In Harlem, under the weight of a deep history, courses a destiny of magnetic laughter and the pulses of proud people, both built by Black women. The historic neighborhood and its inhabitants have always been under threat, whether it’s the extralegal justice system, dirty policing, or racism. Now its gravest hazard, afflicting other predominantly African-American neighborhoods, stretching from the South Side of Chicago to South Los Angeles, is gentrification. No one has borne the brunt of these systematic hurdles more than the recipients of misogynoir: Black women.
“Harlem,” the vibrant, colorful Amazon series created by Tracy Oliver (“Girls Trip”), follows four tight-knit Black women as they soul search through dating, work-life balancing, and an omnipresent prejudice felt in the historic, but drastically changing New York City neighborhood. With a nimble flair, Oliver’s series combines elements of “Girlfriends,” “Sex and the City,” and “Living Single” — and features sharp, fun interplay between its four formidable leads.
Ostensibly an ensemble piece, the 10 half-hour episodes center on Camille (Meagan Good). A popular adjunct professor at Columbia University (her classes are always waitlisted), Camille is on a tenure track, vying for the institution’s open Associates Professor position. The position seems like a sure bet, a goal she made deep sacrifices for when four years ago she broke-up with her charming longtime boyfriend, Ian (Tyler Lepley). In her day-to-day, Camille often finds support from her three talented friends: the fashion designer Quinn (Grace Byers), a down-on-her-luck singer Angie (Shoniqua Shandai), and a lesbian tech mogul Tye (Jerrie Johnson), who’s created an app for queer Black singles, often the most at-risk group, to find safe dates and dating experiences in the city.
Sarah Shatz / Amazon Prime Video
Every episode’s theme, to varying results, is set by one of Camille’s lectures. The pilot, for instance, is framed around the Mosuo Tribe, a Himalayan culture of “unbreakable sisters” wherein women are the controllers of their own romantic relationships. Though the theme is a tad too on the nose, it does perfectly set the stage for the many obstacles that will afflict these characters. For Camille, it’s Ian returning from Europe with his fiancee, Mira (Rana Roy), to open a white-owned restaurant in the gentrifying Harlem.
As Camille, Good balances these soul-tearing impediments with aplomb. Deep introspection has always swum behind the actress’ eyes, such as in “Stomp the Yard,” and it’s refreshing to see a series finally use her talents to great advantages — especially, for example, with regard to her character’s in-series relationship with Jameson Royce (Sullivan Jones). Though the brilliant and warm Jameson is a dream partner, Camille is torn between beginning a life with him or rekindling her romance with Ian.
Self-doubt is equally on Camille’s mind, stemming in part from the suspension of her main supporter for tenorship, her mentor Dr. Robin Goodman (Andrea Martin), due to her accidentally using TERF rhetoric (a scene the show badly fumbles, making trans women the brunt of an ill-advised joke). Camille’s hero, the hard-nosed, old school Dr. Elise Pruitt (Whoopi Goldberg) takes over the department and is not nearly as impressed with Camille as she expects. Goldberg and Good aren’t given nearly enough scenes together, but “Harlem” incisively explores the weight Black excellence still inflicts on even the most successful Black women. The series also interrogates the hidden politics within academia and parses the ways Black folks have been taught to put self-care on the backburner in lieu of professional obligations. (Camille, for example, perpetually misses her appointments with her therapist.)
These themes find real homes in the series’ other, equally important characters. Though Quinn owns her own business, living in a lavish apartment, she receives considerable financial support from her judgmental mother (Jasmine Guy). Her fashion line is perpetually operating in the red. And she can also never seem to find the right guy. The series makes her romantic bad luck a great running gag. Of the friends, however, she is also the most one-note. That’s partly because her companions rarely listen to her. But with her mother being from Barbados, the first-generation American expectations heaped onto the already crushing weight of Black excellence rarely moves past a surface level.
Sarah Shatz / Amazon Prime Video
Her roommate Angie, the funniest of the group, equally experiences bad interactions with men. Not just in a romantic sense, but a professional one, too. Nowhere is that better felt than when she auditions for “Get Out” the musical. These sequences feature laugh out loud musical performances — some of the best shot in a year of movie musicals — wherein a song entitled “The Sunken Place” is both shockingly surreal yet also a hilarious bop. Moreover the music sections are wonderfully shot: full compositions edited with fluidity. But it’s the way the play’s director and one of Angie’s lovers fall for the white fragility used by white women that best interrogates the ways Black men, as much as anyone else, often fail to support Black women. In these moments, Shandai is priceless but heartbreaking, and a true standout.
Not to be forgotten is Tye. Despite the series’ early bungling, “Harlem” takes great strides to elucidate the struggles faced by queer Black women. Episode 7 sees Tye dealing with a real medical emergency only for doctors to misdiagnose her pain. Black women are often systematically dismissed by medical professionals, leading to worse health outcomes. It’s a topic the series explores with great sensitivity and Johnson teases out to poignant degrees. But when Tye enters an interracial relationship with a white women, the character finds her most complicated grounds. How can a Black queer woman who’s created an app specifically for Black queer folks to find others like them, then date a white woman? Does it make her a poser, or worse? It’s another tough, still hot-button subject the series thinks through with grace.
“Harlem” is bursting with other themes — the depleting Black landscape of Harlem, sexual awakenings, hair care, and the ways Black creatives are often forced to sacrifice their scruples for a chance at success — but leaves enough juicy meat on the bone for a possible second. It accomplishes all of these challenges while putting on a display of lavish costumes, detailed, colorful production designs — relying on teals, pastel pinks, and yellows — and allowing the luminousness of Black skin to be captured. Despite some early slip-ups, Oliver’s “Harlem” resonates with fun, heart, verve, and the feeling of togetherness, inherent in both the neighborhood and the Black women it supports.
“Harlem” premieres Friday, December 3 on Amazon Prime Video. All Season 1 episodes are available now.