Black shows have existed on TV for decades, with the Civil Rights Movement being the catalyst that helped break barriers for Black people in the television industry. The 1950s introduced shows like Beulah, notable for being the first sitcom to star a Black person, and Andy ‘n’ Amos. While both shows were controversial for their caricatures of African Americans, they also opened the door for more nuanced portrayals of Black American life.
As television evolved with the world around it, Black shows transformed from depicting Blacks in service roles to shining a light on what the Black community and culture are actually like. Scores of shows from the late 60s through to the 2000s have depicted college-educated, Black members of America’s upper class, who work as lawyers, business owners and more. Such series have paved the way for the recent surge of Black shows receiving reboots or resurfacing on streaming services as new content about the Black experience forges new territory. The impact of such shows will continue to resonate with generations to come.
Best Black TV shows
A Different World
A Different World was a spinoff of The Cosby Show that enjoyed its own massive impact on Black audiences with its honest portrayal of college life. Set at fictional Hillman College, a historically Black university, the show was ahead of its time as Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) and her peers tackled racial bias, colorism, domestic violence, AIDS, romance and friendship, among other relatable topics. After Bonet exited the series (and her character, Denise dropped out of Hillman), the series shifted its focus to southern belle Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) and the man who made flip shades popular, Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison). A Different World depicted everything from Black fraternities and sororities to the realities of having to work to put yourself through college, and it went inside the classroom for real conversations, as executive producer Debbie Allen drew on her own experiences at Howard University to help shape Hillman. With a theme song sung by Aretha Franklin and appearances by Patti Labelle as Dwayne Wayne’s mother and Diahann Carroll as Whitley’s mom—plus other celeb sightings including Lena Horne, Richard Roundtree, Gladys Knight, Heavy D., Whoopi Goldberg, Jenifer Lewis, En Vogue, Halle Berry and Tupac Shakur—the show had star power to boot. Most importantly, A Different World portrayed college as an attainable and aspirational option for many minority students.
Comedian and actor Martin Lawrence played Martin Payne, a rambunctious radio personality in Detroit with a selfish and free-spirited nature, in this long-running sitcom that mainly focus on his relationship with Gina Waters (Tisha Campbell) and the push-and-pull of their relationship. Martin could unleash his incessant smart mouth on anyone who got in his way, including his inner circle, ilke Gina’s BFF Pam (Tichina Arnold) or his best buds, Cole (Carl Payne II) and Tommy (Thomas Mikal Ford). Martin also introduced a group of side characters played by Lawrence who regularly stole the show, like his over-the-top neighbor Sheneneh, Martin’s mustachioed mother, Mama Payne, Jerome, Dragonfly Jones, Bob from Marketing, Roscoe and Otis.
Ava DuVernay’s hit OWN drama Queen Sugar, is set in Louisiana and centered around the Bordelon siblings: Nova (Rutina Wesley), a journalist and activist; Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), the savvy business woman and ex-wife of a professional basketball star; and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a formerly incarcerated young father in search of redemption and acceptance. The themes in the series tackle culture, class, gender, racial profiling, drug abuse, inequities in the criminal justice system and the Black family structure. It’s also a series that amplifies female directors; every single episode has been directed by a woman, challenging Hollywood’s notion that they can’t find women to sit in the director’s chair. The drama is based on the novelQueen Sugar by Natalie Baszile.
Living Single was a love letter to Black female friendship and a singularly great sitcom regardless of the color of its characters’ skin. It centered around four Black professionals and their highs and low of their lives in Brooklyn: Khadijah James (Queen Latifah) who ran the monthly magazine Flavor, lived with her cousin Synclaire (Kim Coles) and her bougie friend Regine (Kim Fields); the fourth member of their group, Maxine (Erika Alexander), was a brassy lawyer who lived nearby but never seemed to have any food at her own home. Two male counterparts rounded out the cast, handyman Overton (JohnHenton) and stockbroker-slash-ladies man, Kyle Barker (Terrence T.C. Carson).
This sitcom focused on three teens living in the Watts area of Los Angeles. The characters included tall, lanky Raj (Ernest Thomas), shy and always smiling Dwayne (Haywood Nelson) and the dancer Rerun (Fred Berry). Raj was a student with big dreams of becoming a writer, while Rerun (despite his weight) was light on his feet and had dreams of becoming rich and famous; his signature, “Hey, hey, hey!” when entering a room was infectious and his bad decisions were relatable. The trio hung out at Rob’s Place, a local diner, where Shirley (Shirley Hemphill), the waitress, would serve up orders with a side of wisecrack. The show had a recognizable theme song and drew guests like the Doobie Brothers and the dance group The Lockers.
