When I was a kid, Thursday night was the only night that mattered on TV. In the late 80s and early 90s, Must See TV consisted of The Cosby Show, A Different World, Cheers, some random show at 9:30pm, and then in the 10 o’clock slot, L.A. Law.
I was just a kid so I didn’t understand everything that was happening on the show, and my parents often sent me to bed not too long after the episode started. However, there was one abundantly clear thing about L.A. Law: Blair Underwood was on the show. For those unfamiliar with this American TV classic, L.A. Law was a drama about a law firm that starred an array of beautiful people pretending to be lawyers. Corbin Bernsen, Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Susan Dey, and a host of others filled out the cast. They handled a docket of complex civil and criminal cases. In season 2, Blair Underwood arrived on the show; he played a cocky, young, brilliant attorney named Jonathan Rollins. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t hurt that Blair Underwood was and still is drop dead gorgeous, but I remember being enthralled by this strong, self-assured, educated black man. I had never seen anything like it on TV, not even on St. Elsewhere or comedies like The Cosby Show and A Different World. My parents are both college educated. I grew up in the suburbs so I understood that black professionals existed, but actually seeing a skilled and respected professional black man at work on TV (not just on the basketball court or the football field) it was life changing.
Today when I see Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, Nicole Beharie and other strong, intelligent complex black women on TV, it still means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to young people too. But, I have to ask, where are the good black men on TV today? I don’t need them to be saints, and we all know that the black women on TV have their flaws (which is a good thing) but would it kill us to see a black man who is not a by-the-numbers detective or criminal. A criminal in a suit is still a criminal. When the best roles for black men on network TV are still drug dealers, I have to wonder if in some ways we’ve taken two steps forward and two steps back. Don’t get me wrong, I love Empire, but I wish there were more roles for black men than just drug dealers or cops. Look at the dramas you watch, and count the number of black men who are neither criminals nor cops. I don’t think TV characters need to be role models, but I think diversity is important. Images matter because we can be truly inspired by what we see, and we can be muted by the stereotypes that limit the way we are perceived.