From the late ‘80s to the ‘00s, comedies created, directed, starring, and aimed at a Black audience dominated the ratings. American sitcoms like My Wife And Kids, The Parkers and Girlfriends – which turns 20 this year – are just some of the great shows I grew up watching on telly. Every one of them was full of people who looked just like me. Strong female characters that reminded me of my mum were right there on the TV screen. But now when I turn on the telly, I don’t see these role models at all.
It might be 2020, but it feels like Black representation on the small screen is going backwards not forwards. Fantastic actors like Daniel Kaluuya and Cynthia Erivo are rightly getting their dues in the film world, but TV hasn’t followed suit. If I do see Black people on the telly, they’re mostly American and usually conforming to a stereotype. There’s emotionally feeble females like Jasmine in Tyler Perry’s A Fall From Grace, or the ‘angry Black woman’ trope – bitter for no reason like Yvette on NBC’s Marlon. It’s been ages since I saw a true, authentic portrayal of Black culture on television.
The best Black sitcoms always showed us a different outlook on Black struggles. Nikki Parker from The Parkers was a single mother fighting all odds to look after her daughter whilst studying for a degree. Later, in My Wife And Kids, we saw a successful representation of Black love because the married high school sweethearts, Jay and Michael, raised their three children in harmony, despite the chaos of domesticity. Here were some mini life lessons wrapped up in small comedy parcels.
Nowadays, attempts have been made to recreate the magic of those series, but all we get is cheesy, predictable dross. There’s Black-ish and its sister shows, Grown-ish and Mixed-ish, which authentically depicts a black family surviving in a white middle-class neighbourhood. Similarly, new Netflix property BlackAF tells the story of a rich family living in a huge West Coast mansion, which is hardly relatable. Why can’t there be new programmes with completely different stories that don’t involve the same domestic set-up?
At least if you’re American, there’s a history of brilliant Black comedies to fall back on. When it comes to the UK, only one springs to mind: Desmond’s. The 1990s classic about a grumpy barber in Peckham broke ratings records and still has more episodes than any other Channel 4 comedy. With a relatable, mostly West Indian cast, the show explored the life of a first-generation, post-Windrush Black family – a demographic little explored since.
Skip forward to the 2010s and the homegrown Youngers and Chewing Gum showed me Black youth culture at a time when young people had minimal reference points for what it was. Youngers taught me the true power of friendship as two teen pals navigate their way through newly-found musical fame. And Chewing Gum was all about the eccentric Tracey Gordon (Michaela Coel), who made it cool to be a weirdo. But just as I was getting attached to these likeable heroes, they were booted off the air: the former was cancelled in 2014 and the latter in 2017. Since then, it’s been a struggle to see people I can relate to on British telly.
Over the past decade, it seems like the number of entertaining, Black-fronted productions on British TV has declined. You’re left to wonder if new versions of funny, Black-led shows, ones which were integral to my identity, will be there for other young girls who look like me. Binge-able Black series highlight how great Black culture is, was and can be. If they don’t exist, then a whole generation of kids is missing out.