The Commercial Appeal
‘Harlem’ allows Black women to be ‘messy’
From Clair Huxtable (“The Cosby Show”) and Vivian Banks (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-air“) to Annalise Keating (“How to Get Away With Murder”) and Olivia Pope (“Scandal”), Black women on TV have been given little room to fail – a trope of perfection often mirrored in the real world.
But “Girlfriends,” “Insecure“and now “Harlem” – comedies highlighting friendships – have fought back, making the “strong Black women” label an exception rather than the rule.
“Harlem” Season 2 (streaming on Amazon Prime Video) is a special case, because none of the main characters – Camille (Meagan Good), Tye (Jerrie Johnson), Quinn (Grace Byers) and Angie (Shoniqua Shandai) – has it together. They’re “messy,” and that’s OK.
Movies and television shows have been “told through the gaze of the oppressor or ogling, and so we had to come back with images that were overly perfect or overly exceptional,” Shandai says. “The less representation you have, the more political (it) is because you’re teaching what Blackness is.
“We have to be 10 times better in order to get half (of the respect).”
Camille, Quinn, Tye and Angie are a wreck over love and heartbreak – emotions that transcend shows with a predominantly Black cast.
With more visibility of the lives of Black women onscreen, storytellers are able to show flawed characters. Season 2 spoke to that humanity, Byers says. “We’re all messy in our own ways because we’re all trying to figure it out. … I wish that we could make more room for the mess in a lot of circumstances.
“I think once you see that representation, it turns into the permission to allow yourself to be a little messy.”
The “mess” isn’t necessarily political, but the fact that their characters are allowed to fall apart is a statement.
“The more experiences that we can show of people of color or Black people, (the more) we can start to show what we mean when we say that we’re not a monolith and really start to paint the nuances of what it means to be Black,”
Johnson, Good found comfort in their ‘messy’ characters
As one of seven siblings, Johnson, who uses they/them pronouns, says their success as an actor “robs me of the opportunity to be messy” within their family. Working on “Harlem” allows them to have that release from being a familial role model.
In the midst of the chaos, their characters “have hope, because there’s this type of resolution.”
Good, 41, also found comfort in playing a flawed character during what would have been her and ex-husband Devon Franklin’s 10-year-anniversary while she was filming Season 2.
“There is something kind of cathartic about being able to release in your character and to have life experiences that only make you a better actor and make you more intuitive,” she says.