New TV Shows Reduce "Black Excellence" to MaterialismRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, television
Tanisha C. Ford is a professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl's Love Letter to the Power of Fashion and Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul.
A pair of massive double doors swing open, and a teenage Will Smith (played by Jabari Banks) walks into his aunt and uncle’s palatial Bel-Air home, where a big-dollar cocktail-party fundraiser is taking place. The soulful hip-hop song “A Lot,” by 21 Savage, soundtracks the scene. “How much money you got? (A lot),” the lyrics recite, seemingly narrating Will’s awe as he clocks the material evidence of the Banks-family fortune. “Yo! I got some rich-ass relatives,” he says. This scene is from the first episode of Peacock’s Bel-Air, one of the most anticipated Black television shows of this year and a dramatic reboot of the ’90s sitcom staple The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Later in that same episode, the Banks children, Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley, are groaning about the family photo they know is inevitable. Then, Carlton asks his sisters, “What could go wrong with a photo op with us in it? I mean look at us, pure, unadulterated Black excellence.” To which Hilary responds: “Period.” The siblings understand that in order to represent their family—one of the few Black families in their ultra-affluent community—in the manner that their parents and school administrators expect, they must be exceptional in appearance and behavior, a reality that they both embrace and detest. Dramatic tension builds over the season as their outsider cousin, Will, struggles to find his place in their world.
Bel-Air is part of a cohort of recent shows that explore Black prosperity. Fox’s Our Kind of People, a Martha’s Vineyard–set prime-time melodrama, delivers the dueling-families spectacle of 1980s fan favorites such as Dynasty. And OWN’s soapy The Kings of Napa centers on a family that owns and operates a successful vineyard in California’s vaunted Napa Valley. These three shows differ in plot, tone, and production value, yet they’re all fluent in the language of “Black excellence,” or the long-held belief among African Americans that they must work twice as hard for half as much as white people receive. The term first comes up in Our Kind of People during a heated exchange between the rivals Leah (Nadine Ellis) and Angela (Yaya DaCosta); Leah accuses Angela of being a social climber who can’t compare to the island’s elite, of which Leah is a part. Describing her circle, Leah says, “We don’t just have a summer fling with Black excellence. We are Black excellence.” In The Kings of Napa, the matriarch, Vanessa King (Karen LeBlanc), tells her family members about her and her late husband’s original vision for their business. “We said that people were going to see Black excellence in motion: wine, style, cuisine, all of it.”
These shows are obsessed with cash and glamour, reminding viewers in nearly every scene that African Americans, too, have generational wealth and sophisticated taste. For some Black viewers—the presumed core audience for these series—the glitzy theatrics provide welcome escapism from a world rife with anti-Black violence. But these shows also feel out of step with the cultural zeitgeist and with an audience that has been showing signs of Black-excellence fatigue for some time. Since 2020, aversion has grown in particular toward the ideology that links exorbitant wealth and conspicuous consumption to social progress for African Americans. This thought pattern mandates that African Americans work twice as hard to get … things: mansions, designer clothes, private jets to private islands. Many Black capitalists have long argued that buying power and entrepreneurship are the path to racial and economic justice. But the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its concomitant economic effects for Black communities, as well as the nationwide protests after the police killing of George Floyd, led to public disavowals of “excellence” and free enterprise reaching a fever pitch.
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