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Norman Lear's TV shows pioneered depictions of Black families, but it's complicated

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The legendary TV producer Norman Lear died at 101 years old last week. He's known for producing or creating groundbreaking shows with white characters, like "All In The Family," but he also made shows with pivotal stories of Black people in the 1970s, including "Sanford And Son," "The Jeffersons" and...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Good Times.

JIM GILSTRAP: (Singing) Anytime you need a payment.

RASCOE: "Good Times," the 1974 sitcom about a Black family living in a Chicago housing project. And while these stories centered Black characters and storylines, they were also criticized for elevating stereotypes. Here to talk about Lear's complicated legacy with Black characters is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hi, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

RASCOE: So how did Norman Lear wind up creating so many shows featuring Black families?

DEGGANS: Well, to hear Lear tell it - and I interviewed him for the Smithsonian back in 2016 - he and his producing partners were looking to create shows that spoke about real life. And there were also a ton of super talented, underemployed Black performers ready to leave TV shows, like Redd Foxx did with Lear's second hit TV show, "Sanford And Son." Now, Redd Foxx was a stand-up nightclub comic who was cast as Fred Sanford. He ran a junkyard in South Central LA with his son, who was played by Demond Wilson. We've got a clip of Fred arguing with his son about watching too much TV. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SANFORD AND SON")

DEMOND WILSON: (As Lamont Sanford) There's a whole article in here, Papa, about people that have heart conditions just like yourself. And you want to know what the best thing for them is?

REDD FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) Yeah, to move their dummy son out the way of the TV.

DEGGANS: These shows had, like, a double-edged quality to them. You know, "Sanford And Son" humanized Black people in a poor neighborhood that was known for riots over racial issues. It made stars in white-dominated Hollywood of Black performers like Redd Foxx. But Fred Sanford was also lazy. He was always insulting his son, calling him dummy. He had friends who were slow-witted in this way that we had seen in stereotypical depictions of Black people in films and TV from the 1950s and 1960s.

RASCOE: The next TV show Lear made that featured a Black family was "Good Times." How did those depictions change from what we saw on "Sanford And Son"?

DEGGANS: Well, this is where things get a little complicated. I mean, Lear developed this history of spinning off breakout characters on existing hits into new shows. So "Good Times" was built around a character from the hit show "Maude," the family's maid, played by Esther Rolle. Now, the show featured an intact Black family with a mom and a dad, the dad played by John Amos, and that was considered groundbreaking back then.

RASCOE: But then how was it received? And what did the actors on those shows think about the characters who were created?

DEGGANS: John Amos and Esther Rolle wanted to oppose typical stereotypes, but the show's breakout character was the oldest son, J.J., who was played by Jimmie Walker. Now J.J. had these bugged-out eyes. He was a womanizer. He wasn't particularly good at school, and he had this signature phrase. He called himself Kid Dynomite.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")

JIMMIE WALKER: (As James 'J.J.' Evans, Jr.) Hello.

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: (As James 'J.J.' Evans, Jr.) Aren't you glad you let your fingers do the walking? 'Cause you got Kid Dynomite.

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: As J.J. started to break out, the writers started focusing on that character more, and that led Esther Rolle and John Amos to fight with the producers more regularly. And eventually, John Amos was written off the show, and then they were back to having a series with a single mom raising kids.

RASCOE: Let's talk about "The Jeffersons." This show that Lear made - it wasn't about a poor Black family. They were wealthy, and they lived in, as the theme song says, (singing) that deluxe apartment in the sky (laughter).

DEGGANS: Moving on up.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: How did this series evolve?

DEGGANS: Well, "The Jeffersons" started as a Black family who had moved next to Archie Bunker in "All In The Family," and Lear says in his memoir that one reason why he decided to take those characters and put them in their own show is because he had met with some Black Panthers who complained that his shows always featured poor Black people. So George Jefferson owned a dry-cleaning business, but he had his own hangups about race. We've got a clip of George Jefferson arguing with an interracial couple over why they don't fight. Now, in the original clip, he uses the N-word, but we edited it out. Let's check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JEFFERSONS")

SHERMAN HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) If you do ever really started going at one another, inside of five minutes, he'd be calling you...

ROXIE ROKER: (As Helen Willis) Don't say it. He said it.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKLIN COVER: (As Tom Willis) Now, you listen to me. We've had lots of fights, and it's never happened.

HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) Oh, and don't tell me it never crossed your mind.

ROKER: (As Helen Willis) No more than it ever crossed my mind to say the word honky to Tom.

HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) Well, how come you said it just then?

DEGGANS: Exactly. See - they were having these kind of bold conversations that I'm not sure we could even show on TV today. We should also note that one of the two Black writers who was credited with creating "Good Times," Eric Monte, has said for many years that he felt like he wasn't adequately compensated or recognized for creating that show or helping write Black characters like the Jeffersons on other shows. He sued Lear. He accepted a settlement, but he said he always felt railroaded.

RASCOE: So what do you take away from all these shows when you're thinking about Lear's legacy?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, of course, they were pioneering shows, and they were shows that that were close to people's hearts, including many Black people. And they did push the envelope about how Black people were portrayed on TV, but we also have to acknowledge the reality that there were some dark moments. And so that just gives us even more appreciation for what Lear accomplished and what the talented Black actors and writers that he employed to create these shows - what they also accomplished.

RASCOE: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans on Norman Lear's legacy depicting Black families. Thank you, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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