By the time Soul Train went off the air in 2006, it was the longest-running syndicated show in TV history and one of the most influential on the culture. Born in the 70s, this infectious dance show was the brainchild of the late Don Cornelius, featuring performers from the worlds of R&B, soul, disco, gospel and hip hop. Cornelius started his career as a beat cop turned DJ who wanted to create a show that would rival AmericanBandstand and have Black teens dancing to the latest hits by Black artists. It did just that, serving as a launch pad for stars like Jody Watley, Jeffrey Daniel, Rosie Perez, Louie “Ski” Carr and many more—not to mention, it gave birth to the infamous Soul Train Line. The show’s legacy and impact is still “The Hippest Trip in America.”
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
It’s been 30 years since a kid from West Philly ended up at a mansion in Bel Air. The theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air tells the journey of Will (Will Smith) and how his mom sent him to California to live with their rich family members after getting into some neighborhood beef. From that moment on, Will had to adjust to living under the watchful eye of Uncle Phil (James Avery), Aunt Viv (Janet Hubert, then Daphne Maxwell Reid), preppy cousin Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), spoiled cousin Hillary (Karyn Parsons), younger impressionable cousin Ashley (Tatyana Ali) and even Geoffrey, the butler (Joseph Marcell). One of the most memorable moments on the show was when Will’s biological father showed up and tried to develop a relationship with him, but Uncle Phil was there to pick up the pieces when Will got hurt again. The hug the two shared as Will broke down in tears was a heart-tugging moment that nobody who saw ever forgot. Fresh Prince was also hilarious, but more importantly, it depicted an upper-class Black family that was still in touch with the realities of the culture in America. The impressive list of guest stars on the show included Tyra Banks, Robin Givens, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, Riddick Bowe and more. A new dramatic reboot of the show is on the way.
This groundbreaking series starred Diahann Carrollas Julia Baker, a widowed single mother working as a nurse. After her husband was killed fighting in Vietnam, Baker was left to raise her young son, Corey, on her own. The show, which ran for three seasons on NBC< was notable for being the first weekly series to star an African American woman in a non-stereotypical role.
The Arsenio Hall Show
Comedian Arsenio Hall was the king of late-night television from 1989 to 1994. With his high-top fade, funk house band (the Posse) and his signature swagger, Hall changed the cultural flavor of talk shows forever. The Arsenio Hall Show distinguished itself by targeting audiences that had been largely ignored by other late-night talk shows, offering a platform for Black celebrities and audiences alike. (His target audience was what he referred to as the MTV generation.) He introduced hip hop to middle America with guests like Public Enemy, Tupac and Biggie. The show featured appearances and surprise visits from then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who performed two songs on the saxophone, and the biggest stars of them all: Michael Jackson and Prince. From the audience’s chant of “Woof! Woof! Woof!” while pumping their fists in a circular motion to casual conversations with Madonna, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford and Warren Beatty, The Arsenio Hall Show was a cultural game-changer that was the perfect compliment to Cornelius’ Soul Train.
The hit HBO series was created by Issa Rae, and began as a web series called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Rae starred as Issa Dee. and the show followed her and her friends as they struggled to navigate the tricky professional and personal terrain of Los Angeles. Insecure also made a point of shining a light on toxic relationships both with significant others and best friends.
Related: Yvonne Orji Talks Insecure
Black-ish premiered in 2014 and introduced a new Black family to television, one with a dynamic that hadn’t been seen since the 80s. The Johnsons were upper middle class and weren’t struggling to survive. Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) is an advertising executive with a sneakers fetish and is grappling with the fact that his five spoiled kids are growing up in a world he doesn’t understand. His wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), is a doctor who wants the kids to be able to express themselves and be free. Throw in some old-school advice from grandparents Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) and Pops (Laurence Fishburne) and you have a family trying to find a stable cultural identity. The show also has themes of several personal and sociopolitical issues, including Black people working in white environments, dealing with postpartum depression, and taking a gap year from college.
The Bernie Mac Show
From Bernie Mac’s standup in The Original Kings of Comedy to television, Mac joked about taking in his sister’s kids after she entered rehab. The show featured Mac and his wife Wanda (Kellita Smith) adjusting to parenthood and raising his sister’s three kids: Jordan, Vanessa and Bryana. The weekly sitcom’s signature was breaking down the fourth wall where Bernie would talk to “America” about what he was really thinking during certain moments of the show.
