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The 2020 Academy Awards nominations were announced Monday, Jan. 13 and, after a few years of glad-handing their supposed embrace of diversity, the Academy’s nominees were once again a distressingly predictable bunch—particularly amongst the major award categories. Bemoaning lack of diversity at the Oscars has become a punchline unto itself, but, for an Academy that is suddenly so image-conscious, this was a step backward. Alongside a Best Director field made up exclusively of men, Black actors were almost totally shut out in the top categories. Strong performances from previous Oscar winners/nominees like Lupita Nyong’o, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx seemed to be likely contenders for a nomination but were snubbed. There is the notable exception, of course, of Cynthia Erivo. The Tony-winning actress received an Oscar nod for her turn as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a film that seemed to engender both praise and derision well before it opened in theaters in November 2019.
The British-born Erivo was at the center of much criticism when it was announced that she would be playing the legendary Tubman, the escaped slave born Araminta Ross, who led at least 13 trips along a treacherous journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania to free first her family, then others in bondage; she also became an officer in the Union army and an activist for women’s suffrage. The casting of Erivo as Tubman became a flashpoint after tweets from the actress were widely publicized in which she appeared to mock Black Americans in a Twitter exchange with actor Joel Montague after he asked her to sing a song she’d written.
“@joalMontague (ghetto American accent) baby u know I gatchu imma sing It To you but I still gatta do wadigattado, you feel me #scene xxx.”
The tweet was screenshotted and popped up on countless media sites, as the public criticism of Erivo grew. As she began making media rounds in the lead-up to Harriet, she addressed the issue.
"I would say it took a lot of hard work to get to this place [of playing Harriet Tubman] and I didn't take it lightly," Erivo said in an interview with Shadow And Act back in October. "I love this woman and I love Black people full stop. It would do me no service, it would be like hating myself.
“As for the tweets, taken out of context without giving me the room to tell you what it meant—and it wasn’t mocking anyone really. It wasn’t for that purpose at all. It was to celebrate a song I had wrote when I was 16.”
But the bad will had taken root. Harriet had a successful opening and a strong showing at the box office, but it was met with derision on Twitter as rumors swirled about various aspects of the film’s plot and historical inaccuracies. The word of mouth reception was far from glowing, but the borderline smearing of the film on social media was more scathing than the actual reviews once the movie hit theaters. But while the critical reception to the film itself was lukewarm, Erivo’s performance was consistently praised. “The British singer and actress…nails [Tubman’s] thousand-yard glare with a furious and mournful eloquence,” wrote Owen Gleiberman of Variety; and The New York Times’ A.O. Scott felt that “Erivo’s performance is grounded in the recognizable human emotions of grief, jealousy, anger, and love.” In an age when Black pain on the big screen can make for predictable platitudes from pundits, there is an ongoing question of who such a film as Harriet is meant to speak to and speak for. In the case of Erivo, you have more than a strong performance in a middling film. You have a performer who has, in many ways, lost the audience that would’ve been most invested in that performance.
Erivo's nomination for Harriet comes alongside a double-nod for Scarlett Johannson, another actress who found herself embroiled in controversy in 2019. Of course, ScarJo is much more high-profile than Erivo, an A-lister who finds herself in any number of prestige pictures and major blockbusters. But ScarJo’s defense of Woody Allen, at a time when Hollywood is at least attempting to come to grips with how it has enabled abusers, drew gasps and derision when she made press runs for her role in the acclaimed Netflix film Marriage Story. She told Vanity Fair in November:
“I’m not a politician, and I can’t lie about the way I feel about things,” she said. “I don’t have that. It’s just not a part of my personality. I don’t want to have to edit myself or temper what I think or say. I can’t live that way. It’s just not me. And also I think that when you have that kind of integrity, it’s going to probably rub people, some people, the wrong way. And that’s kind of par for the course, I guess.
“Even though there’s moments where I feel maybe more vulnerable because I’ve spoken my own opinion about something, my own truth and experience about it—and I know that it might be picked apart in some way, people might have a visceral reaction to it—I think it’s dangerous to temper how you represent yourself because you’re afraid of that kind of response. That, to me, doesn’t seem very progressive at all. That seems scary.”
