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Every time there is a highly visible civil rights push in America, reporters ask me for my reaction. I know they’re looking for a feel-good quote that will assure white America that the country has turned the corner and racism is on the run. However, having been in the midst of many highly visible civil rights protests for the past 50 years, my reaction is always the same: cautious optimism. Despite moments of intense jubilation and uplifting triumph, I’ve watched the movement ebb and flow, sometimes like thunderous waves crashing a rocky precipice, other times like tired waves lapping a quiet beach. Exhilaration gives way to exhaustion, and hopes that things have finally changed give way to the sad realities of just how entrenched systemic racism is.
It’s been a year since the Black Lives Matter protests, the largest movement in American history, with more than 4,700 marches in one month totaling up to 26 million Americans hitting the streets. We couldn’t watch the news or sports without Black Lives Matter being prominently featured. Professional athletes, politicians, rock stars and other celebrities signaled support. But as always with civil rights movements, the outrage and urgency has flagged. We can’t blame the COVID-19 crisis because those protests occurred when the pandemic was at its worst. Surprisingly, one outlet that has kept the BLM discussion alive and relevant is Bravo, on two of its reality shows: Real Housewives of New York City and Married to Medicine.
A few years ago, I wrote about the lack of Black women on RHONY in a city that is only 42.7 percent white. This year, they have two Black women who have different approaches to how they see their role on the show. This difference has proved to be a dynamic reflection of how whites see BLM and their reactions to it. Married to Medicine, with its mostly Black cast, likewise has featured the BLM protests with some sincere and heartfelt experiences, but also some crass exploitation. Not only are these shows educating America about the broad spectrum of reactions from whites and Blacks, they’re keeping the spirit of the BLM protests alive when most others in the media have forgotten it.
This season’s RHONY features two new Black castmembers: Eboni K. Williams and Bershan Shaw. (Disclaimer: As with any reality show, we can only discuss the edited representation of people on the show, which may be very different from who they are outside the show.) Williams brings an impressive background to the show: law degree, public defender, host of several TV news and culture shows. She also brings a personal mission: to educate the show’s women, as well as the audience, about African American history, culture and the pressing social issues facing them. The predictable reaction of some of the white women was that they felt lectured at and attacked. RHONY castmember Ramona Singer best embodies the clueless essence of Trumpian white privilege denial and “I don’t see color” virtue signaling. While denying her own enabling of racism by pretending it barely exists, she also attempts to change the subject most of the time Williams brings it up.
Motivational speaker Bershan Shaw, 10 years older than Williams, seems more generationally and attitudinally attuned to the OG RHONY castmates who live in the rarefied stratosphere that millions of dollars creates. She’s sympathetic to Williams’ goal but not really supportive. Introduced to the group by Singer, in a transparent attempt by Singer herself to make her look progressive (“Look, everyone, I have a Black friend!”), Shaw just wants to go along for the self-promoting ride of being on a reality show.
It’s impressive that, despite the knee-jerk outbursts that they aren’t racists when she mentions systemic racism, Williams presses on in a gentle but firm way to show them that racism can be passive as well as active.
Meanwhile, Bravo’s Married to Medicine already was groundbreaking in that the cast mostly is successful Black doctors and their spouses living in large houses and reaping the benefits of the American dream. Sure, they can be petty and judgy and childish, but that’s not necessarily bad. Viewers get to see them be just as vulnerable, insecure and human as their white reality show counterparts. They don’t have to always bear the enormous burden of being perfect African American role models in everything they do, which can be confining stereotyping. They’re educated, successful, financially well off, but they feud like everyone else in America.
This season was especially poignant because it didn’t shy away from how hard COVID-19 hit the Black community nor from the BLM protests. Some of the doctors on the show had been volunteering to test people in the community, while others delivered babies, worked the emergency room or continued to provide medical services. The season featured a couple of episodes in which they went to the March on Washington as guests of Rev. Al Sharpton, where they tested marchers for COVID-19. While that was informative, the most touching moment came when the men were gathered together with some of their sons and talked about the personal impact of BLM. The fathers related dark times when they’d been accosted by police, and the sons talked about what the movement meant to them. It was one of the most affecting and honest scenes in reality TV history and had the potential to move more Americans than a dozen fiery speeches.
The show has its heroes of BLM, but it also isn’t afraid to portray its villains. Dr. Damon Kimes and Dr. Eugene Harris are the nicest, most honorable and admirable of people, the Ted Lassos of reality TV. Dr. Simone Whitmore and Dr. Jackie Walters are professional and compassionate doctors. On the other hand, when dentist Dr. Heavenly Kimes contacts a woman to give her free dentistry after her tooth was knocked out by police during a BLM protest, the gesture comes across as using BLM for self-promotion and virtue signaling.
Now for the bad news. Both RHONY and Married to Medicine have had some of their lowest ratings this season. Of course, some would like to blame the discussions about race as the cause, even though other reality shows also have suffered declines in their ratings. It’s to Bravo’s credit that it took on the responsibility of continuing the BLM conversation long after most others abandoned it, even at the risk of it negatively affecting ratings. That is a form of activism that benefits us all.
How does that make me feel? Cautiously optimistic.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an NBA Hall of Famer and the league’s all-time leading scorer, is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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