Mess is fun. Take the #OscarsSoWhite thing from around the the 2016 Academy Awards.
Confronting troublesome or nonexistent black representation led to talk of blacks boycotting the Oscars. But then concentration shifted to the mess. Who will boycott? Will Chris Rock host? Will he skewer everybody?
Though people called out the film world’s premier night, the industry has lagged far behind TV in rectifying this. And so, in honor of blacks doing it and doing it well, here are five excellent black TV shows worth watching and celebrating.
Executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and created by Ava DuVernay, Queen Sugar is a family drama set in modern-day New Orleans. When the patriarch Ernest Bordelon (Glynn Turman), who raised his family on a sugarcane farm, passes away, he leaves his land to his three children: journalist Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley), well-to-do mother Charley Bordelon-West (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and single dad Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe).
While the cast is led by two black women, Earnest appears to have been emotionally motivated by the birth if his youngest child -- his only son. Ideas of ownership, by black people and black women, are beautifully presented by DuVernay. Black ownership of our bodies and rights is a battle still being waged, which makes black ownership of land all the more difficult.
Sugar is magnificently paced; long, quiet shots of countryside and black family dynamics lead to moments of tremendous emotion. With expositional superheros drowning out the beauty and potential nuance of film as of late, DuVernay delightfully reminds us what's missing.
Donald Glover is a genius.
Atlanta is about Ernest Marks (Glover), his cousin Alfred ‘Paper Boi’ Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), friend Darius (Keith Stanfield), girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz), and daughter. When Marks finds out his cousin Alfred is the rapper Paper Boi, he begins working with him. Marks is dead broke with a daughter to feed, and a kinda-girlfriend/baby’s mother who's not impressed with where his life is and is going.
Glover skillfully presents character vignettes while zooming out to touch on broader issues. In the episode “Value,” Glover focuses on his kinda-girlfriend Van. At the onset of the series, she plays a typical “girlfriend” role next to the leading man. She's something for Marks to bounce things off of while scolding him and bobbing a baby in her arms.
In “Value,” Glover appears for a just a few moments. The episode touches on a woman’s self-worth, and really dives into whats going on in Van’s world. You get a real feel for her, while the episode is also silly and hilarious.
Glover does more zooming in and out with the character Paper Boi, whose single is bringing him newfound attention. Pressure is coming in from all sides for Paper Boi, who is played with a somberness and subtle hilarity. He responds to the paradoxes and traps of black fame calmly, trying to keep a diplomatic, professional disposition.
In “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” Glover sets a scene in which Paper Boi plays in a charity basketball game on a team against Justin Bieber -- but the actor playing Bieber is black. Hilarity and poignancy ensue. Glover’s commentary here falls in line with a great Paul Mooney quote, “Everybody wants to be a nigga but nobody wants to be a nigga.” The real Bieber is white, but, like Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke, he mines black culture and music for his work. People love back stuff... but not blacks. It's yet another complex paradox Glover expertly lays out without being pedantic or prescriptive. He is just showing us.
Insecure keeps its focus on its characters -- and it has great characters. The show is a comedy about two black women, Issa Rae (Issa Dee) and Molly (Yvonne Orji), and how being black -- specifically being a black woman in the workplace and the dating scene/fuckplace -- is rife with insecurity and a sense of not having solid social footing. It’s about being caught between many different things.
The show is executive produced by black TV stalwart Larry Wilmore, who also executive produces Black-ish and produced The Bernie Mac Show. Both shows deal with black identity and how successfully navigating a white world requires a ridiculous amount of self-assured strength, and this provides plenty of fodder for funny, awkward TV.
HBO picked up Insecure after Dee’s successful run with Awkward Black Girl on YouTube.
In the first sequence of the first episode, Issa, who works for a nonprofit for underprivileged students of color staffed by all non-black people except for Issa, speaks to a class of students. They bombard her with questions and comments about her race: “Why do you speak white?” “Do you have a husband?” “You don't? Well my dad says no one wants to marry a bitter black woman.”
A lot of the really funny stuff also comes when Issa and Molly are confiding in one another, blowing off steam.
Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a Harlem-based superhero who is tall, dark black, bulletproof, and wears a hoodie. Looking up to a big black guy is revolutionary in itself. The hoodie is a bit on the nose, but effective. (But, alas, this show is about a guy twho can't be shot.)
Shoehorned into this ridiculous story is political, law enforcement, and gang intrigue that rings true in black neighborhoods, if not a bit exaggerated in the show.
Cage finds himself in a fight -- because that's what happens with superheros, they want to be left the hell alone! -- against gang kingpin Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his councilwoman cousin and conscience, the corrupt Mariah Dillard (Alfe Woodard). Then bad guy Willis 'Diamondback' Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey) enters the mix. The police are trying to do their job but are flummoxed by this vigilante Cage, and beset by dirty cops working with Stokes. Detective Misty (Simone Missick) is the primary go-between for Cage and the police, and is also Cage’s love interest. She's like Cage’s sexy Detective Gordon.
Missick gives a strong performance as a independent, smart, compassionate black detective. Ali and Woodard as criminal and councilwoman are mesmerizing. Harvey is horror-movie menacing.
The take-away here is that these fine actors need work. They need stories that don't involve superpowers or cursory nods to things like keeping Harlem black.
A show like this is Starz’s Power. The show is about a drug kingpin dealing with his plan to go straight. That isn't the most unique premise, but what is interesting about it is that it's not his mother or mother-inlaw or wife or girlfriend or concerned neighborhood friend who wishes he would make it. It’s the kingpin, James ‘Ghost’ St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), who wants to take the illicit capital he’s mounted over the years into legitimate business.
Meanwhile, his partners, friends, wife, mother-in-law -- everyone -- insist that he concentrate on being a ganglord, and that they love him because he is a ganglord. Everyone, that is, except an old flame from high school who reenters his life.
As expected in a show about gangs and drugs, there are plenty of scenes of gratuitous, excessive violence. There are also long, unnecessary, awkward love scenes where the point mainly appears to be whether or not we get to see boobs. And we do. And they are nice. But the scenes are also laced with the unhappiness and smart observations on the sexuality of women of color. The show was created by a rarity of black female power, the producer and writer (also involved with Bernie) Courtney Kemp Agboh.
And power is what St. Patrick is battling for as a black man attempting to provide for his family and be proud of himself. The quickest, most open path to obtaining black power, unfortunately, is through illicit means. St. Patrick the pragmatist understands this and has acquired immense power, but now he is after legitimate power and wealth, after respect.
Also, the goofy sidekick is a funny white guy. Which is a direct switching of roles that is a bit on the nose but enjoyable. The show’s ambitions are not to grapple with black and people of color issues as much as to tantalize with mess, hot sex, gory action, and cool scenes with drug lords at tables. But hey -- it's good at it.