Commentary: Donald Trump says he made Juneteenth famous. No, Black TV creators did
Years before the president boasted that he put Juneteenth on the map, another Donald had fashioned an entire episode of series television around the annual celebration commemorating the abolition of slavery.
It was 2016 when “Atlanta” creator-writer-star Donald Glover dropped the FX comedy’s “Juneteenth” episode, causing many fans of the show to Google the June 19 holiday, which marks the date in 1865 that Union soldiers brought news of the vile institution’s end to enslaved persons in Galveston, Tex.
“Black-ish” jumped in a year later with its Season 4 opener. Part “Hamilton” and part “Schoolhouse Rock,” it was a brilliant musical explainer dedicated to drawing attention to the date’s symbolic importance. Patriarch Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) was compelled to draw attention to the historical significance of Juneteenth after sitting through a school play extolling Christopher Columbus. Juneteenth “is a 150-year-old tradition that no one’s heard about ... not even my Black kids,” he said. And they commenced to tell the story, with the help of hip-hop band The Roots.
The mere existence of these two half-hour productions is tangible proof of how the push for diversity onscreen has changed history — or at least made it more representative and honest. Black representation behind the camera, with producers, production companies, writers’ rooms and actors who have purchase in the characters they play, has resulted in high-profile scripted content that illuminates a seismic event that‘s been downplayed or altogether buried by white history books. And by the current White House.
In a furious, unfunny 27-minute set posted to the Netflix Is a Joke YouTube page, Dave Chappelle traces a path from slavery to the death of George Floyd.
When a Wall Street Journal reporter recently asked Trump if he knew what Juneteenth was when he initially scheduled his first reelection rally on that day in Tulsa, Okla., he replied with a boast: “I did something good. I made it famous. I made Juneteenth very famous. It’s actually an important event, it’s an important time. But nobody had heard of it,” he said.
If only that interview was scripted comedy, but alas...
It’s no coincidence that around the same time, the highest-ranking African American in the administration, Assistant Secretary of State Mary Elizabeth Taylor, resigned in protest over Trump’s response to recent events. His series of insults, fumbles and dangerous responses to nearly a month of protests following the police killing of George Floyd had been enough.
Television, however, had already begun to counter Trump’s combative stance toward recognizing or remedying racial injustice with a wave of programming focusing on African American stories whitewashed by history.
Take HBO’s “Watchmen.” Following in the footsteps of “Atlanta” and “black-ish,” the sci-fi series — created by Damon Lindelof, who is white — repurposes Alan Moore’s graphic novel to examine the legacy of systemic racism via the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, when Black residents were attacked and killed by white mobs. When the limited series premiered in October, it was likely the first time many Americans became aware of this dark chapter in history. Echoes of Tulsa can be seen today in cellphone videos that capture the murder of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and citizens who’ve learned accountability is conditional depending on the color of one’s skin.
TV is certainly not a paragon of representation, but thanks to Black creators like Glover and “black-ish’s” Kenya Barris, this Juneteenth marks the first time most networks have paused to commemorate a day — and hundreds of years of history and countless individual Black stories — previously invisible to American media.
In Oprah Winfrey’s “Where Do We Go from Here?” and other specials, TV tries to grapple with the death of George Floyd and the movement building he’s inspired.
In celebration of Juneteenth, “Watchmen” is available for free this weekend on HBO and HBO Latino. And dozens more networks, streamers and cable platforms are dedicating the day to programming that draws attention to and celebrates the Black experience.
HBO also is featuring “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” “The Apollo” and episodes from the series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” and “Treme.” FX Networks is airing a marathon of “black-ish” and “Atlanta” as well as feature films about Black historical figures, by Black filmmakers, such as “Hidden Figures” and “Selma.” BET is featuring a “Juneteenth Freedom Day Marathon” all day with a string of movies, TV series (hello, “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”), music videos and commentary by prominent Black figures like Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker, Rev. Al Sharpton, “Pose’s” Indya Moore and Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza. Across its platforms, BET is showing the seminal Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing” and the gripping docuseries “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story.”
On Apple TV+, the National Civil Rights Museum and the 92nd Street Y have are hosting a round-table conversation centered on the streamer’s original drama “The Banker.” WarnerMedia networks are simulcasting programming that includes “Black Panther” and “Just Mercy” starting at 4 p.m. today. To explore the cultural resonance of these films and Juneteenth, host and “black-ish” star Anderson will be joined by guests such as Harris and CNN’s W. Kamau Bell.
National Geographic will simulcast ABC News’ prime-time special to commemorate Juneteenth while OWN presents several documentary specials focused on Black history, such as “Oprah Winfrey Presents: Legends Who Paved the Way,” and topical issues. The network is reairing both nights of OWN’s recent special, “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which Winfrey and Black leaders discuss the impact of Floyd’s murder, the history of police brutality against the Black community and the future of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ovation TV is airing a 24-hour programming block highlighting the accomplishments of Black artists and leaders ranging from Beyoncé to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Michelle Obama and Pharrell Williams.
Now comes the news that Barris and Pharrell Williams are in talks with Netflix to create a Juneteenth-inspired musical. What Black creators wrought in terms of the date’s visibility is only just beginning — and right on time for the campaign to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
The complicated and painful history behind the real-life events depicted in the HBO series ‘Watchmen’ was almost erased from history.
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