On TV, the Black South is finally getting its due

Of course, sometimes a family consists of a group of friends, as seen on “Girlfriends.” And other times, the city was in the Midwest, as seen on “Family Matters” (Chicago) or “Martin” (Detroit).

But rarely was there a mainstream show that featured black people. And rarely did they depict struggles beyond middle-class existence.

A look around recent television offerings, though, points to something new. “P-Vale” on Starz, HBO Max’s “Rap Sh!t,” FX’s “Atlanta,” and OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” both of which began their final seasons this month, are some of the TV shows on TV. There are interesting shows. .

Their characters aren’t doctors or lawyers — they’re strippers, rappers, farmers, or, simply put, hustlers. And all the shows are in the South.

Southern stories are not new.

Telling Southern stories is nothing new, though. In some ways, television is just following the lead of other places in culture, said Aisha Durham, a communications professor who studies black culture at the University of South Florida.

In music and film, the South has been subtly and deliberately represented for decades, Durham said, citing films like “Ayo Bayou” and, more recently, “Moonlight” — both films where Southern settings, Louisiana and Miami, respectively, run. an important role.

At the same time, new sounds and genres of music have emerged from the South, he explained. The net. And artists like Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion have incorporated a Southern black aesthetic into their fashion and music videos.

“You have new bodies, new people, new experiences and I think it invites us to look at the South in a different way,” Durham said. “I would say that TV is almost, especially in terms of dramatic series, a little late.”

The South has also been at the forefront of other areas of our culture, often garnering national attention — as seen with this year. Runoff vote in Georgia.

For a long time, many people thought of Southern stories only in the context of the civil rights movement and segregation, Durham said. But the South is the foundation of every aspect of American popular culture. And now, many are looking back at the area and wondering about other stories that could still be told.

“Now we’re seeing some of the vitality and vibrancy that has always been part of the South,” Durham said. “We know that in the South, it’s just that everyone else is catching up.”

The current changes reflect the changing entertainment industry.

Tracy Salisbury, a professor of ethnic studies at California State University, Bakersfield, argued that if anything has changed, it’s a business.

It’s not that perceptions of the South are changing, or have changed — but that the industry has changed local destinations, Salisbury said, making Atlanta a destination for entertainment rather than just New York or Los Angeles. It has become a big center.

Tyler Perry’s work. Polarizing in Some have founded their own production studios. Atlanta, and have long set their films and shows in the South. It also has a partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Network, which produces “Queen Sugar.”
Nico Annan, left, "P-Valley" But, Streep plays Uncle Clifford, the gender-nonconforming owner of the strip club.

Salisbury said there are also many black creators who have a voice in television, which allows for new and interesting stories to be told.

“These stories exist and these stories have been presented before, I just think that there is now a significant talent base and a significant audience to drive Hollywood to support these stories,” she said. .

Still, Salisbury is hesitant to call the uptick a trend. He pointed. Quetta BrunsonCreator of ABC’s hit show “Abbott ElementaryFor example, about an elementary school in Philadelphia. Before “Abbott Elementary,” Brunson created comedy sketches on Instagram, eventually moved on to BuzzFeed and YouTube, until he finally got a shot at a network show. Then, he kicked it out. of the park, Winning an Emmy To write earlier this week.
By Quetta Brunson "Abbott Elementary," I created and stars in a show about a low-income school in Philadelphia.

“I think that’s what black creators still have to do,” Salisbury said. “If you don’t knock it out of the park, you have to start over.”

In the past, black shows like “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” were made for mainstream consumption, Salisbury said. Bill Cosby, at the time, “America’s father“Blacks are not America’s fathers.

The difference with these new shows is in intent: they’re made for black people. Uncle Clifford, the non-binary owner of a strip club in “P-Vale,” is not America’s Uncle — Salisbury said — but his grandmother reminds him of him.

These series finally reveal the wealth of the South.

If in the past most black shows were out of the South, these new shows then become a kind of homecoming — back to the place where it all began, Salisbury said.

In other shows, these southern characters may have been used as jokes. In the ’90s “Fresh Prince,” for example, Uncle Phil’s childhood on a farm in the Carolinas is seen as an almost primitive existence compared to life in Bel Air. But in these shows, the South and its characters defy stereotypes and embrace all aspects of the South.

Salisbury used “P-Vale” as an example, which takes place in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi. From the show’s fashion aesthetic and its marijuana-influenced wings, to much more Distinctive MemphisSsippi accentSalisbury said the show had deep roots in the South — and even took some hits on black Southern religious traditions.

But it’s done respectfully, he noted. That’s why it works.

J. Alphonse Nicholson, center, "P-Vale," I play Lil Murda.  which takes place in the fictional town of Chokalisa, Mississippi.

“We’re not laughing at these people, we’re laughing with them,” he said.

New York City and Los Angeles are often already portrayed on television as cosmopolitan, diverse places. The South, though often seen as stuck in the past, is a familiar place that lacks the diversity of other regions, Durham said.

These shows defy these notions.

Durham used “Rap Sh!t” as an example. (A partnership between HBO Max, which runs the show, and CNN parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.) The show’s characters live in and around the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami, he said. Allowing discussions about Caribbean and Haitian culture and African Americans as a race with other ethnic black people in the South.

“There are so many ways in which we have to reimagine blackness in the South,” Durham said.

Then there is the question of class. In the early days of television, the assumed class was always the middle class. This new crop of shows shows something different, Durham said, highlighting more economically disadvantaged people just trying to make it in the world.

By Brian Tyree Henry

These characters are portrayed with depth and sincerity — the stripers in “P-Vale,” for example, aren’t just aesthetic bodies in a trap music video. Paper Boi from “Atlanta” and Shawna from “Rap Sh!t” aren’t the only rappers soundtracking the background. Instead the audience is invited inside.

“We’re actually invited to see what the experiences of the people creating the culture are,” Durham said. “We love culture but do we know these women and men? These shows give us a way to see that.”

These shows then challenge existing perceptions of the South — creating a layered and complex narrative of the region, Durham said.

As these shows point out: There are queer communities in the South. is sex work; There is class struggle; There is diversity; is happy There are people, not simple caricatures, just trying to survive.

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