Opinion | Black sitcoms matter5 min read . Updated: 12 Jun 2020, 12:48 PM IST
Comedies by black writers, producers and performers such as ‘#BlackAF’ and ‘I May Destroy You’ offer viewers new perspectives
In the hilarious Netflix series #BlackAF, Kenya Barris, the protagonist of the show based on (and played by) TV creator Kenya Barris, has a fight with his wife after waiting too long to save her from drowning in the ocean. He takes off his silk shirt and jewellery while another man dives in after her, and she is naturally unimpressed. A deflated Barris retreats to his hotel room and finds comfort in emotional episodes of the popular sitcom Black-ish—a hit show created by Barris himself. “Such a good show," Barris says, shaking his head admiringly. “Such a good show."
Barris might be mocking creators applauding themselves loudest in a world of retweeted praise but Black-ish does genuinely have great episodes—about serious issues. With America engulfed by racism, sitcoms made by black writers, producers and performers—comedies that constantly subvert and push cultural boundaries—allow us a new perspective. These smart, urgent narratives offer us unique vantage points—all valid in helping us see different facets of the black experience.
The comedy speaking truth-to-power most directly to the woker-than-woke demographic is the provocative Dear White People, an essential Netflix series by Justin Simien exposing the ugly and systemic racism within Ivy League universities. The show starts with a fraternity party where white students wore blackface, and the title comes from a fiery campus radio show aimed at dispelling myths about African-American culture. The first season is sensational—episode 5, directed by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, explores the line between police protection and police brutality—and the show’s battles only get more complex.
“You want to go for a run?" asks Sam, the defiant radio host. “Like white girls on TV shows when they need a visually interesting way to deliver exposition?" counters her friend Joelle, laughing. “Real people can’t run and talk at the same time." Articulate and prickly, this show knows what it’s saying, as well as what is being said by its critics. In season 2, the radio show has a new competitor on campus, a talk show for the intolerant: “Dear Right People". The show’s biggest achievement is throwing up more questions than it does answers, leaving us to think things over.
The distinctive Ghanaian British performer Michaela Coel gave us the irrepressible Tracey in Chewing Gum (a show that has vanished from Netflix) but she is now serving up something darker and more fascinating. In I May Destroy You, Coel, playing a driven and successful author/influencer, has her life upended after her drink is spiked. The show, with new episodes streaming weekly on Disney+ Hotstar, unravels like a mystery, the story of a crime that feels disconcertingly plausible. The writing is electric.
On the satire #BlackAF, Barris is festooned in preposterously expensive athleisure—something his wife rightly calls “an insult to both athletics and leisure"—and as a famous and successful black man, uses the history of slavery as a justification for every aspect of his behaviour, including his chunky gold chain. Everyone rolls their eyes at Barris, but they have to occasionally concede his point. Presented from the point of view of Barris’ film-school aspirant daughter, who has unleashed a documentary crew on her nutty family, the show couches insight and perspective with Barris’ antics, but makes its points hard.
With Barris having created Black-ish, Mixed-ish and America’s Next Top Model, his daughter refers to him as a “racial profiteer". One episode involves white critics always being “nice" to black movies because they fear being called out for racism. Barris says the only reason he wasn’t part of the 2019 college admissions scandal in Hollywood was because “they didn’t tell black people about it". The self-awareness is off the charts. His wife Joya (the great Rashida Jones, the highlight of the show) has a meltdown and the daughter is caught in the documentarian’s dilemma: “Do you put out the fire? Or do you zoom in and let her burn?"
For a truly zoomed-in perspective on a self-doubting, intelligent black woman, look to the sharp, sharp Insecure (Disney+ Hotstar). Created by leading lady Issa Rae, the show is about bright women waiting for their worlds to catch up with them—there are times it feels like a more casual Fleabag, a Fleabag in flip-flops—and racism is just part of their drill. It is brilliant how Insecure treats everyday racism with the nonchalance of those who literally face it every single day.
Even a defiantly frivolous comedy like Black Monday (Disney+ Hotstar) that embraces the cocaine-fuelled excess of the 1980s—complete with a perfectly pointless Lamborghini limousine—ends up making points about black stockbrokers struggling for footholds in a white world. The protagonist, played by a dynamite Don Cheadle, needs to peacock hard in order to turn himself into a Wall Street headline. His swagger is born out of overcompensation—something Barris from #BlackAF would identify with.
A comedian in sketch series Astronomy Club (Netflix) claims the show is titled thus because all the performers are stars “and, like most stars, nobody knows their names". These hyper-talented black comedians deserve a hand, and are fresher than Saturday Night Live has been in years. In one sketch, Robin Hood has been giving to the poor—just not the poor who live in the south side of Sherwood. In another, the daughter of Morpheus (from The Matrix) runs a rehab centre to teach omniscient black movie characters to value themselves. “I am more than the advice I give white people," they chant.
Unavailable on Indian streaming platforms are Donald Glover’s genre-bending and preposterously ambitious series Atlanta—a show that covers everything from bad cops to the politics of protest—and the charming new reboot of High Fidelity. In the latter, the striking Zoë Kravitz plays a list-loving woman who owns a record store, and this version, with a gorgeously groovy Bowie-worshipping soundtrack, easily trumps the film starring John Cusack and the book by Nick Hornby. It feels alive.
Sitcoms are the most popular shows on television. They enjoy immense reach, and audiences care about characters they love. Thirty years ago, on the fifth episode of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (season 1, episode 5, Amazon Prime), Will Smith was mistaken for a car thief because he was driving his uncle’s Mercedes. That is, sadly, a plot line that any of the shows above could recycle next week. The problems remain. Yet it is important for comedies to tell audiences—and those in power—who we need to mock, and why. It is crucial to keep punching up. Black laughs matter.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.