The Black Church on TV

posted Jun 8, 2012, 5:33 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Jul 25, 2015, 4:22 AM ]

Having grown up in the black Pentecostal church, I’m always fascinated by how it’s portrayed on television. Largely played for laughs, those portrayals don’t vary much -- a bombastic preacher backed up by a dynamic sounding choir. He preaches to a holy-rollin’ congregation that raises their hands to the Lord (actually the set lights), shouts “Amen”, claps their hands and sways along with the choir.

Having grown up in the black Pentecostal church, I can’t say these portrayals are necessarily all that far off. It’s who we are and what we do.

Within the last month or so, the black church (as interpreted by Hollywood writers and producers) was featured in recent episodes of ABC’s still-underrated The Middle and NBC’s musical drama Smash. While neither deviated from what we’ve always seen from the black church on television, both incorporated it into their storylines for different reasons.

In The Middle, Frankie Heck (Patricia Heaton) complains about how boring her priest’s sermons are so her husband’s hitherto unseen black friend suggests they go to his church, which is of course more lively than theirs.

Frankie and her family walk through the sanctuary doors just as the proceedings are in full swing. The entire congregation is on their feet clapping and swaying to the beat of the music. The choir is singing, hands are raised and sharp hats are worn. The Heck’s friend also happens to be an usher, who directs them to the seats he reserved for them -- in the front pew. In real life, some congregant would have made a face or a snide comment about the fact that not only did those people came in late, but they got front row seats.

In a funny moment, Frankie starts clapping but the congregant next to her grabs her hands to help her stay on beat.

The fiery sermon, rife with raised hands and “amens!” from the congregation, is about getting your business done. 

This inspires Frankie to do just that. But her attempts to do so prove exhausting and worrisome so she winds up back at her own church where she realizes that the dull sermons from her priest actually wind up being her time to relax.

In Smash, the production is up in Boston for previews. Boston just happens to be the hometown of chorus dancer Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who invites everyone in the entire production to his church for Sunday service, which they all eventually agree to because of individual crises that have arisen in their lives.

It’s contrived but forgivable.

Sam prepares to lead a choir selection, which we think he’ll share with the shining-star-understudy-from-a-small-town Karen (Katherine McPhee). But Karen takes over the duet to deliver a soul-stirring rendition of “Stand”. Arms are raised, hands are waved, people are on their feet and the Lord’s name is lifted on high. Everyone is then ready to face their crises with renewed strength and power. Amen.

This is quite eyebrow-raising. I don’t know of any ministers of music that so willingly give up their microphone for a visitor. They might allow for a solo toward the end of the service, but they’re not giving over an entire song – especially when that visitor was in all likelihood NOT at rehearsal.

Of course in this case, this was probably all pre-arranged by Sam so that makes everything alright. Scoff.

In these cases, the black church is shown as a cultural experience that characters turn to as an alternative to their daily lives or in times of crisis. While one was slightly exaggerated for laughs, the other was treated with more reverence -- even if with less accuracy for the sake of a moment.

As I was watching these two episodes, I thought about memorable “black church” episodes of other shows. Perhaps because of how over-the-top a black church can seem, dramas rarely seem to go this route -- only a second season episode of Sons of Anarchy comes to mind and even that involved a crisis. But regardless of the show, the black church is often seen as an entity to be parodied and poked fun at.

As a former churchgoer, this is perfectly understandable. People run around, jump, dance, clap, sing and talk back to the preacher. It’s very freeing for those within it, but it’s very strange for those on the outside proverbially looking in. At the same time, other churches are seen as reverent and dignified – albeit dry, staid, stoic and all but enjoyable.

We didn’t see much of the black church on TV until the mid-1980s. In the 1970s, going to church was just talked about. We saw people on their way to church or coming home from church, but we didn’t see them actually there. We heard a lot about God and Christianity from Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page), Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) and Mama Curtis (Theresa Merritt) respectively on Sanford and Son, Good Times and That’s My Mama but this was often for the sake of laughs with Aunt Esther or to establish the piety of the Florida and Mama characterizations.

The same was the case with Florence Johnston (Marla Gibbs) on The Jeffersons. We knew that Florence was a churchgoing woman, but she was mostly seen going to, coming from, talking about church or rehearsing with her choir – until this episode from the long-running show’s final season.


The Jeffersons, “They Don’t Make Preachers Like Him Anymore”, 1984

In this episode, a charming new pastor replaces his retiring predecessor. All is not as it seems when it is discovered that he embezzled some funds and disappeared. Despite the storyline, the black church here is held in greater esteem and reverence than in later depictions.

The black church here isn’t a punchline. Having faith, even wavering in this case, isn’t a joke. The preacher (Julius Harris) isn’t a caricature just for the sake of comedy. He’s authoritative and respected.

The final scene between Florence and the preacher offers a realistic and honest look into that wavering faith. It also touches on our perceptions of good preachers, bad preachers and those who fall somewhere in between.


Amen, 1986-1991

Sherman Hemsley’s Jeffersons follow-up was actually set at a church in Philadelphia. His Ernest J. Frye was the Deacon who is less than welcoming to the new minister Reuben Gregory (Clifton Davis). Despite its setting, much of the church-related action was behind-the-scenes. Very few scenes actually took place during a service. 

