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‘Atlanta’, ‘P-Valley’ and other shows giving Black South its due

Of course, sometimes the family was made up of a group of friends, as seen in “Girlfriends”. And other times, the city was in the Midwest, as seen in “Family Matters” (Chicago) or “Martin” (Detroit).

But rarely did a mainstream show with black people take place in the South. And they rarely portrayed struggles outside of middle-class existence.

However, a look at recent TV deals points to something new. Starz’s “P-Valley,” HBO Max’s “Rap Sh!t,” FX’s “Atlanta,” and OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” the latter two of which began their final seasons this month, are some of the most TV cartoons. .

His characters are not doctors or lawyers: they are strippers, rappers, farmers or, simply, hustlers. And all the shows take place in the South.

Southern stories are not new

However, southern storytelling is not new. In some ways, television is simply following the lead of other spaces in culture, said Aisha Durham, a communication professor who studies black popular culture at the University of South Florida.

In music and film, the South has been portrayed with nuance and intentionality for decades, Durham said, referencing movies like “Eve’s Bayou” and, more recently, “Moonlight,” both films where the southern setting, Louisiana and Miami , respectively, play a crucial role.

At the same time, new sounds and musical genres have emerged from the South, he explained, as trap. And artists like Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion have incorporated the Southern Black aesthetic into their music and fashion videos.

“You have new bodies, new people, new experiences and I think it invites us to look at the South differently,” Durham said. “I would say that television is almost, especially in terms of drama series, a little late.”

The South has also been present in other areas of our culture, often receiving national attention, as seen in this year’s runoff in Georgia.

For a long time, many people thought of southern stories only in the context of the civil rights movement and segregation, Durham said. But the South is the foundation for all aspects of American popular culture, she said. And now, many look back on the region and think about the other stories that can still be told.

“Now we’re seeing some of the vibrancy and vibrancy that has always been a part of the South,” Durham said. “We knew that in the South, it’s just that everyone else is catching up.”

Current changes reflect the changing entertainment industry

If there has been a change, it has been business, argued Tracey Salisbury, a professor of ethnic studies at California State University, Bakersfield.

It’s not that perceptions of the South are changing or have changed, but that the industry has changed places, Salisbury said, turning Atlanta into a major entertainment hub rather than just New York or Los Angeles.

Tyler Perry, whose job is polarizing some, has established his production studio in Atlanta and has long set his films and shows in the South. He also has a partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Network, which produces “Queen Sugar.”

There are simply more black creatives having a voice on television, Salisbury said, allowing for new and interesting storytelling.

“These stories have been around and these stories have been released previously, I just think there’s now a significant talent base and a significant audience … to drive Hollywood to support these stories,” he said.

Still, Salisbury is hesitant to call a rebound trending. He pointed to Quinta Brunson, the creator of the hit ABC show “Abbott Elementary,” about an elementary school in Philadelphia, as an example. Before “Abbott Elementary,” Brunson created comedy sketches on Instagram, eventually moving to BuzzFeed and YouTube, until she finally got a break on a network show. Then, she knocked it out of the park, winning an Emmy for writing earlier this week.
Quinta Brunson created and stars in

“I think that’s still what black creatives have to do,” Salisbury said. “If you don’t knock it out of the park, you have to start over.”

In the past, African-American shows like “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” were made for mass consumption, Salisbury said. Bill Cosby, at the time, was considered “America’s dad,” not the daddy of America’s blacks. .

The difference with these new programs lies in the intention: they are made by black people, for black people. Uncle Clifford, the non-binary owner of the strip club in “P-Valley,” isn’t America’s uncle, Salisbury said, but his grandmother reminds her of her own.

These series finally show the wealth of the South

If most black shows in the past took place outside of the South, these new shows become a kind of homecoming — going back to the place where it all began, Salisbury said.

On other shows, these southern characters may have been used as a joke. In the ’90s “Fresh Prince,” for example, Uncle Phil’s childhood on a farm in the Carolinas looks like an almost primitive existence compared to life in Bel-Air. But in these shows, the South and its characters reject small-town stereotypes and embrace all aspects of the South.

Salisbury used “P-Valley”, which takes place in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi, as an example. From the show’s fashion aesthetic and its marijuana-infused wings to the very specific Memphis Ssippi accentsthe show is deeply rooted in the South, and even takes a few jabs at Southern black religious traditions, Salisbury said.

But it is done with respect, he noted. That’s why it works.

J. Alphonse Nicholson, center, plays Lil Murda in

“We’re not laughing at these people, we’re laughing with them,” he said.

New York City and Los Angeles are already often portrayed as diverse and cosmopolitan spaces on television. Yet the South is often seen as stuck in the past, Durham said, an already recognizable space that lacks the diversity of other regions.

These shows reject those notions.

Durham used “Rap Sh! T” as an example. (HBO Max, which airs the show, and CNN share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.) The show’s characters live in and around Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, he said, allowing for conversations about Caribbean and Haitian and African culture. Americans as an ethnic group along with other ethnic black people in the South.

“There are whole ways we have to re-imagine blackness in the South,” Durham said.

Then there is the matter of class. In earlier periods of television, the assumed class was always average. This new crop of shows shows something different, Durham said, highlighting the most economically vulnerable people who are simply trying to make it in the world.

Brian Tyree Henry plays Paper Boi in

These characters are portrayed with depth and sincerity; the strippers in “P-Valley,” for example, aren’t simply aesthetic bodies in a trap music video. Paper Boi from “Atlanta” and Shawna from “Rap Sh!t” aren’t just rappers doing the background soundtrack. Instead, audiences are invited inside.

“We’re actually invited to see what the experiences of the people are that produce the culture,” Durham said. “We love the culture, but do we know these women and men? These shows give us a way to see it.”

These shows, then, challenge existing perceptions of the South, allowing a complex, layered narrative of the region to form, Durham said.

As these shows point out: There are queer communities in the South. There is sex work; there is class struggle; there is diversity; there is joy. There are people, not just caricatures, who are just trying to survive.


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