Sunday, March 9, 2008

A brief history of black folks on TV

After tonight, no more “Wire.” Which means the end of a vast array of rich roles for black actors. On that basis alone, “The Wire” was a great leap forward for American television.

Embedded below, from the archives of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, is a 5-minute summary of the history of black portrayals on primetime TV... from “Amos ’n’ Andy” and “Beulah” to “I Spy” and “Julia” to “Good Times” and “Miami Vice.”

This piece aired in 1984 – the year of “The Cosby Show” – on WTTW, Chicago’s public television station.

There’s no denying, we’ve come a long way.

UPDATE (03/10/08): DeAngelo Starnes’s review of the “Wire” finale is up at He writes, in part:

“I heard a lot of rap saying that this season’s ‘Wire’ was its weakest. I don’t feel that way. I thought it was just as strong as the others. It was different certainly because it didn’t rely as much on black thuggery to power its episodes. However, I thought the political and social content may have been its strongest during its run.”


Enoch Mubarak said...

What are you talking about? You think that because we have a few blacks on television signifies that we have coma a long way. Forget about it!

We are still protrayed as the buffooning laughing stock of all media.

They protray black women as fat care-takers and all the black men and boys are bald head or gay.

SJ said...

^ Huh?

"Bald head or gay"? Hahaha.

Diversity is growing on TV, but most people are still not ready to see a large black cast or blacks in leading roles. Grey's Anatomy is a good example of a cast with a number of black people in it.

I think we are nearing the point where we don't think of black people as the "black guy or girl" but as a person. No show signifies that more than The Wire.

Bklyn6 said...

Diversity is growing on TV, but most people are still not ready to see a large black cast or blacks in leading roles.

I don't even watch 24 but I've seen enough to know about the black president. A "Giant Negro" of obvious african ancestry. Funny how it works on tv. Let that be real life, and folks be losin' they minds, saturating/darkening photos and stuff. :rolleyes:

Anyway, who's that brother three pictures down in the left-hand column? (With the beard.)


Michelle said...

i have enjoyed "the wire" so much--i have it on my netflix queue! thanks for your part in writing the show. my husband and i are going to watch "the corner" as soon as it comes in the mail.

i looked over your gallery of characters at the top of this post, and wow--i *love* those characters. omar, dookie, bunk, stringer--i love them *all*. and also? some of those gentlemen are very, very, very handsome. ahem. i feel all warm now.

Exquisitely Black said...

I don't watch a lot of tv, but do try to note the shows that feature us in the cast.

I've never seen The Wire (I know, I know), but outside of that show, doesn't seem like there's many with a large black cast. The other thing that irks me is the need not to pair black people romantically on tv.

Hidden message? Conspiracy? Who knows...

Undercover Black Man said...

Bklyn6: That's Chad Coleman... prominent in Seasons 3 & 4.

Bklyn6 said...

Humina, humina, humina.... Thanks, UBM!

I've never seen The Wire (I know, I know), but outside of that show, doesn't seem like there's many with a large black cast.

Neither have I. :-( (Guess I will be fastforwarding to seasons 3 & 4!) But, I have to applaud the show for hiring black actors.

One of the reasons I like "Everybody Hates Chris" is because Rock always seems to have a spot for black actors, be they familiar character actors, or new faces.

Ashley said...

The WTTW piece claimed that until there were more Blacks behind the camera, there would never be more equity.

Now, lets look at "The Corner" and compare it to "The Wire". I remember reading (Who Gets to Tell a Black Story) that HBO pushed to have Charles S. Dutton direct, (and some Undercover Black Man be a writer) so that they could say they had Black people behind the cameras.

For "The Wire", HBO pretty much let David Simon be the show runner, and he had people of all races directing and writing episodes.

So, which project would you say was more successful?

I absolutely loved The Corner, but I think that The Wire was more successful for the simple fact that the actors, the roles in this fictional drama were often Black when they didn't have to be.

Perhaps also, Mr. Simon learned how to get a racially diverse crew in Baltimore from his experience with The Corner.

In The Corner, to play it accurately, the characters races were what they were. Gary was Black, as was the rest of his family. To tell the tale truthfully, you couldn't really vary much.

Freamon could have been white, hell, he could have been Asian. Kima, Snoop, Bubbles, all could have been another race without an effect on the storyline...or would it have had an effect?

I remember the first time I read that people weren't watching The Wire because it had too many Black characters. Up until that time, I hadn't noticed. I just thought it had good actors.

DeAngelo Starnes said...

Dave, thanks for the shout-out.
As you know but the audience's benefit, I addressed The Wire's casting in that last piece.

It was truly awesome to write about a show I watched religiously, and then take on the challenge that my editor, Eric Easter, posed to provide social and political impressions of the show rather than a straight review.

I purposely did not read any other reviews or stories on the show so that others' opinions wouldn't bleed into mine.

I may do a Wire eulogy so that I can recap not just the whole season but the series as a whole.

Gotta admit, one of my favorite lines was from your episode. "How do you get to the rest of the world from here?" That line says so much about the struggle of people who are searching for direction. Hell, I've even asked myself that question, although not in the same context.

As much as I'd like to say tv is stuck on Donald Bogle's assessment, "Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks", I gotta give it up to shows like The Cosby Show, Soul Food, Homicide, and The Wire for expanding the depiction of who African Americans truly are.

I will say this. Why do a lotta police shows and movies have the Black lieutenant who's not as smart as the detectives (s)he supervises?