaos both medical and interpersonal. The staff of Seattle Grace Hospital rarely deals with capital-I Issues of race or gender; more often, they are just trying to keep their patients alive and their relationships afloat. Grey’s Anatomy isn’t a “Black show”—it is a mainstream hit that has made careers (Ellen Pompeo, Sandra Oh, Jesse Williams). By 2014 Rhimes had three shows airing back-to-back on Thursday evenings on ABC: Grey’s Anatomy; the political drama Scandal, starring Kerry Washington; and the legal mystery How to Get Away With Murder, starring Viola Davis. For a time, Rhimes was producing roughly 70 hours’ worth of television annually and generating more than $2 billion a year for Disney, which owns ABC.
Rhimes has spoken about her dislike of the word diversity, noting that her emphasis on creating complex characters of color, especially women, shouldn’t be thought of as something out of the ordinary. It is merely a reflection of the world around her. But by television standards, Rhimes’s approach—demanding a multiethnic ensemble in her writers’ room as well as on-screen—was remarkable, and had observable consequences. In the years following her breakaway success, the industry green-lit a wave of new series by and about people of color, a seismic change that has been called “the Shonda effect.”
One of those series was Black-ish, created by Kenya Barris. The show centers on Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) and his biracial wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), as they raise their children in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood. If the milieu resembles that of The Cosby Show, the similarities end there. Its writers’ room has been staffed mostly with people of color. And from its inception, in 2014, the series has tackled social issues head-on, mining family-friendly yet acerbic humor from subjects such as gun control, class inequality, and the question of who can use the N-word.
Peter Saji wrote for Black-ish and went on to co-create the spin-off Mixed-ish, about Rainbow’s childhood. Earlier in his career, Saji had written for other series with less diverse writers’ rooms, and he recounted for me an incident that typified the experience. On his first day on a series, a veteran white writer told a joke in which the punch line was a white woman calling a Black performer the N-word. To Saji, it felt like a test, as if his reaction would determine whether he’d be welcome in the room. “That was like my Jackie Robinson moment, right? Like, I just got cleated—how do I take this? ” he remembered thinking. He didn’t voice his discomfort. “In that moment, I felt like, I understand psychologically what you’re trying to do. And as fucked-up as it is, the onus is on me to do well and not blow this opportunity for everyone that’s coming behind me.”
By contrast, the Black-ish writers’ room was, in Saji’s words, his Hollywood HBCU. Saji felt he had space to hone his craft and to dramatize the challenges he and others in the room had faced in their personal and professional lives. The series also responded, in something like real time, to the world around it. In 2016, it aired an episode titled “Hope,” in which the family learns of the shooting of a Black man by a white police officer. The incident is fictional, but the script evokes the real-life deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland; Barris has said that the episode was inspired by his struggle to explain the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to his own children. Dre and “Bow” differ over how to help their children process the shooting—and the eventual acquittal of the police officer. Dre insists that the police are an instrument of systemic racism, and the couple’s children “need to know the world that they’re living in” as young Black people. Bow tries to find a way to condemn the violence while preserving their children’s innocence so they can “be kids for a little while longer.” Barris’s sensibilities are idiosyncratic, and the series doesn’t always achieve its aims (or land its jokes). But “Hope” is a “very special episode” that manages, despite some awkward moments, to tackle a serious issue without making the entire viewing experience feel like a lesson, or a sermon.
Compared with the handling of police brutality in Family Matters two decades earlier, “Hope” looks like a great leap forward. Yet Saji noted that “Hope” could happen only because earlier shows had introduced white viewers to the subject. Many of the writers of Black-ish were aware of the work that shows such as A Different World and even Family Matters had done to clear some of that space for their own series. The treatment of police violence in Family Matters may have been far from perfect, Saji observed, but “I know the kinds of fights they would’ve had to have to even do that.”
VI. “Don’t You Have Enough?”
Despite the acclaim Black-ish earned for its unflinching treatment of race—no less a TV critic than Michelle Obama told Anderson it was her favorite show—Barris felt constrained by ABC and its parent company, Disney. In one instance, he was asked—and agreed—to put aside a story line based on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates outside the Harvard professor’s home. In 2017, Barris produced an episode—“Please, Baby, Please”—that explored the fear many Black Americans felt following the election of Donald Trump. The episode was shelved after a weeks-long battle that eventually involved Disney CEO Bob Iger himself. Barris and ABC framed the decision as an issue of “creative differences,” but some in the industry believed the network objected to the episode’s positive treatment of the quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had been kneeling during the national anthem before football games to protest police violence against Black Americans. (ABC denied this explanation.) Barris ultimately left ABC for Netflix with three years left in his network contract.