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A spinoff of the show Maude, this 1970s sitcom zeroed right in on the realities of Black family life in a Chicago housing project. As the title implies, it also showcased the good times that the Evans family experienced. The main characters included James (John Amos) and Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) and their three children, James Jr. or “J.J.,” Thelma, and socially conscious Michael. The family’s neighbor and Florida’s best friend, Willona, later adopted an abuse victim, Penny, played by Janet Jackson. Like the theme song says, the Evans family showed how “keeping your head above water; making a way when you can,” is the only way to survive. J.J.’s “Dy-no-mite!” catchphrase popularity became the catalyst that caused friction as the show’s direction focused more on his comedic antics instead of serious issues. Netflix hasordered ananimated reboot of this classic Norman Lear show.
My Brother and Me
As the boom of Black television shows in the 90s focused on young adults and adults, one show catered to adolescents, My Brother and Me. In 1994, it was among the first live action series to air on Nickelodeon and the first to feature a predominantly Black cast. Created by Ilunga Adell and Calvin Brown Jr., the show centered around brothers Alfie (Arthur Reggie III) and Dee-Dee Parker (Ralph Woolfolk IV), who experience the pains of growing up as young men and being drawn to the allure of street culture. Additional cast members included Alfie and Dee-Dee’s older sister Melanie Parker (Aisling Sistrunk) and Alfie’s best friend Milton “Goo” Berry (Jimmy Lee Newman, Jr.). The brothers enjoyed a stable living environment in a middle class family in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they could thrive academically while being kids and not have to worry about where their next meal would come from. Race was never a prevalent topic on the show, but their love of sports made them relatable.
Spanning 11 seasons, it’s one of the longest-running sitcoms on American television with a primarily African American cast. The Jeffersons represented the American Dream. A spinoff of All in the Family, The Jeffersons consisted of George (Sherman Hemsley) and Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), who are able to move on up in the world due to the success of George’s dry cleaning chain. Along with their son Lionel, they moved from Queens to a deluxe apartment in the sky—a luxury high-rise in Manhattan. Florence (Marla Gibbs), their housekeeper, provided even more comic relief trading insults with George. This was one of the first shows to prominently feature a married interracial couple: Tom and Helen Willis and their biracial children. The show tackled topics like racism, alcoholism, adult literacy and economic status.
Everybody Hates Chris
Comedian Chris Rock brought his childhood in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to television with this series. Set during the 1980s, Everybody Hates Chris chronicled Rock’s painful and often awkward fight for respect, a battle that was rooted in his own home. On the show, he’s always in the shadow of his little brother Drew, his parents are tough on him, his little sister even gives him a hard time. He’s bullied in his neighborhood and at school. The show’s ability to tackle race and class in America through comedy earned the show multiple Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, and claimed several NAACP Image Awards.
The Proud Family
The Proud Family was Disney Channel’s first original animated series about the life of a young Black girl, 14-year-old Penny Proud. The cartoon’s theme song even tapped into pop culture with vocals by Solange and Destiny’s Child. The show is about Penny’s relationship with her family, her parents Oscar and Trudy, her siblings and her hardcore grandma Suga Mama, and her desire to make them happy. Yet she often gives in to peer pressure. Episodes touched on her archenemy LaCienega and the ups and downs of teenage friendships and angst. A revival of the cartoon is expected to air on Disney+ this year.
The Oprah Winfrey Show
We have this show to thank for introducing us to Oprah Winfrey. One of the longest-running daytime talk shows in history, The Oprah Winfrey Show ran for 25 seasons and was nominated for 47 Daytime Emmy Awards. The show was known for its memorable celebrity guests (Tom Cruise jumping on a couch), informative segments (she introduced us to Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz), but most importantly addressing difficult and sensitive subjects on a massive platform. On November 10, 1986, during a show about sexual abuse, Winfrey revealed that she was raped by a relative when she was nine years old. Since that episode, Winfrey used the show as a platform to help catch child predators, raise awareness and give victims a voice. She didn’t shy away from conversations about race either; just six months after it premiered, she visited a town in which no Black person had ever lived on the show. And she most certainly didn’t stop there. The issues she addressed on the show often penetrated into the American pop-cultural consciousness.
Tia and Tamera Mowry‘s beloved ’90s sitcom followed a similar plot as the classic film The Parent Trap. It’s abouttwin sisters, Tia Landry and Tamera Campbell, who were separated at birth, one adopted by a single mother, the other by a single father. They reunite as teenagers and move in with their parents to live under the same roof. The sisters are very different and nothing like their adoptive parents, Ray (Tim Reid) and Lisa (Jackee Harry). They eventually become one big happy family as the show moves from the girls being in middle school to eventually college.