Johansson’s controversial statements surrounding Woody Allen (and earlier comments about her playing trans and Asian characters) were met with widespread criticism that was subsequently muted by the acclaim following her turns in both Marriage Story and the WWII-set period comedy JoJo Rabbit. They weren’t misguided or misrepresented tweets from six years ago, they are her expressed positions on the subjects; she’s announced that she doesn’t intend to continuously apologize or even recant where she stands. And at the end of the day, she’s now a two-time Oscar nominee.
Obviously, Erivo is also basking in the recent glow of Academy recognition. This isn’t a case of a white actress bouncing back from backlash while a Black actress fades into obscurity because of it. But when Scarlett Johansson walks the red carpet on the night of the Oscars, if she takes the stage after her name is read as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress or both, she won’t have to contend with the idea that those who have given her the award stand in stark contrast to those for whom she wanted the film to resonate. Scarlett Johansson also wouldn’t have to wrestle with the idea that she’s only the second woman of her background to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She won’t have to face the hurt that she and others like her were shut out in her native country’s biggest movie award. She won’t have to think about all the criticisms of “slave movies” and being nominated for being in one.
Whatever criticisms there may be of Cynthia Erivo, whatever criticisms there may be of the film in which she starred, there’s always a softer landing for those who don’t have darker skin; simply because being Black on the whitest of nights means that all eyes are on you. It also means you have to carry so much more than your white counterparts will ever be asked to shoulder. Oscar or no Oscar; criticism of Cynthia Erivo never required condemnation of Cynthia Erivo. But on a night when white actresses will once again be widely represented, from the reliable grace of Little Women to the martyr-making propaganda of Bombshell, it’s disappointing that this one Black actress being amongst them is going to be picked apart.
If you're a product of hip-hop, the '90s was a glorious time for television, with a plethora of shows being introduced to the public that helped inform and reflect the culture, from music to fashion and every aspect in between. One program that embodied the raw essence of hip-hop was The Wayans Bros., which made its debut as the first sitcom to air on the newly launched network, The WB, on January 11, 1995. Created by Marlon and Shawn Wayans, Leslie Ray, and David Steven Simon, The Wayans Bros. put the focus on the two youngest brothers in the Wayans clan, both of whom had tasted fame alongside their elder brothers when their appearances on In Living Color and in films like Mo’ Money putting them on the radar. Set in Harlem, the show revolves around the Williams brothers' ill-advised attempts at turning a quick buck, maintaining their romantic relationships, helping out their father, Pops Williams (John Witherspoon), and assisting friends and family in their own times of need.
While Lela Rochon (Lisa Saunders), Paula Jai Parker (Monique), and Jill Tasker (Lou Malino) were all main cast members at some point during the show's first two seasons, the core cast was comprised of both Wayans brothers, Witherspoon, and Anna Maria Horsford as Deirdre "Dee" Baxter, the latter of whom made her debut appearance midway through the show's second season. Recurring characters included Thelonious "T.C." Capricornio (played by Phil Lewis), White Mike (Mitch Mullany), Dupree (Jermaine 'Huggy' Hopkins), and Grandma Ellington (Ja'net Dubois), all of who left their own imprint and were instrumental in some of the show's most memorable moments. In addition to the core cast, The Wayans Bros. also presented additional star power in the form of cameos, with athletes (John Starks, Kenny Lofton, Hector Camacho) actors (Bernie Mac, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Elise Neal, Shari Headley, Gary Coleman, Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas, Monica Calhoun, Garrett Morris, Garcelle Beauvais, Richard Roundtree, etc) and musicians (Busta Rhymes, Keith Sweat, En Vogue, Missy Elliott, Paula Abdul) all appearing on the show, as well.
