The rage currently aimed at police violence and systemic racism is centuries in the making. And in order to understand and meaningfully contribute to the movement, non-Black audiences have become increasingly interested in educating themselves on the racist and socioeconomic inequities that nurture the environment that allows these injustices to thrive. Black content creators, however, place more value in humanizing Black people over providing an education to those seeking one, as if to say that despite differences in skin color “we’re not all that different from each other.”
That is not to say that the below series don’t tackle the subject of race and identity; some do directly. There are real-life differences of habit and racial perspective. But most of them operate inside the conversation that emphasizes the universality of Black stories — humor, love, family, conflict, and every other kind of experience.
From Bernie Mac’s “The Bernie Mac Show,” to Ava DuVernay’s “Cherish the Day,” these are series that serve as a tonic for a society that has long been saturated with incomplete depictions of Black people, even as expectations evolve. Meanwhile, titles like “Random Acts of Flyness” and “Watchmen,” made in response to the status quo, unpack onscreen racist ideology that began with early 20th Century screen images of Black people. And while a sketch series might not seem suitable for this particular list, Dave Chappelle might have something to say about that.
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It’s certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are 10 TV series that offer social commentary relevant to the present day, in chronological order, and where you can find them, if available to stream:
“Roc” (Fox, 1991 — 1994)
“Roc” was one of the Fox’s lesser-known early 1990s Black TV series that just never quite caught on, which is unfortunate, because it was an absolute gem of a show. Set in Baltimore, the series followed the lives of the title character, Roc Emerson (played by Charles S. Dutton); a garbage collector, Ella Joyce, as his wife Eleanor; a nurse, Roc’s freeloading, trumpet playing younger brother Joey (Rocky Carroll), and Andrew “Pop” Emerson, Roc’s widowed father, a retired railroad porter (Carl Gordon). The series’ plotlines offered realistic explorations of violence in Black communities, police prejudice, the Black working class nihilistic view of the American justice system and electoral process, and more — but without losing sight of its ultimate goal: to commemorate the every lives of working class African Americans, who are just trying to live like everyone else.
“Roc” is not available on any major streaming platform. Episodes exist on YouTube.
“The Bernie Mac Show” (2001 — 2006)
Bernie Mac plays a fictionalized version of himself in “The Bernie Mac Show” — a successful, stand-up comedian married to Wanda (Kellita Smith), a successful corporate executive. The couple has taken custody of his drug-addicted sister’s three children, and to cope with his new family life, Bernie is often seen commiserating with his card-playing buddies, W.B. (Reginald Ballard), Chuy (Lombardo Boyar), and Kelly (Michael Ralph). His Blackness and maleness are key aspects of the series, and he routinely emphasizes African American culture. However, his Blackness is not central. He is a typical character who exhibits certain values and beliefs seen repeatedly in American dramatic television. His experiences are just like anyone else’s, and his Blackness has been so established to the point of being portrayed as a normal part of everyday life, and therefore, so too are his experiences — which is ultimately the show’s strength.
“The Bernie Mac Show” is currently streaming on Hulu.
“Chappelle’s Show” (Comedy Central, 2003 — 2006)
It’s Dave Chappelle in what is arguably the funniest sketch comedy show ever, and still relevant today. What more needs to be said? For the uninitiated, it featured stand-up, sketch comedy and musical performances, as Chappelle took on the most provocative facets of American culture with a no-holds-barred approach. Themes like race and identity were at the forefront of the series, and nothing was off limits. Notable sketches include: “Racial Draft” — a parody of modern-day pro-sports drafts using race and ethnicity as the main determinant — and “Frontline” — a spoof of the PBS series, which featured a sketch titled “Blind Supremacy,” featuring a blind white supremacist who is not aware that he is actually a Black man. It was, and still is edgy, but also smart and incredibly funny, with biting character sketches.
“Chappelle’s Show” is streaming on Comedy Central’s app and website (with a cable TV subscription).
“The Boondocks” (Adult Swim, 2005 — Present)
Based on the comic strip of the same name created by Aaron McGruder, the series took a satirical look at African American life through the eyes of a very self-aware 10-year-old named Huey Freeman, who lives with his brother Riley and grandfather, Robert. The first minute of the series’ premiere episode makes it very clear what audiences can expect: Huey dreams that he is the only Black person at a garden party full of white people. He approaches a microphone and makes the following announcement: “Jesus was Black, Ronald Reagan was the devil and the government is lying about 9/11.” He’s jolted back into reality by his grandfather, who tells him, “You better not even dream about telling white people the truth.” “The Boondocks” audaciously mines one of this country’s least-talked-about issues — race — setting up a world where politics and class are drivers of the narrative.
“The Boondocks” is currently streaming on HBO Max.
