Half a century of Black TV
Bethonie Butler’s new book “Black TV” showcases the 50-year evolution of television series centered on Black characters. From The Jeffersons, to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Abbott Elementary.
Today, Butler says the evolution of Black TV continues. Not just with actors, but who’s creating new series.
“We’re sort of in a golden era of Black TV now, with creators like Issa Rae, Quinta Brunson, Donald Glover. It’s just a really exciting time.”
Today, On Point: Half a century of Black TV.
Bethonie Butler, author of “Black TV: Five decades of Groundbreaking Television from Soul Train to Black-ish and Beyond.” Previously a reporter for the Washington Post, where she covered television and pop culture.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.
And now, here’s your host, Don Cornelius.
DON CORNELIUS: Hello and welcome aboard. You’re right on time for another magnificent ride on the Soul Train. Be coming right back at you with a big smash by the mighty Temptations, right after some very important messages.
CHAKRABARTI: In 1971, Soul Train began its 35-year run on American television.
The pioneering music and dance show featured the best of Black talent and was recognized as one of the most influential television shows of its time. And the influence of Black TV on American culture continues. It’s a half century path chronicled by pop culture writer Bethonie Butler in her new book, “Black TV: Five decades of Groundbreaking Television from Soul Train to Black-ish and Beyond.”
And Bethonie Butler joins us today. Welcome to On Point, Bethonie.
BETHONIE BUTLER: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: I actually would wonder if we could start with the influence of Black TV on you. What’s the sort of earliest show that you remember loving, that featured either Black stories or I suppose maybe a long time ago there weren’t that many Black writers allowed into the writer room, but writer’s room, but your formative experiences with Black TV.
BUTLER: So I grew up on Family Matters, The Fresh Prince really that early, the early ’90s. There was an explosion of Black sitcoms, and I grew up on those. And it’s really important to see yourself on TV and that was the start of that for me.
CHAKRABARTI: And why did you decide to write this book now?
BUTLER: I think it’s an interesting time to look at Black television, you know it’s a golden era in Black television and both in terms of the shows that are on. But also, in terms of the creators, in the last decade, we’ve seen new shows from Issa Rae, Donald Glover. Of course, Quinta Brunson with Abbott Elementary.
And it’s just a really interesting time. And I think that Black creators are getting the chance to be truly innovative and to be in control of their projects. We’re going to talk about all those A list Black creators a little bit later in the show. And I just, I re-binged season one of Abbott Elementary (LAUGHS) just over the weekend, Bethonie.
It’s really a show that’s impossible to stop watching. But let’s go back in time. And I actually just want to start by talking with the show that we introduced, because it was right there at the top and that was Soul Train. What was so important or actually continues to be so important about Soul Train?
BUTLER: Yeah. Soul Train is a celebration of Black culture. Don Cornelius, when he started Soul Train, and it was a local show in Chicago. Originally, he wanted it to be a place where Black entertainers were given this unprecedented platform to show off their talents. And you really got the sense, if you rewatch it, read about it, you get the sense that it’s like a homecoming for Black entertainers.
And it grew so popular so quickly that it ended up going national. And it was described to me as appointment television, especially for kids and teens who were growing up at the time.
CHAKRABARTI: I actually just want to play a quick clip of an interview that I did last August, and it’s actually with Damita Jo Freeman.
She’s one of the original Soul Train dancers. It was for a special event in Los Angeles. So here’s a little bit of that conversation where I talk about a scene from one of the episodes of Soul Train where Damita Jo Freeman is dancing on stage next to none other than James Brown.
CHAKRABARTI: And get this, the godfather of soul, standing behind Damita Jo. And he’s looking at her, looking at her up and down. You can Google this, you’ll find it in a second. Looking at her up and down, and he looks like, he’s like, I do not know what to do. I’ll not be able to keep up with her.
FREEMAN: He didn’t, and I didn’t know what I was doing either because I never heard that song before. This was the very first time that everybody, the world was going to hear Super Bad. And so when I went up on the stairs. When he, when we started, it was like, “Okay, keep going. He loves to play that beat. Okay, keep going.” So in my head, I’m looking, I’m smiling. I have no idea what’s coming outta his mouth.
And when his mouth came, you could feel the music when it drops. So therefore, I said, “Oh, changed. I start dancing.” And I just kept going and his smile and I said, “oh Lord, I’m in trouble. I’m doing something. I don’t know what I’m doing.” But I just threw in the robot, and I threw in so many different things.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s a work of art that you’re doing there. I’m telling you.