The Wayans Bros. show's run would be cut short after five seasons, with its final episode airing on May 20, 1999, marking the end of an era. However, the show has continued to entertain a new generation of viewers through syndication and is one of the definitive television shows from the '90s that spoke to and for the culture. In celebration of the show's 25th anniversary, VIBE looks back at ten of the most hilarious and entertaining episodes of The Wayans Bros. Show that made it one of the most beloved sitcoms of the hip-hop generation.Season 1, Episode 1 "Goop-Hair-It-Is"
Our introduction to the zany hijinks of The Wayans Bros. came via the show's pilot episode, which found Shawn and Marlon attempting to cash in on a half-baked foray into the world of cosmetics. After accepting a proposition to become the manufacturers of a new hair product called Goop, Hair It Is, Marlon creates a homemade concoction that appears to work wonders for his follicles, prompting Shawn to create a scheme to sell it via an infomercial. Enlisting the help of Gary Coleman, the brothers and their new pitch man go live on air to wax poetic about the goop, but their presentation goes awry when Coleman's new hairdo goes ablaze, resulting in an impromptu fire drill that gives "Stop, Drop & Roll" a whole new meaning.Season 2, Episode 4 "Two Men and a Baby"
Brotherhood may be second nature to Shawn and Marlon, but fatherhood is a whole different story, which we find out during the course of this classic from the show's second season. After discovering an abandoned baby that's supposedly Shawn or Marlon's kin outside of the front door of their apartment, the bros get into a heated rivalry over who's the biological father of the child. With little background information other than a note from the child's mother to go off of, the Williams' take matters into their own hands, stepping up to the plate to provide a nurturing environment for the newest member of the clan. The responsibility of parental duties prove to be too much for either brother to handle on their own, but they’re bailed out when the mother returns to recover the child after realizing a mix-up in her delivery process.Season 2, Episode 5 "Loot"
The fortunes of the Williams family are on the brink of changing for the better after Shawn, Marlon, Pops and the rest of the gang discover a garbage bag filled with $100,000 in cash. A police report is filed, but the Williams' keep their fingers crossed that they'll be deemed the rightful owners of the money when the goes unclaimed. This doesn't stop the members of the family from counting their chickens before they hatch, as extravagant plans and pricey purchases are made in the ensuing days. Greed nearly causes the Williams' to turn on one another, but when an elderly woman shows up to recover her belongings, their dreams at a come-up are quickly dashed, putting the family back at square one.Season 2, Episode 8 "Head of State"
During the second season of The Wayans Bros., Dee Baxter (Anna Maria Horsford) replaces Lou (Jill Tasker) as the Neidemeyer Building's security guard for the remainder of the series. When the President of the United States comes to Harlem during his campaign trail, Pops' Diner is designated as the location where the prez can relieve himself, which the family considers an honor. With Pops eager to reap the benefits of having the leader of the free world pass through his establishment, and Marlon determined to shake the President's hand, the visit is a pretty big deal to the family However, the Williams' world is flipped upside down when the Secret Service lock down the diner due to safety concerns, infringing on their privacy. In the end, Pops' gets an uptick in business, Marlon gets to shake the President's hand, and Dee gets to experience a bit of sexual tension in her debut appearance.Season 3, Episode 1 "Grandma's in the Hiz-House"
When Grandma Ellington (Ja'net Dubois) stops in town, Shawn and Marlon are ecstatic to see the family matriarch, even making room for her to stay in their apartment. The decision is one that the brothers will quickly regret, as Grandma Ellington begins to infiltrate their life, from ruining their clothing to chasing away their dates. Shawn and Marlon decide to make things uncomfortable in hopes that she will leave, but the plan backfires, with Grandma Ellington’s discovery of the ruse putting a wedge between her and her grandsons. Realizing the error in their ways, the brothers attempt to win their grandmother back over and get back in her good graces.Season 3, Episode 9 "The Return of the Temptones"
Pops gets a blast from the past when Shawn and Marlon decide to round up the members of his old group The Temptones for an epic reunion after thirty years. While the gesture is well-intended, things fall apart when the members let bad blood get into the mix, which puts The Temptones' upcoming performance in jeopardy. As Pops and the crew struggle to find common ground, Shawn and Marlon stand-in for the missing members, resulting in a hilariously horrendous rendition of The Temptones' hit, "Bang, Bang Bang." However, the original members of the group decide to put their differences to the side for the sake of the group's legacy, tearing down the stage in one of the more memorable moments in The Wayans Bros. history.Season 4, Episode 9 "Can I Get a Witness?"
After finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marlon becomes an eyewitness to a bank robbery and identifies the criminal in a police line-up. This results in the Williams' being put in protective custody until the case is resolved, but when word gets out that the culprit's brother is on the hunt for them, it appears as if they cannot avoid meeting their eventual fate. However, the criminals' thirst for vengeance gets thwarted just in the nick of time, keeping Marlon, Shawn and Pops in the clear and out of danger.Season 4, Episode 19 "Talk is Cheap"
Shawn and Marlon are summoned to The Jerry Springer Show to see just how close their relationship is, which leads to a few secrets between the two being revealed. When Marlon finds out that Shawn had paid his girlfriend a visit at her apartment, the two begin to bicker with one another in front of the studio audience, with Pops and Dee getting involved from the comfort of the crowd. As things get heated between the two, the bros resort to throwing blows, hurling insults and embarrassing one another. While the pair eventually come to their senses and patch things up, their dust-up and Jerry Springer's appearance made for classic television.Season 5, Episode 7 "The Kiss"
Dee Baxter catches up with old friend Missy Elliott, who gives her a pair of tickets to her concert later that night. Deciding to take Shawn as a guest, the two enjoy one another's company to the point that they wind up kissing after a long night of drinking before passing out. Waking up half-naked and in the same bed with one another, it appears as if the two had slept together, making for a string of awkward encounters between the two. However, the potential lovebirds discover that they were victims of a prank by Marlon, which brings Shawn and Dee's friendship back to normal.Season 5, Episode 18 "Hip Hop Pops"
Shawn and Marlon gather Pops' closest friends and throw him a surprise party to celebrate his 50th birthday. However, while the brothers' efforts were meant to put Pops in good spirits, they actually put him in a depressive and reflective state due to his age and fear of death. Looking to infuse a little fun into their father's life, Shawn and Marlon takes Pops out to the club to help make him feel young again, but the experience inspires Pops to change his wardrobe and slang in an attempt to hold onto his youth. From engaging in freestyle battles to donning iced-out chains, Pops' new style rubs Shawn and Marlon the wrong way, forcing them to cook up a plan to get him to revert back to the man they used to know.
Seeing a television show with a predominantly black cast may not cause much of an uproar in 2020, but 30 years ago, any advancement in our representation on-screen was cause for celebration. Sure, the previous two decades had given us a handful of classic sitcoms - The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford & Son, 227, The Cosby Show, and A Different World among them - geared toward a black audience, but 1990 marked the beginning of a period during which Tinseltown would open the flood-gates. Television behemoths like ABC (Family Matters, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper) and NBC (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) continued to tap into the urban market, which, by then, had become a jackpot for ratings, prompting other networks to follow suit by shifting their own programming. FOX, in particular, had turned itself into a serious competitor in short order. Launched in 1986, the network quickly emerged as a favorite among the 18 to 40 demographic, with groundbreaking programs like In Living Color, Martin, Living Single, New York Undercover, Roc, and The Sinbad Show all making their debut during the early '90s.
This renaissance reached a fever pitch when The WB, which would become a central hub for black entertainment on the small screen, was launched on January 11, 1995. A joint venture between Warner Bros. Entertainment and Tribune Broadcasting, the formation of The WB Television Network was first announced in 1993, amid deregulation of media ownership rules. Taking a page out of FOX's book, The WB braintrust included a number of the network's former executives, most noticeably FOX's original President Jamie Kellner, and Programming Chief Garth Ancier, both of whom served at the helm during the networks launch. While the major networks often presented sterile images of black households and characters that were meant to be relatable to mainstream audiences, only FOX had tapped into the energy and aesthetic surrounding hip-hop, which had become a driving force in pop culture at that point. The WB would help fill that void in a big way with programming that not only reflected the vibe of the streets, but embraced the art of the music and the artists that made it.