Sanford & Son
Set in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts, the U.S. version of the British show Steptoe and Son, Sanford and Son was NBC’s answer to All in the Family. Played by legendary comedian Redd Foxx, Fred Sanford was known for his bigotry and being ornery and full of quick-witted insults that were mostly directed at his grown up son, Lamont (Demond Wilson). The duo ran a junkyard but often found themselves in quick money making schemes to pay off debts. Lamont was always torn between staying or moving out, and needing to keep Fred out of trouble. One consistent theme throughout the show is the loyalty and bond between father and son, and that alone deserves a glass of ripple or better yet, “champipple.”
In Living Color
This sketch comedy television series was created by Keenan Ivory Wayans with an all Black cast. Eventually two white cast members were added to the show. He opened the door to other members of his family giving them regular roles such as Damon, Kim, Shawn and Marlon Wayans. The show faced some controversy due to its raw and uncut perspective and strong emphasis on Black subject matter and race relations. The show featured several now famous faces like Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson and T’Keyah Crystal Keymah. The show’s Fly Girls dance troupe featured Jennifer Lopez and Carrie Ann Inaba, with actress and former Soul Train dancer Rosie Perez as the choreographer.
Set in Baltimore, the show followed the lives of Roc played by Charles S. Dutton, his wife Eleanor and his younger brother Joey. The show set a precedent by being the first scripted American television show since the 1950s to broadcast an entire season live. Roc’s narratives offered a hard look at drugs and violence in urban areas, but also offered a positive look at a Black family making an honest living.
Being Mary Jane
Being Mary Jane was created by Mara Brock Akil. The show is about broadcast journalist Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union), who is juggling being a successful network news anchor and a complicated personal life. Akil told ETOnline that the reason the show resonated so much with viewers was because it was exploring a truth that everyone, especially women, could relate to. “I was watching women and observing myself. I’m realizing one of my core themes in that particular series was that women are liars. It’s a layered piece, and if you look at the women, they were trying to break out of that and wanting to be honest about what they were saying and what they were doing. It wasn’t the same stuff that was being said to them in the medium. People respond to honesty and truth. Whether or not they like it, they will recognize it.”
Showtime at the Apollo
This syndicated classic was first broadcast in 1987 and produced by the historic Apollo Theater. It featured live performances from up-and-coming artists, professional artists and comedians. The Amateur Night competition gave budding talent or, not so talented, a chance to showcase their skills in front of a live audience. Who can forget Sandman sweeping folks off the stage when they got booed?
Set in California, Girlfriends was centered around Joan Clayton, the attorney with man troubles played by Tracee Ellis Ross; Toni Garrett (Jill Marie Jones) the diva; quick-witted and sassy Maya Wilkes (Golden Brooks); and Lynn Searcy, (Persia White) the free spirit. The show isn’t complete without their awkwardly square friend William. Over the show’s eight seasons, it explored how Black women experience love, heartache, sexuality, parenthood and interracial relationships. It was a spot-on look at the struggles of being Black women in America and celebrating the art of true friendship.
The nuanced, layered series that’s often hailed as one of the greatest TV series ever made takes a dive into the streets of Baltimore and its relationship to law enforcement, from its drug dealers to the seaport system, city government, schools and even the war with the print news medium. The cast was diverse, but it gave career breaks to some of today’s biggest stars including Michael B. Jordan and Idris Elba. Actor Michael Kenneth Williams played one of the most memorable characters on the show, Omar Little, the notoriously scary gangster who frequently robbed drug dealers. Even former President Barack Obama called him “the toughest baddest guy on the show” with his complex, calculated yet caring personality. He was openly gay which also challenged the ideal of what a “gangster” would look like. So if you hear, “Omar coming, yo!”–that’s your cue to run!
Based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, the thriller drama follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he embarks on a road trip with his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) across the country in the 1950s. The trio’s search for Freeman’s father (Michael Kenneth Williams) ends up being a struggle of survival from the racist terrors of the Jim Crow era and monsters that will keep you covering your eyes.
The animated series focused on the Freemans; Granddad (the late John Witherspoon), and two brothers Huey and Riley (both voiced by Oscar winner Regina King) as they lived in a predominantly white neighborhood. The Aaron McGruder series was adapted from his comic strip of the same name and tackled everything from cultures, lifestyles, stereotypes in hip hop, race, classism, R. Kelly, politics and more in this satirical show that challenged the way people thought and behaved.
Next, check out the 42 best British TV shows on streaming.
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