CHAKRABARTI: So that was Damita Jo Freeman, one of the original dancers on Soul Train. I spoke with her in Los Angeles last year. And Bethonie, first of all, Damita Jo Freeman is as vital and alive today as she was back in the 70s. But the reason why I wanted to play that clip is not only to celebrate her. But you note that she says there that it was the first time everybody, basically the whole world, was going to hear James Brown sing Superbad.
And to me, that underscores one of the main, one of the really important things about Soul Train, was that it introduced some of the best of Black music, not just to Black audiences, but the world as a whole. What do you think about that?
BUTLER: Absolutely. Yeah. It was unprecedented visibility for Black entertainers.
And then also just a showcase of Black joy and Black culture, to tune in every Saturday morning as it aired in Chicago. And experience that it was so important and so influential, and still really influential, as you mentioned. So that means that Soul Train had appeal not just to Black audiences, but to all audiences, specifically to white audiences, as well.
Back in the 70s, was that a requirement for Black TV? Versus hopefully what came later, which you didn’t have to necessarily appeal to white audiences to have viability on television?
BUTLER: I think in some sense it was. That there, and I think there continues to be that question of, is this universal or not?
In terms of Soul Train, it was just so immediately popular and resonated. And the other thing that was special about Soul Train is they had a national sponsor in Johnson Products, the maker of Afro Sheen. And that sort of reinforced this pride in being Black, this joy in being Black, that Soul Train was all about.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to move to the show that you begin the book with, and that is Julia, a sitcom that ran for three seasons starting in 1968. First of all, can you tell us, Bethonie, what Julia meant to you?
BUTLE Yeah, it’s interesting. So obviously I didn’t grow up with Julia, but I’ve written a lot about Scandal from Shonda Rhimes, and it was really interesting to me.
Shonda Rhimes, she actually included Julia Baker as a character name in Scandal. And that was the moment that I realized how influential Diahann Carroll and Julia had been, not only to Shonda Rhimes, but to Kerry Washington and also just the whole trajectory of Black TV, Julia was the first sitcom to really showcase a Black family. It was Julia and her son. We’re inside their home, we’re in their living room, we’re experiencing sort of day to day with them. So that was really unique at the time and just we know that Diahann Carroll was just so influential to Black creatives and Black talent.
And so to see that through line from Julia in 1968 all the way up to Scandal and to have Shonda Rhimes say, “This made such an impact on me, I had to include it in my show.”
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s listen to a little bit of Julia. Now, we should note that, as you said, it starred Diahann Carroll, launched in 1968.
It was a story about a widowed nurse and mother. So here’s a clip from the first season of the show when Julia, the title character, played by Diahann Carroll, is interviewing for that job as a nurse. And she walks into the office of a doctor who, let’s be frank, is a comically rude and elderly white man.
DOCTOR: Julia Baker, huh?
JULIA: Yes, sir. May I sit down?
DOCTOR: No. This is not a social hour. I believe you came here to beg me for a job.
JULIA: I came here at your invitation to be interviewed for a position as a nurse. I don’t beg for anything.
DOCTOR: I’ll keep that in mind.
CHAKRABARTI: So Bethonie, we even hear in that scene, but in the show overall, what is it doing?
Or what stories is Julia telling that was so unusual for the time regarding Black characters on TV?
BUTLER: Yeah, as you said, Julia was a nurse. Julia spotlighted the Black middle class, which had really yet to be shown on television. That was one of the few things that creator Hal Kanter and Diahann Carroll agreed on. That they wanted this show to be about the Black middle class, and they wanted viewers to see this upwardly mobile Black woman, a professional woman. Prior to that, Black women were relegated often to servant roles on screen, and so Julia was a big deal.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s interesting that you say that Diahann Carroll and Hal Kanter came to an agreement on what the show would be about, because I note that Hal Kanter, big name in middle 20th century television. But he also had previously created or worked on series like Amos ‘N’ Andy that really peddled in other unflattering Black stereotypes.
I found it really interesting, too, that he had been involved with Amos ‘N’ Andy. And he did see Julia as a way to I guess move the needle forward and not be so stereotypical in depicting Black people. But we also know that he and Diahann Carroll went back and forth on a lot of things on this show.
Diahann Carroll, like many Black creators and talent, she felt such a responsibility to her community. And she was so thoughtful about the script and the storylines, and she and Hal Kanter had a lot of back and forth.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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