#BackChannel: Popular Culture Prepares For A New President
As Donald Trump’s inauguration draws closer, popular culture wrestles the influence of the president-elect. In its latest episode, ‘Lemons,’ the ABC television show ‘Black-ish’ grappled with post-election grief and what the impending presidency might mean for communities of color.
Host Frank Stasio talked with popular culture experts Mark Anthony Neal and Natalie Bullock Brown about the program and how it compares to political commentary in other television shows.
“‘Black-ish’ is a direct lineage to ‘The Cosby Show’ in terms of the idea of a family-oriented middle-class family. ‘The Cosby Show’ was shot during the midst of two Reagan elections and a George Bush election and was absolutely silent about any of those kinds of realities,” Mark Anthony Neal said. “It speaks a great deal to where we are now that you could have a black middle-class sitcom immediately respond.”
“It also speaks to how quickly things shift in this kind of social media moment. Something that might have been thoughtful six months later in a more traditional production scheme doesn’t matter,” Neal continued. “You actually have to hit back immediately for it to matter. So I think what we saw with ‘Black-ish’ and popular culture really speaks to a different kind of moment.”
Brown reflected on the tension within personal relationships when politics may differ.
“I don’t have that much patience with some of the people that I came to realize voted for Trump in this moment,” Brown said. “But I do think there is something to be said for the different places that we all are in our journey on this route toward understanding something more nuanced about this particular moment politically, what has gone on in this country racially, what an Obama presidency even means both when we were in the midst of it and what it’s going to mean after it’s gone.”
Neal added that the cultural legacy of President Obama has left a space for the arts community that may be closed once president-elect Trump takes office.
“We had a president in the White House for the last eight years who was very accommodating to the arts. He created a space in the White House for the celebration of the arts, in a broad range of the arts,” Neal said. “I just saw a picture a few days ago with him in the White House with cutting-edge hip-hop artists, something that is unimaginable in any kind of context eight years ago.”
Artists continue to respond to growing concerns over the president-elect. A number of musicians have declined to play at Trump’s inauguration.
“Country artists in this day and age where everybody is so brand conscious and folks got to take care of their Instagram, country artists are no different than NBA players,” Neal said. “They’re not necessarily going to be overtly political if they believe that Donald Trump represents a brand that is not enhancing their brand, no matter what his politics are. That some sort of an alliance with him might damage their brand and that’s the reality of where we are in terms of commercial culture and capitalism.”
Brown added that responding to the impending presidency can take different forms, and that the message should be the focal point of any protest.
“People deciding that they’re not going to perform at the inauguration, or that they are going to boycott the inauguration or whatever resistance people are engaging in is about, ‘Even if we do it silently, we are not going to sit by and allow this man to become normalized.’ And that is what a peaceful transition of power implies,” Brown added.
Neal and Brown also discussed recent productions in popular culture like the movie “Fences,” a film adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning play by August Wilson.
“Even though this is a film that harkens back to a time gone, it speaks to experiences that black folks can relate to, that are universal experiences,” Brown said. “I think that in this age of social media where so much is hashed out and discussed online, one of the things I found really interesting about my experience with ‘Fences’ and how it hit me was when I posted a few different quotes from the film and the range of people, millenials and older people and church-going folk, who these quotes resonated with.”
Neal added that the legacy of August Wilson as a playwright deserves more recognition.
“August Wilson told the story of the American century in so many of these plays. It’s a shame it’s taken until now to have a film like this done,” Neal said about “Fences.” “We can make a film about a bad-singing opera singer. We can mine the archives for that story, but we couldn't find a way to tell the stories on film that August Wilson did.”
Neal and Brown added that the NBC drama “This Is Us” paints a nuanced picture of a family that raises two white children and an adopted black son. In the show, the adopted son Randall reconnects with his biological father William decades after William abandoned Randall. As William and Randall’s relationship grows, they come to terms with their different identities as black men.
“[‘This Is Us’] is exposing white America to this thing young black folks have been talking about for a long time: micro-aggressions. [The character Randall] talked about the totality of it in your everyday life, and there’s no escaping it,” Neal said. “Either you hold on to it or you let it go. To think that somehow the trauma of being black in America wasn’t transferred down to a younger generation, they just process it very differently because it’s not overt. It’s not Bull Connor. It functions on a totally different kind of situation for young folks and they adapt accordingly.”
Brown also said that the NBC drama digs at certain perceptions of race in America that can be problematic.
“It very slyly attacks this whole notion of, ‘We all come into this world equal.’ We literally have two white kids and a black kid born on the same day raised by a white family. How much more can you make the playing field equal?” Brown said. “Then we see how race totally has an impact on the black son’s life that his brother and his sister don’t have to deal with. We have to grapple with the fact that race is central to the American experience, it is central certainly to the Black experience and we cannot take that for granted or discount the type of impact that it is when you’re talking about potential and what people should do with their lives.”