Since the premiere of “The Cosby Show” in 1984 — two decades after the civil rights movement — there has been a seeming obsession with presenting “respectable” and “good” Black people on network TV to majority-white Americans. That obsession, of course, has deep roots: Black Americans are raised with the expectation that they must be twice as “good” and hard-working as their white counterparts not just to succeed but also to avoid being touched by racism and racist scrutiny.
The reality, though, was that portraying one’s respectability to white people is not, and never was, a shield from systemic oppression or personal racism.
But in the years since “The Cosby Show” went off the air — and its creator’s deep hypocrisy and misogyny were exposed — it served, for better and for worse, as a blueprint for most mainstream Black sitcoms. From “Family Matters” to “Black-ish,” the majority-Black shows that got greenlighted at the majority-white broadcast networks generally featured two-parent families, middle- or upper-middle-class households and a lot of whitewashing.
All of this history, then, possibly makes Netflix’s “The Upshaws” one of the more authentic portrayals of a modern Black experience ever made.
Set in Indianapolis, the series follows Bennie Upshaw (Mike Epps), a car mechanic who is married to his high school sweetheart, Regina (Kim Fields), and always at odds with his sister-in-law, Lucretia (Wanda Sykes). Bennie and Regina have three children together: their adult son, Bernard Jr. (Jermelle Simon), and two younger daughters, Aaliyah (Khali Spraggins) and Maya (Journey Christine).
Netflix allowed the show’s creators to speak directly to Black Americans without watering anything down to make the show or the characters more “palatable” for a wider audience.
However, they also aren’t the “typical” nuclear family, because Bennie has another son, Kelvin (Diamond Lyons) — who is the same age as his daughter Aaliyah — with a former fling, Tasha (Gabrielle Dennis).
In other words: forget your respectability politics.
“The Upshaws,” is, of course, not a stand-in for the entirety of the Black American experience, but, by incorporating the complexities of a blended family amid varied parental and marital relationships, it feels not only timely, but also incredibly genuine.
Beyond that, it’s also clear that Netflix allowed the show’s creators to speak directly to Black Americans without watering anything down to make the show or the characters more “palatable” for a wider audience. The Upshaws are — like the Conners in “Roseanne” — a working-class family with money woes and a fraught relationship between a parent and the eldest child. It’s also notable that, being on Netflix, Bennie and his friends use the N-word in good-natured conversations, without any censoring or underlying feelings of performative dialogue — as is common among men of their age, education and background.
The show also helps illustrate the issues Black women face in traditional two-parent families, who are nonetheless hampered by archaic parental and marital roles that no longer work for or serve them in the modern-day world. Bennie’s wife, Regina, is overworked, stressed out and increasingly fed up with having to do the bulk of the parenting and housework. After having put her dreams of obtaining an MBA on the back burner to be a caretaker for her children and support Bennie’s business, she chooses in this first season to put herself first, shifting the family’s dynamic in ways that might be very recognizable to many women right now.
Incorporating the complexities of a blended family amid varied parental and marital relationships, makes “The Upshaws” feels not only timely, but also incredibly genuine.
The Upshaws, though, aren’t the first working-class Black family ever to be seen on television. Before “The Cosby Show” shifted the representation of Black Americans almost solely to the middle class, “Good Times,” created by Eric Monte and actor Mike Evans, centered on Florida (Ester Rolle) and James Evans (John Amos), who were living with their three children — J.J., Thelma and Michael — in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects.
But while “Good Times” was supposed to be an authentic look into the Black experience, Amos and Rolle became increasingly disillusioned with the stereotypes in the show — specifically Jimmie Walker’s buffoonish portrayal of J.J., which they felt echoed the lazy Black man stereotype made popular by the 1930s vaudevillian Stepin Fetchit. By the time “Good Times” went off the air in 1979, ratings had plummeted, Amos had left the series, and Rolle appeared only infrequently as a guest star.
And into that breach, just five years later, stepped “The Cosby Show,” with its presentation of respectability politics. Only those politics weren’t always just in front of the camera: The show’s now-disgraced creator, Bill Cosby, imposed demanding “excellence” clauses on the actors — which Lisa Bonet, who portrayed Denise Huxtable on the series and its spinoff, “A Different World,” pushed back against, after which she was written out of his series. In later years, Cosby would rant about Black women’s supposed promiscuousness and the vulgarity of hip-hop culture and its supposed effect on Black people — ignoring white supremacy and racism, which have been the real enemies of Black Americans since the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And all the while, the prophet of respectability politics had been assaulting women.
Still, one family sitcom — on the now-defunct urban network UPN — managed to evade “The Cosby Show” bandwagon before “The Upshaws”: the Golden Globe-nominated series “Everybody Hates Chris.” Loosely based on the childhood of comedian Chris Rock, the series, set in Brooklyn during the crack cocaine epidemic in the ’80s, and was a masterly take on economic status, class and race without editing the Black experience to make it more palatable for white America. But even though it was one of the most brilliant presentations of Black folks living below the poverty line when it premiered in 2005, its second season got buried when UPN merged with the WB to birth the teen-focused (and historically white network) the CW.
There’d been nothing remotely like it since — until now.
“The Upshaws,” with its distinct tone (and Epps’, Fields’ and Sykes’ comedic timing) means Black American families are no longer solely portrayed as respectability politics incarnate. We finally haven a modern-day sitcom that can compete with the brilliance of ABC’s “Black-ish” while presenting an entirely different perspective on Black American life.