On TV, the Black South is finally getting it

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

But there was rarely an all-black show in the South. And they rarely portrayed the struggles outside of middle-class existence.

A look at the latest TV offerings, however, reveals something new. Starz’s “P-Valley,” HBO Max’s “Rap Sh!t,” FX’s “Atlanta” and OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” both of which began their final seasons this month, are among the top-grossing shows on television. .

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

Southern stories are not new

Southern storytelling, however, is nothing new. In a way, television is following the lead of other cultural spaces, said Aisha Durham, a communications professor who studies Black popular culture at the University of South Florida.

In music and film, the South has been portrayed with nuance and intentionality for decades, Durham said, citing films like “Eve’s Bayou” and, more recently, “Moonlight,” both set in the South, Louisiana and Miami, respectively. crucial role

At the same time, new genres of sound and music have emerged from the South, he explained as a trap. And artists like Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion have incorporated Southern Black aesthetics 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 almost television, especially when it comes to dramatic series, comes a little late.”

The South has also been on the mind in other areas of our culture, often garnering national attention — as seen in this year’s vote in Georgia.

For a long time, many people thought about the story of the South 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, he said. And now, many are looking at the region and thinking about the other stories that can still be told.

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

The current round reflects the changing entertainment industry

If there has been a change, it has been business, argued Tracey Salisbury, professor of ethnic studies at California State University, Bakersfield.

It’s not that perceptions of the South are changing, or that they’ve changed, but that industry has shifted places, Salisbury said, and Atlanta has become more of a major entertainment hub than New York or Los Angeles.

Tyler Perry, whose work is polarizing to some, has his production studio based in Atlanta, and has long located his films and shows in the South. It also has a partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Network, which produces “Queen Sugar.”
Nicco Annan, left, plays Uncle Clifford, the transsexual owner of the strip club, "P-Valley"

There are also more black creators with a voice on television, Salisbury said, which allows for new and interesting stories to be told.

“These stories have been present and these stories have been pitched before, now I think there’s a significant talent base and a significant audience … to push Hollywood to support these stories,” he said.

However, Salisbury hesitates to call the increase a trend. Quinta Brunson, creator of ABC’s hit show “Abbott Elementary,” pointed to an elementary school in Philadelphia as an example. Before “Abbott Elementary,” Brunson created comedy sketches on Instagram, eventually making his way to BuzzFeed and YouTube, before eventually landing a spot on a network show. He then knocked it out of the park, winning an Emmy for writing earlier this week.
It was founded by Quinta Brunson "Abbott Elementary"  A show about a low-income school in Philadelphia.

“I think that’s what Black creatives still need 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, was considered “America’s Dad,” not the father of Black America. .

The difference in these new shows lies in the intention: They are made by Black people, for Black people. Uncle Clifford, who owns the strip club in “P-Valley,” is not America’s uncle, Salisbury says, but his grandmother reminds him of his.

These series finally show the richness of the South

While in the past most Black shows were held outside of the South, these new shows become something of a homecoming, a return to where it all began, Salisbury said.

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

Salisbury used “P-Valley” as an example, which takes place in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi. From the show’s fashion aesthetic and marijuana-infused wings MemphisSsippi specific accentsthe show is deeply rooted in the South, and even takes some hits from Southern Black religious traditions, Salisbury said.

But it is done with respect, he said. That’s why it works.

J. Alphonse Nicholson, center, plays Lil Murda "P-Valley,"  Set in the legendary town of Chucalissa, Mississippi.

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

New York and Los Angeles are often presented on television as cosmopolitan and diverse spaces. The South, however, is often seen as stuck in the past, Durham said, a familiar space that lacks the diversity of other regions.

These shows reject those ideas.

Durham used “Rap Sh!t” as an example. (HBO Max, which airs the show, and CNN share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.) The show’s characters live in and around Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, he said, to discuss Caribbean and Haitian and African culture. Americans as an ethnicity along with other ethnic blacks in the South.

“There are whole ways we need to reimagine Blackness in the South,” Durham said.

Then there is the question of class. In the days before television, the presumed class was always middle. This new crop of shows showcases something different, Durham said, highlighting economically weaker people trying to make it in the world.

Brian Tyree Henry plays Paper Boi "Atlanta"

These characters are portrayed with depth and honesty: the strippers in “P-Valley,” for example, aren’t just aesthetic bodies in a trap music video. Paper Boi from “Atlanta” and Shawna from “Rap Sh!t” aren’t just rappers playing in the background. The audience is invited inside.

“We’re actually invited to look at the experiences of the people who produce the culture,” Durham said. “We love the culture but do we know these women and men? These shows give us a way to see it.”

These shows therefore challenge existing perceptions of the South, allowing for the creation of a layered and complex narrative of the region, Durham said.

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