Even Rhimes, the most successful showrunner of her generation, eventually came to feel stifled by network television. Last year, she told The Hollywood Reporter that her later years with ABC had been filled with conflict over content, budgets, and even her support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But the breaking point came in 2017, when a Disney executive balked at her request for an additional pass to Disneyland. “Don’t you have enough?” he reportedly asked. Soon after, Rhimes signed a nine-figure deal with Netflix.
There’s a reason Black writers and producers are heading to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and other streaming platforms: The business model of streaming doesn’t depend as heavily on ratings. In essence, these platforms are selling gift baskets of content; all they need is for subscribers to want one thing in the basket. Darnell Hunt is a professor and dean at UCLA and the lead author of the “Hollywood Diversity Report.” “When you buy a subscription to Hulu or Netflix or Amazon Prime or whatever it is,” he told me, “you get everything they offer. So from their perspective, the broader their portfolio of titles, the better. If they have a show that African Americans really, really like in a cultlike fashion, and no one else likes, the show may be retained anyway if it draws in enough Black subscribers who might not otherwise subscribe to the platform.”
From Rhimes, of course, Netflix hoped for a demographic-spanning hit, which it got in the form of Bridgerton. The Regency-era romance series, based on the novels by Julia Quinn, is the platform’s most popular original show ever, pulling in viewers from an astounding 82 million households in its first 28 days on the site. From other Black writers and producers, however, the company is happy to have a series that has the niche appeal of a ’90s-era Black sitcom. Indeed, streaming services have been snapping up the distribution rights to series from that decade. Last summer, Netflix announced that it would be streaming a collection of Black sitcoms from the ’90s, Sister, Sister and Moesha among them. Hulu put new emphasis on its “Black Stories” hub, which features shows such as The Jeffersons, Living Single, and Family Matters. In August 2020, the Disney-owned streaming service even aired the Trump-themed episode of Black-ish that had been too hot for ABC three years earlier.
And yet Black writers and showrunners say they still hit the same old walls. Issa Rae first attracted industry interest after her YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl became an unexpected hit. In that low-budget comedy, which premiered in 2011, Rae plays a woman named J who makes it through the drudgeries of her post-college life in Los Angeles in part by rapping to herself in a mirror for confidence boosts. The show was delightfully silly and drew a large, dedicated audience. Rae’s J wasn’t a hypersexual reality star; she wasn’t the silent or sassy best friend of a white protagonist. She was, like the Different World and Living Single characters before her, just a young Black woman trying to figure herself out. But when Rae was approached about turning the viral hit into a television series, she was continually told by non-Black Hollywood executives that her stories weren’t truly reflective of Black experiences. Perhaps they doubted that huge numbers of educated Black women existed (Rae is a Stanford graduate) or were worth catering to. Perhaps they wanted to stress just one facet of Blackness that resonated with them, rather than portraying fully rounded Black characters. At the time, Rae was “deathly afraid of losing an opportunity by being a bit too authentic”—too much the person she actually was.
In the end, Rae was able to portray those fully rounded characters; she had amassed enough influence by then. Her friendship-focused HBO dramedy, Insecure, which finished filming its fifth and final season earlier this year, follows two Black women in L.A. as they navigate the romantic and professional pitfalls of their late 20s and early 30s. The women certainly contend with racism and sexism in their lives, but, crucially, those issues aren’t the focus of the series. Some of the best episodes came in the fourth season, when Issa (played by Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) drift apart in the painful, all-too-common way of early-30s friendships. The show’s emotional center of gravity is the love (and sometimes the enmity) they have for each other. Their falling-out sometimes feels more dramatic than most real-life disputes among friends—this is, after all, television—but Insecure accomplished the rare feat of being a series that depicts Black life without pathologizing or feeling burdened by it.
Decades ago, Black visionaries were up against both market forces and corporate resistance. But demographics have changed, and so has popular taste.
