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Black writers who work for white showrunners have had to deal with "negotiated authenticity" when it comes to portraying Blackness

  • In The Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis explains the "unwritten rules of Blackness" that Black writers have had to face when navigating through the TV industry. "Felicia D. Henderson, a Black producer and screenwriter who worked on Family Matters from 1994 to 1996 before moving on to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Soul Food, and Empire, recalls the tension in the writers’ room when the episode was being workshopped," reports Giorgis. "Television shows are typically written by a staff that collaborates on scripts; trading ideas and criticism around a table is an integral and sometimes raucous part of the process. Yet there’s a hierarchy in the room: The senior writers hold sway and the showrunner is ultimately in charge. Family Matters was no different. Then a junior writer, and one of only a few Black staffers on a team of more than a dozen, Henderson was at first hesitant to weigh in when a white writer tossed out the possibility of Carl responding the way he did. But the line felt wrong to her, and she spoke up. 'I just said, "Well, no Black father would tell his Black son that,"' Henderson told me recently. “And the room got silent. I mean, you can hear a pin drop."' The white showrunner defended the line, and it went in. 'It was clear in the room and in the moment that I had offended them,' Henderson recalled. 'Like, "What, are you saying—we’re racist?" No, but I am saying that’s not realistic.' 'Good Cop, Bad Cop' ends with Carl confronting the officer and reconciling with Eddie. Viewers get the kind of safe conclusion that wraps up a 'very special episode': Eddie was right to be upset, because some police officers really are racists. Last year, a month after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, the Family Matters cast reunited on Zoom to look back at the story line from 25 years ago. 'When they wrote the episode, we didn’t realize it would be so revealing and telling today,' (Reginald) VelJohnson said. Revealing and telling, yes, but maybe not in the way he thought. For Henderson, working on Family Matters offered an introduction to a defining feature of her long career in Hollywood. Negotiated authenticity is the phrase she uses to describe what many Black screenwriters are tasked with producing—Blackness, sure, but only of a kind that is acceptable to white showrunners, studio executives, and viewers. The nature of the 'negotiation' that Black writers must conduct has shifted over the years. Half a century ago, just getting Black characters on TV was a hurdle, and Black screenwriters were few. Today, as more networks and streaming platforms advertise the Black shows they’ve lined up—you’d be forgiven for thinking that every month is Black History Month—it is tempting to believe that Black performers and writers now have a wealth of opportunities, including wide creative latitude for those who make it to the top. This era of 'peak TV,' in which the entertainment landscape is saturated with more high-quality series than ever before, has been a boon in some respects." But despite high-profile showrunners like Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris, "the power in the television industry still rests mostly in the hands of white executives," says Giorgis.

    TOPICS: Family Matters, Felicia D. Henderson, African Americans and TV