This was evident from the network's launch, with the debut episode of The Wayans Bros. immediately setting the tone for what was to come. The first program to ever air on The WB, The Wayans Bros. starred brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans, the younger siblings of actors/comedians Keenan Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans. Following stints on the final seasons of In Living Color, as well as roles in various films and television shows, respectively, Shawn and Marlon were tapped by The WB to create and star in their own sitcom, giving the duo creative license to bring their vision to life. Set in Harlem, New York, The Wayans Bros. centered around the lives of Shawn and Marlon Williams, two brothers striving to realize their dreams while toiling away at their respective jobs. Boasting a cast that included John Witherspoon (John "Pops" Williams), Anna Maria Horsford (Deirdre "Dee" Baxter), Lela Rochon (Lisa Saunders), Paula Jai Parker (Monique), Jill Tasker (Lou Malino) and other recurring characters, The Wayans Bros. gave The WB a credible sitcom to build its legs on, with Shawn and Marlon's cache among young black viewers drawing eyes to the network.
Avid fans of rap music and products of hip-hop culture, the Wayans' made sure to make their affinity for the five elements known from the jump, with their decision to use the instrumental from A Tribe Called Quest's 1993 single "Electric Relaxation" as the opening theme song and the graffiti-inspired logo for the show serving as two blatant indicators of this love affair. Sporting the trendiest brands of the time and infusing popular street slang into their dialogue, Shawn and Marlon presented an authentic, albeit humorous, glimpse of young black men that wore baggy jeans instead of slacks and were from the hood, but came from a two-parent home and were far from criminal-minded. Airing 13 episodes during its debut season, the breakout success of The Wayans Bros. resulted in the show being renewed for a second season, helping solidify the duo as viable comedic talents while establishing The WB as a force to be reckoned with.
On January 18, 1995, the week following the debut of The Wayans Bros. The WB aired the first episode of The Parent 'Hood, a family-friendly sitcom in the mold of The Cosby Show. Created by and starring actor/director/comedian/writer Robert Townsend, The Parent 'Hood centered around the growing pains of an upwardly mobile black family based in Harlem, New York. Townsend plays a college professor (Robert Peterson), a hands-on dad and strict disciplinarian, opposite Suzzanne Douglas (Geraldine "Jerri" Peterson), the family matriarch pursuing a law degree. Other cast members included Reagan Gomez-Preston (Zaria Peterson), Kenny Blank (Michael Peterson), Faizon Love (Wendell Wilcox), Curtis Williams (Nicholas Peterson), and Ashli Amari Adams (Cecilia "CeCe" Peterson). In addition to traditional sitcom tropes about family values and morals, The Parent 'Hood also tackled serious issues like domestic abuse, peer pressure, teenage pregnancy, and gang violence, giving the show additional depth and garnering rave reviews from critics.
The Wayans Bros., The Parent 'Hood, and Unhappily Ever After - another sitcom that debuted on The WB as part of its initial roll-out - all saw immediate success and were green-lit for second seasons. But Muscle, a short-lived parody sitcom that was also a part of The WB's original Wednesday night lineup, was cancelled due to low ratings. Looking to fill the time slot, The WB picked up Sister, Sister, a fictional sitcom about reunited twin sisters who were separated at birth, that was cancelled by ABC the previous year. Starring Tia (Tia Andrea Landry) and Tamera (Tamera Ann Campbell) Mowry, with a supporting cast comprised of Jackée Harry (Lisa Landry Sims), Tim Reid (Raymond Earl "Ray" Campbell), and Marques Houston (Roger Evans), the show aired on The WB for its final four seasons, becoming one of the most popular shows on the network and catapulting the Mowry family to stardom. Around this time, The WB unveiled the First Time Out, the network's answer to FOX's Living Single and infiltration of the Latino market, which had a brief shelf life before being cancelled mid-season, but remains noteworthy within the Latin community.
