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The Quiet Civil Rights Movement of Television and Film

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | January 17, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | January 17, 2011 |

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in America, and I thought it would make sense to take a moment and reflect upon the ways in which entertainment — and specifically TV and film — helped get us to where we are today. There are countless inspirational, courageous historical figures whose political, academic, and activist work have blazed a trail for African Americans in this country and made it possible for a black man to attain the highest office in the land. But this is not about Martin Luther King, or Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, or Sojourner Truth.

This is about “The Jeffersons.”

There is no question that Martin Luther King helped to create opportunities in this country for African-Americans — and, indeed, for all Americans. Through protest, self-sacrifice, and endurance, each generation has chipped away at the façade of institutional racism and individual prejudice. But to win the presidency two years ago, Barack Obama didn’t only need the votes of people of color and committed white allies — he needed the support of more than half of the country. He needed more than just tolerance or equality — he needed acceptance. He needed a lot of white people to see past the color of his skin and look at the content of his character.

And that’s where “The Jeffersons” comes in. And not just “The Jeffersons,” but also “Benson” and “Scrubs” and Bojangles and Halle Berry. We rag on pop culture a lot around here — it’s part of our mission statement. But when you really start to think about it, it was people like George Jefferson and JJ Walker and Will Smith and Jamie Foxx and Mr. T and Sidney Poitier and Oprah Winfrey and Morgan Freeman who enabled the change articulated by people like Martin Luther King and Booker T. Washington to finally, dramatically, come to pass. Yes, serious inequalities persist, and a lot of work still needs to be done. But even four years ago, how many of us thought we would live to see this day? As I think about what brought us here, and what can account for this great leap forward, I continue to come back to the seemingly small inroads made by individuals. Every time we saw a black character on television, this country’s collective prejudices were being ever so gently chipped away. Every time Denzel Washington took the lead in a blockbuster movie or Spike Lee directed a film or Richard Pryor sold out a venue, it was a challenge to that residue of prejudice, mistrust, and hate that had been retained over hundreds of years.

It wasn’t easy, of course. For decades, it was a pride swallowing siege. In the beginning, black America was presented on television and in film in ways that made white America comfortable in its racism: as caricatures, as Steppin’ Fetchits, as the help. But arguably those depictions, in and of themselves, were small victories. Artists like Hattie McDaniel honed their craft while trying to, as she put it in her Oscar acceptance speech in 1940, “Be a credit to [our] race and to the motion picture industry.” There is no question that blacks weren’t being depicted appropriately. But they were depicted, goddammit. And arguably, that was the first step toward change. The work of actors like Sydney Poitier in the 50s and 60s helped to widen and make concrete the impact of the burgeoning civil rights movement. At the same time, TV footage of police with nightsticks and hoses attacking lines of peaceful protestors underscored the brutality of the Jim Crow laws, and provided a dramatic counterpoint to the eloquence and composure of the protesters. In the 70s, shows like “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” started to push further, with entire casts of black actors. These shows — as well as the ‘Blaxploitation’ films popular around the same period — still represented black life in a way that, for the most part, didn’t challenge white viewers much — characters were predominately poor, underemployed, or criminals, and they interacted with a host of stock stereotypes — hustlers, shady politicians, sassy women — and generally kept things light and humorous. But beneath the punchlines, the reality was that white America was gradually warming to the idea that The Jeffersons or The Evans’ weren’t that much different than “The Honeymooners;” just another working class family trying to get by.

“Good Times,” and other shows like “Benson,” ultimately made way for “The Cosby Show,” which depicted African-Americans in a way that a lot of whites had never seen before: As upper-class professionals. Not as a black family, but just as a family. “The Cosby Show,” of course, blew open the doors — and shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and even “Family Matters” would follow, two shows about black families where race was rarely raised as an issue. Soon after, Oprah would become the most successful personality in America. Will Smith and Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy started to take on leading man roles that had nothing to do with the color of their skin. At the same time, rap music was becoming mainstream, and the idea of targeting entertainment at a group based on race began to fall out of favor. “In Living Color” became popular, as did benign sitcoms like “Hanging with Mr. Cooper” and “The Jamie Foxx Show.” And over the last ten years, we’ve seen an increase in the kind of entertainment that might even be called “post-racial” — movies like Men in Black and Tropic Thunder, and shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Scrubs,” or even “30 Rock” — that have exuberantly multiracial casts, and take on race as openly, thoughtfully and humorously as they handle most other issues. Racial prejudices still exist, of course, both in the real world and onscreen, but film and TV built around racist themes and iconography has, gratefully, become less and less common and less profitable.

So here’s my point: Today we celebrate the greatest civil rights advocate in the history of this country, two years after electing America’s first black president. Thanks in part to the acceptance and understanding fostered by music, movies and television, this country ended up electing a black president at a speed that no legislation or protest or speech could have predicted. As we celebrate all the people who got us here today, we should remember the thousands of black Americans who contributed to this simply by being who they were and sharing their talents. Every time white people saw an episode of “In Living Colour” or “Family Matters,” or listened to Ray Charles or Lauryn Hill or Etta James or Alicia Keys, or laughed at (and thought about) a sketch by Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, and every time we watched Sidney Poitier act circles around his white cast mates, the ideology of difference took a blow. We’ve made political and economic inroads — and we still have far to go in those arenas. But these small, daily examples of interaction and integration add up to the fact that, today, Will Smith has a larger audience than MLK could’ve ever imagined. So on this momentous day, I say we owe it all to MLK and, in a small way, to Urkel, too.

This article, modified from its original form, was first published on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2008.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.