Television, like the movies, provided Blacks with more acting opportunities

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Last week, in the article, “From Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson to Viola Davis, Black acting has been a natural thing,” we discussed Black movie actors and actresses. We pointed out how Black people had exhibited acting talent and skills as a part of their culture in ancient Africa. Today, we turn our attention to Black actors and actresses in the television industry.

The movie industry had gotten started in the late 1890s. By 1929, the first Oscar awards were presented. It was another 20 years, however, before the television industry presented the first Emmy awards. Nevertheless, once television got started, television acting quickly mushroomed with network series and made-for-television movies flooding homes in ways that movies could not.

On the one hand, it did not take as long for Black entertainers to break into television as it had the movies. In 1956, Nat King Cole became the first Black entertainer to host his own show; Diahann Carroll became the first Black actress in a starring role as Julia, in 1968.

Furthermore, Black actresses and actors in television who have received Emmys have far surpassed the number of Blacks who have received Oscars. Among Emmy-winning actors are Harry Belafonte, Wayne Brady, Roscoe Lee Brown, Sterling Brown, Bill Cosby, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, Donald Glover, Louis Gossett Jr., James Earl Jones, Ron Cephus Jones, Spike Lee, Ru Paul, Courtney Vance, Katt Williams, and Jeffrey Wright. When we discussed movie actors in leading roles, we saw only five. The list of actresses is even more impressive. It includes: Debbie Allen, Uzo Aduba, Mary Alice, Halle Berry, Ashley Nicole Black, Daysha Broadway, Quinta Brunson, Olivia Cole, Viola Davis, Loretta Divine, Ja’Net DuBois, Ava DuVernay, Stephanie Filo, Gail Fisher, Whoopi Goldberg, Tiffany Haddish, Jackée Harry, Jennifer Hudson, Judith Jamison, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Regina King, Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Sharon Epatha Merkerson, Thandiwe Newton, Keke Palmer, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Beah Richards, Mia Rudolph, Isabel Sanford, Madge Sinclair, Wanda Sykes, Cicely Tyson, Lena Waithe, Kerry Washington, Lynn Whitfield, Samira Wiley, Alfre Woodard, and Zendaya. The list of Black actresses with Oscars for leading roles was one. While we realize that there are more television series, made-for-television films, and other public releases, the differences in Black recognition is staggering.

On the other hand, similar to the movie industry, things have not always been exactly heavenly. Many of the early Blacks were featured only in comedies as special “entertainment” shows, featuring musicians. The roles which they played often did not reflect intelligence or responsibility. Until “The Cosby Show”came along, Blacks were often primarily portrayed as living amidst crime, poverty, and immorality. It was much easier to find shows like “In Living Color,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” “Flip Wilson”, and “227” than it was to find shows like “The Cosby Show,” or even “Fame.”

From another perspective, only in the latter part of the 20th century were Blacks no longer rarities on the screen. Their rare appearances explain why it was 1956 before Nat King Cole got his show and 1968 before Diahann Carroll got her starting role. It was 1960 before Belafonte, the very first Black, received an Emmy. Black people were such rarities on television until Black families, friends, and neighbors frequently had “gatherings” to watch the shows in which they were featured. Even today, most Emmy winners received such because they were part of a series which was clearly “Black-themed.”

This lack of full-fledged recognition reflects the ideology of racism and white supremacy more so than the talents of Black actors and actresses. It is more than ironic that Ru Paul has received some 14 Emmys, putting him at the top, and that “Roots” was one of the most celebrated television productions of all times. Even as one considers Tyler Perry, the Wayans, and the like, he/she can realize that they are big or as successful as they are because of their Black-appeal; they have large Black followings. Many white regular television viewers have no idea who people like Octavia Spencer, Martin Lawrence, Charles Dutton, or Tonea Stewart are. 

Along that same line, it is worth noting that many of the television actors and actresses have also been active and successful in movies. Among those are Alfre Woodard, Isabel Sanford, Jackée Harry, Beah Richards, Lynn Winfield, Madge Sinclair, Mary Alice, Halle Berry, Loretta Divine, Queen Latifah, Viola Davis, Regina King, Debbie Allen, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Harry Belafonte, Louis Gossett Jr., James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, Will Smith, Roscoe Lee Brown, and Morgan Freeman. This is important to underscore because it shows them to be flexible and multi-talented. One cannot automatically succeed in one form of acting just because he/she has mastered the other. Further, it speaks to the fact that generally for these descendants of Africa, acting is to a large extent natural, as natural as it was in many of ancient African cultures.

As we celebrate this Black History Month, we are most grateful of the fact that the actresses and actors referenced above help to erase the negative stereotypes which much of white America utilized and encouraged during the days of the minstrels and vaudeville shows. Today’s major entertainers do not find it necessary to bend, bow, and scrape in order to be recognized. Generally, the stellar state of their craft is celebrated worldwide. Culturally, these entertainers harken back to their African ancestors, as do the writers, musicians, and other Black practitioners of the arts illustrated in the Jackson Advocate this month. 

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Television, like the movies, provided Blacks with more acting opportunities

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 26, 2024