As The WB continued to expand for the 1996-1997 television season, the network introduced additional programming with the debuts of The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. Created by Winifred Hervey and directed by Stan Lathan, The Steve Harvey Show cast comedian Steve Harvey in a starring role as Steve Hightower, a former music legend-turned-music teacher who plays an active part in his students’ lives while balancing his own love life. Playing alongside Cedric the Entertainer (Cedric Jackie Robinson), Wendy Raquel Robinson (Principal Regina Grier-Maddox), Terri J. Vaughn (Lovita Alizé Jenkins-Robinson), the late Merlin Santana (Romeo Santana), William Lee Scott (Stanley "Bullethead" Kuznocki) and others, Steve Harvey's performance helped turn him into a household name on the national stage and remains one of the definitive roles of his career. Standout showings during his time as a cast member on In Living Color and in recurring appearances on the FOX sitcom Roc aside, Jamie Foxx was still building his reputation as a comedic actor when the first episode of The Jamie Foxx Show premiered on The WB on August 28, 1996. Starring as Jamie King, an aspiring musician from Texas who works in his aunt and uncle's hotel, The Kings Tower, while pursuing his career, Foxx's star rose rapidly during the show's five-season run, as did that of castmates Garcelle Beauvais (Francesca "Fancy" Monroe), Christopher B. Duncan (Braxton P. Hartnabrig), Ellia English (Aunt Helen King), and Garrett Morris (Uncle Junior King), all of whom scored various roles in television and film in the subsequent years.
In addition to sitcoms, The WB also introduced animated content for children via the Kids' WB program block, which was introduced in September 1995. While largely comprised of popular Warner Bros. cartoons, Kids' WB also featured original series like Freakazoid!, Earthworm Jim, and Waynehead, the latter of which would prove to be highly influential. Created by comedian Damon Wayans, Waynehead, which is based on Wayans' own childhood, centers around Damien "Damey" Wayne, an inner-city kid with a club foot and a gang of friends. Featuring a voice cast including Orlando Brown (Damey Wayne), Tico Wells (Marvin), Jamil Walker Smith (Mo' Money), T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh (Roz), Shawn Wayans (Toof), and Marlon Wayans (Blue), Waynehead would only run for 13 episodes prior to being cancelled, but is remembered for its plot and giving kids from the projects and inner-city characters and scenarios that reflected their reality and has become a cult classic with the passage of time.
As the latter half of the '90s progressed, The WB became entrenched as one of the go-to hubs for black entertainment, with its slate of shows moving the needle and presenting viewers with stories and environments familiar to their own. Soon, after the initial run of shows, The WB would add additional shows with black leads to round out its programming block, picking up the NBC sitcom For Your Love, starring Holly Robinson Peete and James Lesure. However, when the network’s expansion into the teen market yielded huge returns in terms of ratings, hit shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Charmed, 7th Heaven, and Roswell began to become the priority. This change, along with competing networks like UPN doubling down on The WB's formula and cornering the urban market, would help result in the eventual demise of The WB's flagship shows. The first show to bite the dust would be The Wayans Bros., which aired its final episode on May 20, 1999, after a five-season run. Just days later, on May 23, 1999, Sister, Sister would follow suit after four seasons on the network, with The Parent 'Hood being the next to go just months later. The Jamie Foxx Show would last five seasons before bowing out at the top of 2001, while The Steve Harvey Show held on the longest, surviving until the following year after six seasons, making it the longest running show with a black lead in the network's history.
Aside from the animated series Static Shock and the short-lived, Anthony Anderson-helmed sitcom All About the Andersons, The WB placed its focus squarely on teen dramas and sitcoms with Caucasian leads, with shows like Everwood, Felicity, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and Gilmore Girls all gaining traction. However, after the teen-boom of the late '90s and early aughts faded out, ratings for The WB declined, prompting CBS Corporation and Warner Bros. Entertainment to shut down the network in 2006 and jointly launch The CW later that same year. Officially shutting down on September 17, 2006, The WB's most popular programs would be moved to The CW the next day, marking the end of an era. Outlasting fierce competitor UPN, which shut down two days prior and would also have select programs moved to The CW upon its launch, The WB remains near and dear to the hearts of multiple generations of black television viewers and produced some of the most beloved sitcoms of its time. As shows like The Wayans Bros., The Jamie Foxx Show, and The Steve Harvey Show continue to live on via syndication, DVD, streaming services and YouTube clips a quarter century later, The WB's legacy as a major conduit in helping bring black entertainment to the forefront is iron-clad.