This week the internet was delighted by the announcement that Netflix has acquired the rights to several 90s-era Black sitcoms including Sister, Sister, Girlfriends, Moesha and several others, which will drop throughout September.
I share in the internet’s delight for many reasons. I consumed these shows rabidly when I was young so I’m excited for the nostalgia factor, and the not-insignificant 90’s revival (and music and fashion!) they’ll push us further into, and of course, and most significantly, primarily-Black family (and teen, right? Wasn’t Moesha like 70% comedic high school/social problems?) shows to binge, which have been in woefully short supply since the early 2000s across all broadcast networks, save for BET.
The inclusion of these shows is exciting and fills a giant vacuum, even if the timing makes me feel a little bit cynical. Like, would it kill Netflix to somehow acknowledge that they probably could have/should have acquired these shows before the Black Lives Matter movement gained so much prominence this spring? Does it even matter?
I think it does, a bit, because even though Netflix has produced originals with young BIPOC leads, they haven’t gotten as much promotion or attention as they should. Like, how come we all know Noah Centineo’s name but not the leads of On My Block? I’m encouraged by the response to Never Have I Ever, but would it be as prominent if everyone hadn’t known it as ‘the Mindy Kaling teen show’? (Netflix has also announced a show about BIPOC teens called Grand Army, as in Brooklyn, which was in production last summer and fall, but there’s no release date scheduled yet).
What’s more frustrating, though, is that the people involved with these shows aren’t the stars they should be, which is almost certainly part of the reason why there aren’t, and haven’t been, primarily Black shows in the mainstream over the past 10 years.
I’ve spoken many times about how much I enjoyed hearing Mara Brock Akil speak at a screenwriting conference in Toronto years ago. She’s been incredibly successful, creating Girlfriends, The Game, Being Mary Jane and more recently, Love Is and Black Lightning. But she’s not a household name, nor are her shows “mainstream” hits, despite having created and produced literally thousands of hours of television. Tia and Tamera Mowry? Who among us doesn’t know these two, or their brother “Smart Guy” Tahj – yet they’re not massive stars who can get projects greenlit? How many people are obsessed with Gabrielle Union, follow her on social media and were up-to-the-minute on every turn in the America’s Got Talent clusterf-ck, yet don’t know there are 5 seasons of BMJ to binge? Strong Black Lead shared an announcement on Twitter that included a message from the stars of the shows, but of course they started with Tracee Ellis Ross, because she’s the most famous of the collected stars. Why aren’t they all stars!? One of the (thankfully, now mostly retired, if only because people know it won’t fly anymore) comments on including diverse performers and behind-the-scenes is that ‘we can’t find them’, but… they’ve been right here!
Time to pop bottlesðŸ¾ðŸ¾— Strong Black Lead (@strongblacklead) July 29, 2020
The following classic shows are coming to @Netflix (US)
Moesha - Aug 1
The Game S1-3 - Aug 15
Sister Sister - Sept 1
Girlfriends - Sept 11
The Parkers - Oct 1
Half & Half - Oct 15
One on One - Oct 15
To celebrate, here's a message from your faves: pic.twitter.com/zohNPEo0rz
Of course the notable exception here is BET, which produced Being Mary Jane and the later seasons of The Game (which I assume is why Netflix only has the rights to seasons 1-3 of that show, since they were produced by The CW). I’m absolutely in favour of Black networks providing content specifically for Black people (and it’s worth noting that Canada’s APTN seeks to do the same for Indigenous viewers).
But all of the shows listed above were, at one point, straight-up ‘mainstream’, and watched by all audiences. There’s no argument to be made that they weren’t, or that primarily Black casts or stories only appeal to a niche audience (which we already knew from shows like The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and the incredibly successful sitcom Phylicia Rashad and Malcolm Jamal-Warner starred in for 8 seasons… or more recently from One Day At A Time, Orange Is The New Black, and Jane The Virgin) Yet that’s the narrative that was sold to us for a long, long time, while the careers of all these stars failed to peak the way they had potential to…
In short, I hope this means many more opportunities, many more original shows about Black (and Indigenous, and Latinx) families and friend groups, and Tracee Ellis-Ross -style career resurgences for Essence Atkins and Coby Bell and Flex Alexander and Mara Brock Akil and Pooch Hall and dozens of other Black creatives who should be much more famous than they are.