When it comes to Black people and our portrayal on television, the question always seems to be “‘why can’t they get it right?” For more often than not, we’re portrayed in a light that reeks inauthentic. Whether it’s the sassy sistah or the token brotha, there never seems to be a good mix of relatable and realistic. And in my opinion, Black male actors tend to be even more limited in the parts they’re given.
For example, I happened to catch a glimpse of “House of Payne” the other day. Through all the jokes and laughter, I couldn’t help but feel like it was all too cliche: black sitcom, black family, with at least one or more black male characters for comedic relief. Both the show’s father, Curtis Payne, and his younger son Calvin, are known for their antics. Curtis, the crazy, outspoken and sarcastic head of the household, and his son Calvin, the unfocused dreamer, who proudly mooches off of his girlfriend’s ambitions while uttering at least one half-witted comment per episode.
Yes, we may have people in our lives that act like one of the show’s characters in some way. And yes, TV does not always have to be totally realistic and/or serious–escapism is an integral part of entertainment. But dag, do we always have to be funny? We all want to laugh sometimes, but as I tried to think of a popular series that does not use the same formula, I came up short. “Meet the Browns”, “Are We There Yet?”, “The Rickey Smiley Show” –a quick roundup of the current series and the lack of diversity in male characters is obvious.
It’s no secret that images we see in the media are powerful; which leads one to wonder why so many sitcoms with Black male characters feature them in comedic, simplified roles? What impact does this constant imagery have on us culturally?
The gradual progression of African-American programs has often been a bumpy road; from the outrageously offensive days of “Amos and Andy”, to the Blaxploitation shows and films of the 70s, to today’s conundrum of cliches, it seems Black men have overwhelmingly been limited to the slap-happy funny guy, the ladies man, the rugged career criminal, or in their most neutral roles they’re supporting a white alpha male who always seems to have the answers. Rarely do we see Black male actors finesse a well-rounded role that displays the masculinity and unforced level of cool we see oozing from actors such as Denzel Washington, Will Smith or Idris Alba–keeping in mind they’re movie stars (minus Will’s Fresh Prince days).
Television series, however, are unique from film in the sense that they play an intricate role in influencing social ideals and behaviors on a more consistent basis. So as friends and families gather around the television to catch their favorite programs each week, they’re not only being entertained but they’re being influenced as well, by the images and content of the programs they watch. And from the looks of things, the message currently being presented through Black sitcoms is extremely unbalanced, stereotypical and predictable.
Looking back at the history of African-Americans on TV, it seems as much as things have changed, they’ve unfortunately stayed the same. And since stereotype is defined as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing,” there’s no doubt television has definitely played a major role in perpetuated the limited perception of not only Black men, but Black people and our culture as a whole.
Those of us in film, television and entertainment can play key roles in debunking these notions and breaking up the monotony. Instead of asking for better roles or waiting for them, there are plenty of opportunities for us to fill the void ourselves. Taking a cue from emerging producers like Issa Rae along with the growing number of Black web-series producers and actors, even Tyler Perry (whether you like his brand of programs or not), the answer is clear: to change our images, we must control our images. Or else, it seems, the joke will continue to be on us.