“Random Acts of Flyness” (HBO, 2018 — present)
Terence Nance definitely isn’t an artist who will ever be classified as an easy sell, and that’s a good thing. His debut feature, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” marked a deeply personal, candid, and whimsical exploration of time, memory, and loss. And his HBO late-night series, “Random Acts of Flyness,” is structured like a fantastical variety show centered on the varied experiences of people of African descent living in the United States. The subversive series deconstructs traditional ideas of the socio-political hypernym known as Blackness and is ultimately a celebration of the variety within. Built on thematically linked visual essays that run from a few seconds to several minutes in length, it’s unapologetically difficult to categorize and demanding. This isn’t the stuff of classic binge viewing; this is Nance’s vision, unfiltered.
HBO has made the entire season of “Random Acts of Flyness” available for free on its YouTube channel, for a limited time.
“Dear White People” (Netflix, 2017 — present)
Based on Justin Simien’s critically-acclaimed 2014 film “Dear White People,” the Netflix series dives headfirst into the complex and mandatory discussions about race in America today. Using caustic humor and candor, the series follows the lives of college radio host Samantha White (Logan Browning) and her friends as they contend with microaggressions and outright racism at Winchester College, a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League school. It’s a brilliant satire, and skewering of the now mythical “post-racial” America that many had bought into after the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008. The series also tells a universal story about finding one’s own identity and unique path in an increasingly diverse though divided landscape of inequity, political correctness (or lack thereof), and political activism in the 21st century.
“Dear White People” is streaming on Netflix.
“Time: The Kalief Browder Story” (Paramount, 2017)
The criminal justice system tragically failed 16-year-old Kalief Browder, a Black male teen who spent three years in Rikers Island, awaiting a trial that never happened after being arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack, which was never proven. He spent two of those years in brutal solitary confinement. The case was never prosecuted, the charges were ultimately dropped, and Browder committed suicide soon after his release. His story and the questions it raises about our basic understanding of the American criminal justice system, as well as civil liberties, are central to this six-part documentary series. It’s an exhaustive review of the case, using first-person accounts, archival footage, and filmed recreations of key scenes from Browder’s life. Exclusive interviews with a wide range of people connected to the story, from politicians to close friends and family members, to social reformers, are featured.
“Time: The Kalief Browder Story” is streaming on Netflix.
“Pose” (FX, 2018 — present)
Showrunner Ryan Murphy said that series planned to feature Donald Trump as a character, but that changed. Still Trump, who once said that he would ban trans people from serving in the military, looms large in FX’s late 1980s-set transgender drama series, which centers the lives of Black transgender characters. Additionally, the series spotlights the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground ball culture. Making television history, “Pose” features the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles, including Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross, who co-star alongside Billy Porter, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Angel Bismark Curiel, and Dyllón Burnside. The drama also features the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever for a scripted series.
“Pose” is streaming on Netflix.
“Home Videos” (HBO, 2019)
In this deeply felt, very personal series, Jerrod Carmichael conducts a series of conversations with the women in his life in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. During these intimate and at times uncomfortable heart-to-hearts, Carmichael insists on total honesty from his subjects. However, these are not so much inquisitions as much as they are specifically designed simply to provide the women the opportunity to tell their own stories, and share their own perspectives. A highlight is a very candid conversation between Carmichael and his mother about how she’s handled her husband’s infidelities. She seems to be in a peaceful place, but Carmichael wonders if she has allowed herself to truly live. Purposefully visually simple, the series is a fresh humanizing portrait of a Black family just trying to exist.
“Home Videos” is available to stream on HBO Max.
“Watchmen” (HBO, 2019)
The second-largest city in the state of Oklahoma as a setting for the series became viable after series creator Damon Lindelof read celebrated African American author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 Atlantic feature, “The Case for Reparations,” which couldn’t be more relevant during these period of racial unrest across America. In “Watchmen’s” alternate history setting, unlike real life, reparations have indeed been paid to the victims of slavery and their descendants, and resentment about this lingers among a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kalvary. Said Lindelof: “What is creating the most anxiety in America right now? For me the answer is undeniably race. Superheroes cannot defeat racism.” And with that, “Watchmen” becomes a cutting-edge treatise on our present-day upheaval, remixing the DC Comics graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
HBO has made all the episodes of “Watchmen” available to stream via its YouTube channel for a limited time.
“Cherish the Day” (OWN, 2020 — present)
Ava DuVernay’s limited series “When They See Us” is an obvious choice, but “Cherish the Day” deserves a look. It may not carry the same historical and political heft as the former, but there are so few TV series that realistically depict two adult people of African descent simply falling in love. It’s not some fanciful fairytale, but rather a true-to-life, intuitive and sympathetic observation of a relationship as it evolves over several years, with characters that are fully realized, complex creatures. These are two people in universally relatable situations that the audience is meant to instantly recognize; and we do. They might be African American, but they are all of us.
“Cherish the Day” is streaming for free on OWN’s YouTube channel for a limited time.