Recently, I was having brunch with a bunch writer friends and after our third round of mimosas, the conversation turned to one of my favorite topics—the 90’s. The best decade--ever. I'm not talking Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr’s 90's (which I loved too). I'm talking The Fresh Prince of Bel Air's 90's. The 90's that aired all of my absolute favorite black sitcoms and movies.
Through bites of omelettes and French toast, we all reminisced about the show we grew up on. The ones that defined our childhoods--The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince., Martin, Living Single, A Different World.
We shared favorite moments. Remember the episode when Theo gets his ears pierced and has to hide it from his dad? Or when Martin has Brian McKnight serenade Gina and then FINALLY proposes? And who can forget the episode of Fresh Prince when Will’s father abandons him--again?
After the journey down memory lane landed us back in the present, the laughter abruptly stopped. Damn, we sighed. What happened to the 90’s? Where did all the black people go?
Hours later, those questions still lingered in my head. Where is the 2012 version of the Huxtables on TV? Why doesn’t a major network feature a black couple like Martin and Gina? Why is it so hard to go to the theatre and see a black movie that doesn’t star a black man wearing a dress?
As a twenty-something up and coming writer, the current entertainment landscape can be sorta depressing at times. Like a lot of other black writers, producers, directors, and actors, I really miss the richness and diversity of the 90’s. So many of that decade’s artists and filmmakers inspired me to even pursue a career in the arts and now that I’m old enough to continue the movement started by the likes of Bill Cosby and Spike Lee, the climate for black Hollywood has drastically changed.
We’re now living in an era of what networks and studios refer to as “multi-cultural” casting, which often means primarily white casts with a few sprinkles of diversity mixed in. And that’s if we’re lucky.
Why the shift to “multi-cultural” casting? I ask that question whenever I meet with producers and executives and usually get the same answer—white leads are the most relatable to a mainstream audience. It’s a safer bet to cast them if you want to reach millions of viewers and make money.
But I’m not buying it and here’s why:
Back in the 90’s, everybody and their mama regardless of race or background were watching The Cosby Show. Millions of people tuned in at record numbers to see what shenanigans Theo, Denise, Vanessa, and Rudy were going to pull over their parents. And I distinctly remember me and some of my white classmates rapping the theme song to Fresh Prince in my elementary school days. Let’s also not forget that "Waiting to Exhale" and "The Best Man" opened at #1 in the box office when they were released in 1995 and 1999 respectively.
And although those movies featured all black casts, they weren’t marketed as content that only black people could enjoy, could relate to. They were marketed for and enjoyed by the masses.
This isn’t to say that the shift to multi-cultural casting is always negative. There are some shows that get it right. Shonda Rhimes, for example, has found a way to integrate various races and backgrounds seamlessly without making any of the diverse characters feel one dimensional or underdeveloped. They don’t feel like tokens. They feel like human beings.
In an ideal world I'd love for TV and film to allow people of color to exist in all the facets that white people are allowed to exist. Why can’t we have an Asian family on NBC? Could HBO have a show like Girls with a colorful cast?
Just like "The Cosby Show" did for the black community years ago, it would be healthy to see a black family or images of black love in the mainstream. It would not only be a positive thing for young black kids, but it would change the mainstream perception of black people currenly dominated by reality television or Madea.
We used to have that diversity back in the 90’s. What changed? When did black people suddenly become unrelatable? Would mainstream audiences today shun a contemporary version of The Cosby Show? And if so, why? Does this mean we’ve gotten less progressive, less tolerant of other races since the 90’s?
Or does Hollywood have it all wrong?
As a writer who writes a lot of characters that are like me, I certainly hope it’s the latter. The optimist in me hopes that film and TV will one day feature black families, black couples, and black friends again on the major networks and more frequently in theatres. My sincere belief is that Hollywood is severely underestimating the millions of people who can look beyond the race of the cast and just enjoy the content.
With the mainstream success of movies like "Think Like A Man" and web series like "Awkward Black Girl," I hope we’re on the cusp of a new era or, rather, a return to a previous one. I hope the next generation of black writers, producers and directors can prove Hollywood’s theory wrong by creating cool stuff that reminds these execs that black people can be relatable, too.