Africa Film WebMeeting

Message from: (african-cinema-conference@XC.Org)
About: Re: Is the message corrupting the messenger

Thu, 11 Apr 1996 09:01:46 -0400

Originally from: "Andrew M. Caplan" <>
Originally dated: Thu, 11 Apr 1996 09:01:46 -0400

On Fri, 5 Apr 1996, Dan Henrich wrote:
> >Nobody makes serials
> >about poverty, slums, ghettos etc.
> This may not be true: Did you ever see an African-American sitcom comedy
> with
> the actor Redd Fox in it? It is probably 20 years old, though. It was set
> a junk yard where Fox was a very poor (and foul mouthed) man with his son.
> don't know how long it aired, but is was about poverty and the effects of
> the same.
The sit-com you are referring to was called SANFORD & SON, and it did
indeed premiere about 22 years ago, and ran for about 5 or 6 years, which
is to say that it was very successful, and was probably the first
American sit-com which attempted to make reference to the existence of an
underclass. It's also interesting to see how this series, like all the
programs of its time, makes reference to the changing culture of the 70s.
For example, I can remember one episode where Redd Foxx's son (LaMonte)
decides to explore his "African roots." His "Africanness" is a subject
for (Redd Foxx's) ridicule, but at the same time, of course, it reflects
a real concern of young American Blacks, then and now. That episode
should be worth more than one cultural studies paper, for sure....
Sender: owner-african-cinema-conference@XC.Org
Precedence: bulk

Nonetheless, there's a lot to be ambivalent about that show, and just
about every other American TV program with an African-American theme. For
starters--and SANFORD & SON is paradigmatic of this--almost all of these
shows, the notable exceptions being the COSBY SHOW and A DIFFERENT WORLD
(both about the Black-American middle-class, and both of which provoke
their own set of ambivalent associations/reactions), had/have white
writers, directors, producers, etc.etc. So how reflective of a lived
African-American culture these shows are is open to debate.

A more substantial consideration than this, however, is the question of
how the sit-com format deals with serious issues such as poverty and its
attendant ills. In the case of SANFORD & SON, most of the humor was
embarassing in its sexism and crudity, and the subject of economic
depravation, when it was addressed at all, usually ended up being
resolved by a stroke of good luck before the end of the 24 minute
episode. And I recall vaguely that toward the end of the series--I'd
"outgrown" it toward the very end--Redd Foxx's character ends up marrying
a pretty, middle-class Black woman, moves out of the slum, and opens up a
residence hotel: hardly typical of or instructive for the poor people of
inner-city Los Angeles!

All of this speaks to the weaknesses of sit-coms generally, and not
specifically Black sit-coms; they all rely on stale, predictable jokes
and unreasonable scenarios--that's television, and it was more true of TV
20 years ago than it is today.

Still, though, taking a look at re-runs on the BLACK ENTERTAINMENT
NETWORK, I do find stuff to like about SANFORD & SON. Most of this has to
do with how funny Redd Foxx was--he simply couldn't be contained within
the frame of the sit-com format or its conventions. And even though the
specific words of the scripts were usually written by white folks, the
situations and the reactions of the actors, their performance style,
originated in the African-American vaudeville tradition (most of these
actors, like Redd Foxx himself, had a lot of experience in this kind of
comedy before coming to television--just as a generation before SANFORD &
SON a whole community of Jewish entertainers crossed over from the Borsht
Belt to TV and thereby transformed American comedy in a way that
continues to resonate throughout the mass-media...) and it's very
interesting to see, or speculate as to, how much of that tradition is
still apparent despite the homogenizing tendencies of TV.

None of which, unfortunately, has ANYTHING to do with African cinema (my
apologies!). But I hope at least to have provided some insight into
American TV for those on this conference site unfamiliar with it, and at
best to have opened up the possibility that our conception of words like
"authenticity" and "tradition" can operate on more subtle and
multi-valent levels than their usage in this discussion has previously

Thanks for reading this far,

Marc Caplan
New York University
Dept. of Comparative Lit.

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