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Black Families: Shows and Movies That Have Helped Redefined What That Means

These shows and movies have helped to define the culture.

“The Black family of the future will foster our liberation, enhance our self-esteem, and shape our ideas and goals, said Dorothy Height, an influential activist whose work included organizing Black family reunions in the 1980s and 1990s. When she uttered those words decades ago, she might not have been able to dream of a day when Black viewers could watch a plethora of Black families on screen. And while there is still a lot of work to be done to repair generations of trauma and injustice inflicted on Black families, there has at least never been a better time to see Black families represented in various ways in TV and film.

Whereas the early days of depictions— think Julia in the late ‘60s and Good Times in the ‘70s — often showed Black families in a context deliberately meant to inspire and be “positive,” Black families of today show up in a range of ways, authentically: sometimes inspiring, sometimes messy, sometimes hilarious, just like every family out there in the real world.

Here are eight families that have redefined what a Black family can look like.

1.  Black-ish 

Consistently ranked as one of TV's top shows for an impressive eight seasons, the ABC sitcom from Kenya Barris helped revolutionize images of modern-day Black Americans. Hip and occasionally controversial, black-ish follows the day-to-day lives of the Johnson family, a well-to-do unit in the suburbs of Los Angeles trying to navigate their Black identity with, well, everything else life throws at people in the 21st century.

Dad Andre 'Dre' Johnson (Anthony Anderson) is an advertising executive who is constantly flummoxed by issues of identity presented at work and home. Rules that nest alongside his wife, Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross), a bi-racial doctor a bit more liberal than her man. Together, they're raising their kinda woke daughter Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi), the slightly dim-witted Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner), cool-kid Jack (Miles Brown), and the cunning Diane (Marsai Martin)—all of whom present varying viewpoints on race and identity.

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Dealing with everything from police brutality to the election of Donald Trump to a history lesson on Juneteenth, black-ish always pushed buttons and addressed complicated issues with thought and laughter that'll make it an essential time capsule of our times for generations to come.

2. 227

Nobody could’ve known back in 1985 to 1990 that 227’s Brenda Jenkins, played by a magnetic young actor named Regina King, would go on to become an Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe winner and two-time recipient of BET awards— even then, King shined in a cast of greats. Adapted from a 1978 play about Black women in Chicago, 227—the setting moved to Washington, D.C.—started beloved actor Marla Gibbs as Mary, a strong matriarch and gossipy busybody who ruled over her building and stoop. 

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Along with her husband Lester (Hal Williams) and daughter Brenda, Mary tried her best to keep drama at bay but couldn’t help delighting in the neighborhood goings-on with fellow hens Rose (Alaina Reed Hall), Pearl (Helen Martin), and Sandra (Jackée Harry) always ready to spill the tea. Together, they dished on everything from relationships, jobs, neighborhood crime, and much more—always with Mary’s role as a strict but loving mom at the center.

3. The Bernie Mac Show

For five seasons, beloved comic Bernie Mac (who died in 2008) played a version of himself in this edgy sitcom, which had fictional Bernie Mac take in his sister’s three children when she goes into rehab. Though Bernie co-parented with his tv wife Wanda, the kids were very much under Bernie’s rule, which was often comically strict and outrageously old-school.

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Though he was often salty after being outwitted or emotionally manipulated by the youngins, Bernie was a great parent. It was a great example of the ways Black families can have many different forms, with relatives who are not biological parents stepping up to raise kids who need them.

4. Queen Sugar

Ava DuVernay’s sprawling, highly acclaimed drama follows three siblings in the Bordelon family of rural Louisiana, who inherit their father’s massive sugarcane farm after his sudden death. As a journalist and activist Nova (Rutina Wesley), working mom Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and their brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) deal with their loss, their windfall, and family drama; they also contend with meta themes such as racial profiling, the long-reaching impacts of slavery, and the criminal justice system making the show a dynamic and powerful portrait of a modern Black family.

5.  Moonlight

Winner of the Best Picture Oscar and the Best Motion Picture Golden Globe, this 2016 film, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is a heartbreaking and tender exploration of a young man's coming of age in a rough Miami environment. An adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight examines a young boy's life in three stages.

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He deals with his mother's drug use, sexual orientation, and unrequited love for another boy his age. Mahershala Ali plays a father figure, Juan, to young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) and Janelle Monáe Jaun's girlfriend––both of them providing structure, acceptance, and love to a child in a time of crisis. Demonstrating that family isn't always made of people who are relatives.

6. King Richard

The story of Venus and Serena Williams’ rise from inner-city tweens to two of the greatest athletes of all time is told through the lens of their father, Richard (played by Will Smith) in this outstanding biopic. Through sheer determination, faith, and vision, the film shows how Richard (and his wife Oracene, played by Aunjanue Ellis) crafted a plan for his children that exceeded any expectation or limitation anyone could’ve had for them. It’s definitely one of the most uplifting and inspirational stories about a Black family ever to be seen on screen.

7. Empire

It’s easy to forget what the TV landscape looked like before Empire, the Fox drama about a family, the Lyons, vying for control of a highly coveted hip-hop record label. When it debuted in 2015, Empire broke ground as the first primetime drama for as long as anyone could remember with a Black cast at the center. But by the end of that first season––when some 23 million total viewers made it TV’s highest-rated freshman drama in nearly a decade––the soapy show from Lee Daniels has absolutely made its mark and helped usher in a new wave of majority-Black TV shows.

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Over-the-top and never short on clutch-the-pearls outrageousness, Empire turned Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), Andre (Trai Byers), and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) into instant antiheroes, and the actors themselves into household names. Empire also proved that while blood is thicker than water, cash rules over everything, including family.

8. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air 

A fish out of water sitcom with social commentary at the heart, The Fresh Prince endures as one of the best Black family shows to ever air. When Will Smith took on the part in 1990, he was a 20-something rapper with a goofy aplomb whose acting experience was so minimal he can be seen in early episodes mouthing his co-stars' lines.

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Thankfully, executive producers, including Quincy Jones and Benny Medina, helped nurture Smith and keep NBC executives invested; The Fresh Prince is now one of the most syndicated shows of all time, appearing on dozens of networks worldwide. Based on Smith's life, The Fresh Prince kicks off when street-smart Will accidentally causes a confrontation with gang members in his rough West Philadelphia neighborhood and is sent to super bougie Bel-Air, California, to live with his uncle Philip Banks (James Avery), and aunt Viv (Janet Hubert and later, Daphne Maxwell Reid).

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Once in his uncle's stupendously fancy mansion, Will has to adapt to his new, sometimes uncomfortably privileged life, constantly at odds with his cousins, Hilary (Karyn Parsons), Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro, and the impressionable Ashley (Tatyana Ali).

Will's working-class roots and the Banks affluence created a tension that provided an almost endless well of material, giving fans six seasons of laughs as well as meditations on class, Black identity, and the power of joy.

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