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Jimmie Walker: “You’ll Never See a Poor, Black Family on TV Again”

Jimmie Walker: "You'll Never See a Poor, Black Family on TV Again"

It’s not as controversial as his 2013 “Your constant complaining discourages studios from taking risks on black stories” comment (which, as I recall, fired up a lot of folks on this site, as well as across social media), but Jimmie Walker of “Good Times” fame, appeared on CNN over the weekend, and, as you’d expect, he had a few other things to say – specifically, this time around, he said that TV shows featuring black families today, have to be upper or middle class, because the “black community” won’t accept any other depictions of black families in this country; certainly not the working class family he was a part of in “Good Times.”

‘You’ll never see a poor, black family on TV again,” he said to host Ashleigh Banfield, arguing that the backlash shows like “Good Times” faced from the so-called “black community” when it was on, all-but assured that. He also added that TV shows (comedies notably) today are even more segregated than they were when he was a prominent primetime TV fixture, and because of that segregation, there is even less of an opportunity for comedians to crossover, and enjoy mainstream success, as opposed to decades ago, when, as he suggests, there weren’t any “black shows” or “white shows,” or “black comedians” and “white comedians,” and, essentially, if you were funny, or if the show was funny, your/its success was universal.

Is he right in saying that we’ll never see a poor, black family on TV again, because the “black community” will reject it? Is there any “classist conditioning” on our part at work here? Is this one of those reductive “negative” versus “positive” depictions of black people on screen arguments? As in, poor and working class being perceived as “negative,” and middle, upper, elite class (essentially, maybe what many aspire to be) interpreted as “positive.”  

I think of all the black TV shows on the air currently – specifically those that center around black families – and maybe the evidence does support his argument: “Black-ish,” “Empire,” Tyler Perry’s shows on OWN, as well as those that have been ordered for next season; and they all feature families that are at least middle class (not that there are even a lot of TV shows with black families at the center of them to begin with; so pickings are very slim).

Or maybe this shift is just a reflection of changing times; While, according to the United States Census, the poverty rate among African Americans was 27.2% as of 2013, the rise of the black middle class is something that has been happening since the 1960s, although it certainly hasn’t been a steady climb, thanks, in part, to multiple recessions since then, with blacks and other marginalized groups suffering the brunt of those recessions; and more of “us” have earned our way into the upper and elite classes than ever before.

What do you think about any or all of this?

I should mention that Sony Pictures and producer Scott Rudin are developing a film adaptation of “Good Times” with the creator of one of the new black family sitcoms Jimmie Walker mentions in his argument (“Black-Ish”), Kenya Barris, writing the script.

The story (as was initially revealed in 2013) will be set in the 1960s, although we know nothing more than that, as in what specific story the film will tell (likely about a black family to start with), what approach the studio and producers take, will it be a straight comedy, more of a drama, or a mixture of the two – a dramedy? Will all the characters from the TV series feature in the film? Will they be of the same socioeconomic class? And since it’ll be set in the 60s, I assume it will reflect the social and political climate of the time; there’s certainly plenty of relevant material to mine. Questions, questions, questions… 

You may also recall the trials and tribulations of Eric Monte, the man behind “Good Times,” who was also responsible for other notable 1970s black TV shows like “What’s Happening!!” which was based on his screenplay for “Cooley High.” He also created George and Louise Jefferson for “All in the Family” (of course they would go on to be at the center of their own show), came up with the idea for Sanford and Son, and, as one of the hottest young writers in Hollywood in the 1970s (who came from poverty, growing up in the Cabrini–Green projects in Chicago – an upbringing that influenced his later work), contributed heavily to socially-conscious sitcoms produced by Norman Lear, like those already mentioned, and others.

Monte had a falling out with Lear, suing him, along with CBS and ABC, in 1977 for stealing his ideas – a move that he says got him blacklisted. Eventually, he says, he received a $1 million settlement and a small percentage of the residuals from “Good Times,” but that signaled the beginning of the end, as Hollywood, he says, didn’t share his vision – in essence, he fought against script changes that he felt degraded blacks, and wanted more control over his work.

Years later, after just about losing it all, filing for bankruptcy in the early 2000s, he became a cocaine addict, and soon found himself homeless in California. Since cleaning himself up, he’s been trying to make a comeback of sorts, but aside from one episode of “Moesha” and an episode of “The Wayans Brothers,” he hasn’t worked in TV and film since his falling out with Norman Lear in the late 1970s.

Listen to the 8-minute NPR profile below from 2006, when Monte was homeless, and trying to re-establish himself. But first, watch Jimmie Walker on CNN:


And here’s the NPR piece with Eric Monte:

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