In some ways, Rae’s early experience is typical for Black writers today. Many TV viewers first met Lena Waithe when she played Denise on Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. Waithe wrote one of the show’s most popular episodes, in 2017, based on her own coming-out story, and it would win her an Emmy. By then, she’d begun to produce The Chi, a drama for Showtime set in her native Chicago. It was a great opportunity, but like Rae, Waithe found that her vision was circumscribed by the executives to whom she had to answer. “Nobody knew who I was, and there were still a lot of men—a lot of white men—who were in charge, and I just didn’t have any power,” Waithe says of her earliest days working on the show. “And then I won an Emmy and then all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Okay, you can be in charge now.’ ”
The creator of Julia, Hal Kanter, had demanded entertainment, not agony. Fifty years later, Black writers and producers are more likely to encounter the opposite problem. The Black stories that studios, networks, and streaming platforms feel most comfortable adding to their slates require writers to explore—and sometimes re-create—racial traumas. Following the killing of Michael Brown, a cottage industry of police-brutality dramas popped up. Fox had Shots Fired, which begins with a Black police officer shooting an unarmed white college student; in Netflix’s Seven Seconds, a white police officer fatally strikes a Black teen cyclist with his car. Rae relayed the experience of a fellow Black writer with a series in the works: “In the development process, they just kept on increasing the trauma to make it feel like it was worth watching,” she told me. Racist violence as a plot device hasn’t been restricted to realist dramas; it extends into genre works as well. The Spike Lee–produced Netflix sci-fi film See You Yesterday follows a young Black science prodigy who creates a time machine—in order to save her brother, who was killed by a police officer. And then there’s the new horror anthology series Them on Prime Video. The show follows a Black family that moves into a white neighborhood in the 1950s; its animating terror is the lengths white people will go to in order to preserve housing segregation. When the trailer was released in March, many Black viewers groaned. Why are Black characters always subjected to racism, even in genre productions? Can’t we have a Black Jeepers Creepers?
“When we’re still telling stories that are so focused on trauma, we’re actually still telling stories about white supremacy,” Tara Duncan, the president of Freeform, Disney’s young-adult-targeted cable network, told me when we met for coffee in New York City’s West Village recently. “We’re not talking about what our lives are like and how we see the world and our hopes and dreams and goals and imagination. We’re still talking about what life looks like in proximity to whiteness.”
In May, Duncan also became the president of Onyx Collective, Disney’s new content brand for creators of color. She is one of the few Black executives in an industry that remains dominated by white men. A 2021 study by McKinsey found that the bulk of opportunities afforded to Black offscreen talent comes from shows with at least one Black person in a senior role. In other words, the work of bringing on people from historically marginalized groups routinely falls to people from those same marginalized groups. Black people who do make it into the business are shouldering the burden of diversifying the entire industry. Yvette Lee Bowser, who recently developed and produced the Harlem-centric ensemble dramedy Run the World, takes that responsibility seriously: “That’s one of the reasons I started creating shows. I could actually create my own work environment and kind of dictate the DNA of the room and the experience that people were having in the room.”
But for all the prominence of Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris, as well as Tyler Perry, who heads his own studio in Atlanta, only 5 percent of TV showrunners are Black, according to the McKinsey study. As for the executive suite, Duncan and the new chair of Warner Bros. Television Group, Channing Dungey, are the exceptions. “Most everywhere else you look, it’s a white male,” UCLA’s Darnell Hunt observed. The handful of Black people with real power can’t undo decades of inequity.
Perhaps for the first time, however, an alignment of forces may now be bending toward something better. Decades ago, Black visionaries were up against both market factors and corporate resistance—not a fair fight. But demographics have changed, and so have public opinion and popular taste. For cable shows in particular, ratings among all young viewers, not just those reflecting Black, Latino, or Asian households, are at all-time highs for shows with “majority minority” casts—shows such as Insecure, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, and the Mindy Kaling–produced coming-of-age series Never Have I Ever. The television shows driving consistent interactions on Twitter and Instagram—a new coin of the realm in the industry, now that so much TV watching occurs on so-called second screens—are those with casts and writers’ rooms that more closely resemble the diversity of America.
To succeed in the country as it’s evolving, traditional networks and streaming platforms will need to do more than release statements about their commitment to principles of diversity and inclusion, or to aggregate their “Black Stories” or present viewers with a “Black Lives Matter Collection.” For changes to last, executives and other industry power brokers need to continue investing in creative visions that don’t match their own. They’ll have to cede the terms of “authenticity,” and any negotiations over it, to the Black creators whose voices have too long been ignored. Otherwise, they risk rendering themselves obsolete, a prospect that may motivate even those unstirred by the goodness of their hearts.
This article appears in the October 2021 print edition with the headline “The Unwritten Rules of Black TV.”
*Lead image: Illustration by Danielle Del Plato; sources: CBS / Getty; Elizabeth Sisson / Showtime / Everett Collection; ABC Photo Archives / Walt Disney Television / Getty; Carsey-Werner Co. / Everett Collection; Mitch Haaseth / ABC / Everett Collection; Globe Photos / Zuma Press / Alamy; Richard Cartwright / ABC / Everett Collection; NBCUniversal / Getty; 20th Century Fox / Everett Collection; NBC Productions / Photo 12 / Alamy; Everett Collection; Joe Viles / Paramount Television / Everett Collection; Andrew Semel / Warner Bros. Television / Everett Collection
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