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Black Excellence

In honor of Black History Month, Watch salutes the groundbreaking shows, breakout performances, and barrier-breaking moments featuring African-American televisionaries.
Posted on Feb 26, 2021 | 04:20pm
By Nate Millado

Nichelle Nichols played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek:The Original Series. Nichols actually considered bolting from the sci-fi series after the first season, but a famous Trekkie changed her mind. Star Trek superfan Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told Nichols at an NAACP fundraiser: “What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.” And so she did. The legendary lip-lock between Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk in Season 3 is one of the first interracial kisses on American television; it aired just a year after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on interracial marriage.

The legendary lip-lock between Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner).

The Jeffersons, starring Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as George and Weezy, is one of the longest-running sitcoms with a predominantly Black cast—and is the first to feature a married interracial couple on television. (Fun fact: Roxie Roker, who played Helen Willis, is Lenny Kravitz’s mom!) 

Good Times introduced J.J.’s catchphrase “Dy-no-mite!” to the pop culture lexicon—as well as a young Janet Jackson as Penny to pop culture.

Jefferson Pierce suited up as Black Lightning (Cress Williams).

DC Comics’ first Black superhero, Black Lightning, is also the first superhero series on The CW led by a mostly Black cast, including Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning.

Simone Missick plays complicated, razor-sharp, fast-talking (and sometimes messy) Judge Lola Carmichael on All Rise. “We have never seen a Black woman on TV like this, and I relish being able to do it,” she told Watch

The Neighborhood—which stars Tichina Arnold and Cedric the Entertainer, who’s also an executive producer—doesn’t shy away from timely issues like racial injustice (in the episode “Welcome to the Movement”) and white privilege (“Welcome to the Conversation”).

Tichina Arnold also earned raves as no-nonsense mom Rochelle on The CW’s Everybody Hates Chris—Chris Rock’s semi-autobiographical sitcom set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Only Rochelle could deliver threats that were both fearsome and funny: “If I ever catch any of y’all spray-paintin’ on anybody’s wall, I’ll put my foot so far up your behind that you’ll have toes for teeth!”

Tina (Arnold) and Calvin (Cedric the Entertainer) in The  Neighborhood.

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Ever the chameleon, Don Cheadle has garnered 10 career Emmy nominations so far, including his leading-man work on SHOWTIME’s House of Lies and Black Monday.

Halle Berry is the first African-American woman to win Best Actress at the Oscars. She also brought her star power to the small screen as astronaut Molly Woods in Steven Spielberg’s summer event series, Extant. “I think it’s really important that we keep forging ahead,” she told Deadline at the time. “Being women of color, not necessarily letting our color precede us but just search out strong, character-driven, complicated roles that we can play. We no longer have to be in the background or be the sidekicks.”

Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) commands the U.S.S. Discovery.

Sonequa Martin-Green breaks new ground as Michael Burnham on Star Trek: Discovery. “Being the first Black female lead of a Star Trek show. I don’t know if I can put it into words how honored I am and how blessed I am to be in this position, at a time such as this.”

CBS’ revolutionary rom-com Bob ♥️ Abishola is the first to feature a Nigerian family front and center: Folake Olowofoyeku as Abishola, Shola Adewusi as her Auntie Olu, Barry Shabaka Henley as her Uncle Tunde, and Travis Wolfe, Jr. as her son. Scene stealers Gina Yashere (Kemi), Anthony Okungbowa (Kofu), and Bayo Akinfemi (Goodwin) round out the cast. 

Abishola (Folake Olowofoyeku) with Auntie Olu (Shola Adewusi) and Uncle Tunde (Barry Shabaka Henley).

In 2017 Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to play a transgender series regular on broadcast TV, as Cameron Wirth on CBS’ legal drama Doubt

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Originally published in Watch Magazine, January-February 2021.