What the black viewer is owed

When the Amazon series Harlem created last December, its good faith was immediately questioned on Twitter. User @GoddessGiselle_, who runs a cultural website with the slogan “Find your voice, be heard” request, “How many 4 black women friend shows do we need?!?!” Her question had warranted the bite — drawing attention to the cut-and-paste framework that is sometimes lazily applied to black stories and characters on TV — but she also pointed to a critical shift: the progress, albeit marginal, of black storytelling in the current era. streaming.

After all, for something to be too much suggests that there is already a surplus — and, in a way, there is. Harlem is just one series in an impressive group of black-centric programs to hit streaming platforms, network TV and cable over the past two years, a list of shows asking a vital question about the future of representation: what does the black spectator owe?

If the first era of streaming introduced a new approach to television audiences, modernizing our whole relationship to television and what to expect from it – and when and where we watch it – its current era, and the second , doubled excess. Viewers are now pinned under an unimaginable wave of reality soap operas, sports documentaries, sitcoms, prestige dramas and limited series. It’s a dizzying pace and yet incredibly rewarding. Because for all its overwhelming vastness, this period of intense and greedy competition between Hulu, Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon has opened a door. The visibility of black people on television is at an all time high.

Visibility is not necessarily synonymous with progress. A recent UCLA study found that while Blacks, Latinx, and Asians “closed to proportional representation” as leaders in scripted cable and streaming shows during the 2019- 2020, their numbers were still shamefully insufficient as writers, directors, and showrunners. Representation is not just seeing yourself reflected; it is not a question of having one mirror, but several. These are nuances in all aspects of production. The abundance created by streaming has led to the creation of some 500 original scripted series each year, many of which allow greater access to black experiences. But that doesn’t mean much if those scenes aren’t crafted by creators who can imbue them with complexity, momentum, and earned perspective. That’s what black viewers are indebted for – an elevated, multi-directional portrait of black life on television on their terms.

It is already happening, but slowly. Implied in the subtext of @GoddessGiselle_’s tweet is the reality of a new normal creeping into the mainstream. In recent years, several original series have anchored their stories around themes of black brotherhood, from the debut last year of Run the world (a fictional Starz drama with echoes of To live alone) and Sell ​​Tampa (a Netflix reality soap opera about women working in real estate in Central Florida) on the return of sisters, Around twenty, Bigger, and The First Women’s Club (all on BET+). All are told with varying doses of glamor and depth, each with an eye toward chic realism.

Standout Genre Unsafe, which recently wrapped after a five-season run on HBO but which focused acutely on the contours of black female friendship, was part of this creative and commercial renaissance which, if I were to specify a start date , began in 2016. Alongside Atlanta (FX), Sugar Queen (OWN) and several other black-led series, Issa Rae’s half-hour comedy debuted at a time when the television landscape was finally beginning to recommit to storytelling told from a point of view. black, but not limited to. That year, as cable efforts waned, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos announced a $6 billion investment in original programming. In a business as segregated as television, the instant flood of content from authors like Ava DuVernay and Donald Glover seemed like an anomaly to me. It was also a turning point. A 2016 report by the Writers Guild of America West mirrored this: despite the increase in black stories on television, the number of black writers on television had actually declined by 7% since 2012. Progress was being made. , but the real representation, if such a thing existed, was still a chimera.

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