Black Excellence: Why the 90's and early 2000’s were the true golden ages for black film and television.
No doubt there is black excellence in today’s film and television. Shonda Rhimes has taken over television’s night time prime time block for over a decade on ABC, Tyler Perry has the largest film studios in the United States, over 300 acres, Black Panther went on to become the first film helmed by a black director and featuring a predominantly black cast to gross a billion dollars at the box office, from behind the scenes we certainly have the likes of Ryan Coogler, Issa Raye, Donald Glover and many others behind the camera putting out projects, and successful films and television shows featuring African Americans including Blackish, Insecure, Atlanta, Empire, Greenleaf, Chewing Gum etc. And this is a huge step up from where we were over ten years ago after the tragic loss of UPN and The WB after the CW merger that threw many black tv shows out of existence. BUT… As wonderful as this all is and as much iconic history has been made this past decade, we wouldn’t have much if not any of it now if it weren’t for two specific decades and that is the 1990’s and the 2000’s. These were not only very important decades for black entertainment but unmistakably the most prosperous. Now, some may disagree but I know that many will agree with me on this, nostalgia aside.
It all started with…
The Cosby Show:
As tainted as Bill Cosby’s name has become, the one thing his horrid fall from grace won’t ever change is his show’s legacy and what it did for the future of black entertainment. When the show premiered in 1984 it not only became a giant success for NBC by jumping into the Nielsen’s Top 5 ratings, and it not only saved the network itself that was at the bottom of the ratings heap getting killed by ABC and CBS as well as proved that the sitcom wasn’t dead and rescued the genre, it also proved that you can have an all black cast and have them be a successful, upper middle class black family with a Doctor and Lawyer as parents and still reach everyone, making it the number 1 show on television for five consecutive seasons, the only other two television shows to achieve this were All In The Family before it and American Idol after it.
That whopping success of course led to imitation, the cyclical nature of television is all about copying what worked and hoping for the same results. The Cosby Show’s massive success and place in pop culture led to the CBS, ABC and at the time new network Fox to develop more shows with African American leads, including NBC itself which after Cosby’s success added a few more black led shows to their line ups:
Amen, 227 and Benson as well as its own spin off A Different World:
These were all sitcoms that reached the top 20. In fact in the late eighties and early nineties NBC built another big line up after their iconic Must See Tv Thursday night which The Cosby Show led at 8:00pm. On Saturdays NBC boasted shows like 227 at 8:00pm, Amen at 8:30pm, The Golden Girls at 9:00pm, Empty Nest at 9:30pm and finishing with Hunter at 10:00pm.
This was also a time where television shows with different races leading weren’t segregated but were on the same channel, day and time slot. This type of schedule programming led to shows with African American leads to gain a wider audience, allowing them to shine. How many shows with POC today are given that same chance? Shows like Amen, 227 etc. were being seen by 15 to 20 million viewers a week by being lined up with other mainstream hits, even the most successful shows with Afro American casts and producers\writers etc. are at best getting 3 to 5 million a week and that’s just the biggest hits. Fox’s Empire being a huge exception to this, which in it’s first season was growing in viewership every week, most shows white or black or whatever today rarely gain viewership like that.
While the 1970’s was the true beginning of blacks in television with such classic hits like Good Times, The Jeffersons, What’s Happening, That’s My Momma and the first predominantly black cast show since Amos & Andy, Sanford and Son all dominating ratings and paving the way for black television and as we discussed the 1980’s influence, it was the 1990’s that truly began the golden age of black television and film. It was the 1990’s that the Fox network, home of iconic shows like Married with Children, The X Files and The Simpsons, became the first real network to make a real effort in making African American led programming a priority as well as dedicating whole blocks of programming to predominantly black lead series.
Shows like In Living Color, Roc, Living Single, Martin and cop drama New York Undercover became powerhouse shows for the network and drew in black households more than any other network. In fact, when Fox developed their own Thursday night must see tv style line up to rival NBC’s power block of Friends, Seinfeld, Mad About You and ER with Martin, Living Single and New York Undercover, Fox actually gave NBC serious competition, especially with the black audience.
On the film side, movies like Boyz N Da Hood and Menace II Society gave mainstream audiences a glimpse of the raw, gritty crime ridden lifestyles of the mean streets for the first time and both films gave cinema a whole new flavor, both being major successes, especially at the time when black films making major bank and garnering critical acclaim was a rarity.
The only problem was that it set a one note trend. Hollywood saw that black films made money but also saw dollar signs from movies about the hood and for a good while many movies featuring black casts were mostly about that life, with few exceptions like Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang in 1992 and Waiting to Exhale in 1995. But thankfully, films like Love Jones, Soul Food and The Best Man showed an alternative and that African American stories were more layered and unique than just the one note portrayals Hollywood was spitting out.
This more diverse portrayal of black life in films spun off into the 2000’s with films like The Brothers, Love & Basketball, Barbershop and many more, all delivering success and pleasure to an African American audience starving for more layered representation and recognizing themselves and their friends and\or family in the characters and the stories.
The 2000’s were also profitable for blacks on television too with channels like UPN and The WB dedicating most of their programming to many black television shows including shows like One on One, Moesha, The Parkers, The Steve Harvey Show, The Wayans Bros, All of Us, Everybody Hates Chris and Girlfriends.
All providing memorable and beloved theme songs in an era when the tv theme song was starting to fade away from television replaced by two second title cards:
It was during this time that the other major networks started cashing in on the black audience and shows like The Bernie Mac Show, My Wife and Kids, That’s So Raven, The Proud Family and a few other notable series were popping up and getting mainstream love.
Sadly, though, the black golden age as we knew it died a painful death once These shows were off the air now that the major networks were moving in a “new direction” and the merger of UPN and The WB led to the CW, many prominent shows featuring black casts like All of Us, One on One, Eve, The Game, Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris etc. were dropped like flies. As well as prominent black family dramas like Soul Food and Lincoln Heights were leaving faster than they came. For a good while the only black television content to be found would be banished to basic cable channels like TBS where Tyler Perry’s mediocre television shows would be the best of what we got:
The movie side wasn’t looking so good either with the insane concept that black films don’t do well overseas, the studios weren’t super eager to put up money for black directed and cast films, with the exception of Tyler Perry whose domination of the box office at the time was both a victory and a bittersweet burden for black films:
Thankfully, after the “dark ages” studios and networks looked at the major success of movies like Think Like a Man, Empire, Blackish and Shonda Rhimes’ television shows and once again provided the black audience content across various platforms, and one thing that’s certainly improved is more room for black creatives from directors, to producers to writers getting more seats at the table… But…. In this author’s opinion we still haven’t reached that special era of pop culture where there was just a magic in the content that the 1990’s and 2000’s provided that I feel can’t and won’t ever be repeated, that’s just the way with something special, you can’t ever have that exact same experience again, and that’s ok because there is still many great content for POC to enjoy. That being said, you can’t go home again, and we’ll just have to always cherish what we’ve been blessed with in the past because it provided what we’ve gotten in our present and hopefully the future. We may not be able to go home again but we’ll always have “home movies” to sit, watch, live through and remember what we had and why we were so lucky to have it because it’ll always be there no matter what.