While Reuben was honorable and respected (by all except Ernest), it was Ernest as the self-centered schemer who always found himself in some sort of trouble. Anna Maria Horsford was Ernest’s unmarried thirtysomething daughter Thelma, who set her eyes on Reuben from day one. Though it took four years for them to make it to the altar, she never took those eyes off him. Roz Ryan and Barbara Montgomery were the spinster Amelia and Cassietta Hetebrink sisters who could respectively sing and cook with the best of ‘em. Jester Hairston played Rolly Forbes, an elderly church member with a deep voice and a quick retort. 

Together they managed the affairs of the church and their respective lives outside it.

 

The Cosby Show, “The Storyteller”, 1990

The Huxtables’ faith was rarely mentioned. Cliff (Bill Cosby) telephoned a Reverend as a scare tactic to get the kid’s to cooperate with him in a first season episode, Cliff and Clair talked about how he fell asleep during a sermon in a third season episode and the family headed off to Church at the end of a fifth season episode. In the last episode of the series’ sixth season, we are brought into what we can only assume is the Huxtable’s church home. Their church comes across far more low-key than what is typically seen of black churches on television. 

In the episode, Cliff's 98-year-old great-aunt Gramtee (Minnie Gentry) visits for her birthday and the family is going to church that Sunday. But Olivia (Raven-Symone) is invited to go to the zoo with a friend of hers instead. This leads to a battle of wills between her and her stepmother Denise (Lisa Bonet). After spending some time with Gramtee, Olivia relents (as if she had a choice in the first place).

The choir, while still dynamic, isn’t singing a “stand-up and clap” song. Instead, they sing a rousing rendition of “Holy, Holy” lead by gospel legend Mavis Staples. One can either assume this is either a different kind of church where there’s no hand waving or hand clapping. Perhaps because of the nature of the song and the moment, either would be out of place anyway.


Family Matters, “Choir Trouble”, 1991

It’s interesting how a choir always seems to be at the center of a “black church” episode. This one centers in on the strife within a choir when the director (Telma Hopkins) lets her position go to her head to the point of alienating all the members. At the end, a contrite Rachel is met with support from her family -- who join her at the front of the church to sing "Put Your Hands in the Hand".

This episode also introduces Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) to the concept of faith when he accompanies the Winslows to church. Customarily, he embarrasses them with his exuberance, off-key singing and off-beat clapping.

Notice that the Winslow’s church seems to be a bit more upbeat than the Huxtables’. I just can’t imagine any of the Huxtables catching the Spirit and launching into a dance or running around the church.

 

Martin, “Checks, Lies and Videotape”, 1993

Martin is an over-the-top show, so its requisite “black church” episode is naturally going to be over-the-top. And this episode was exactly that. 

Reverend Leon Lonnie Love (David Alan Grier) is an overtly lecherous swindler who provides “spiritual healing” in exchange for money.

A fight breaks out between Martin (Martin Lawrence) and a church lady (Jeri Gray) wearing an obnoxiously large hat, which Gina (Tisha Campbell) and Tommy (Thomas Mikal Ford) try to keep from break up by pretending to praise the Lord.

And when Mama Payne (Martin Lawrence) shows up for a healing with a fistful of cash, Reverend Love throws her healing under his leg and down the aisle to her. Mama Payne catches the Spirit and executes a series of dance moves that culminates with back flips up the aisle to pay Reverend Love for his services. So Martin and Gina set out to expose his fraudulent practices.

Though being played for laughs, this is not a flattering reflection of the black church. While it is criminally over-the-top, there are elements of “money for healing” and frisky preachers that the episode does address.

 

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “Hare Today…”, 1996

In this episode from the show’s final season, Carlton (Alfonso Ribiero) and Ashley (Tatyana M. Ali), compete for a solo in the church’s Easter service. Ultimately, they are both chosen by the church’s dignified, low-key minister (Richard Roundtree). And apparently, neither one of them went to the rehearsal as they were either being sung over by the choir or they missed their cue to sing while the choir hummed.

For the record, a congregation standing to clap and sway along to the choir’s singing is far more staggering and a lot less choreographed than it is here (and in “Choir Trouble” from Family Matters).


Living Single, “Oh, Solo Mio”, 1997

Kyle (T.C. Carson) takes over for a departing choir director. Regine (Kim Fields Freeman) campaigns for and wins a solo. But when Kyle hears her sing he decides to give to Latrice (gospel singer CeCe Winans) instead. Regine being Regine, she kicks up a stink about not doing the solo until Latrice offers her the solo in the spirit of peace. But when she hears herself sing, Regine practices until she comes down with laryngitis. Because of her fight for the solo, Kyle still forces her to sing. At the end, Kyle winds up taking over for the hoarse Regine before handing the reigns over to Latrice.

The portrayal of the minister (guest star Dorien Wilson) in this episode was funny but somewhat ridiculous in that he often spoke as if he were behind a podium preaching a sermon.

There’s a relatable subplot involving Khadijah (Queen Latifah), who discovers she hasn’t been to church in about two years. So she shows up to the special church service wearing a hideous but church-appropriate dress and a mismatched hat. She brings a worn-out Bible that she purchased to give the allusion she had been reading it during her inadvertent church hiatus.


Good News, 1997-1998

Similar to Amen in the 1980s, this sitcom is also set at a church but focuses solely on a David Randolph, a young minister (David Ramsey) who takes over the reigns of a church where he is received rather coldly. Randolph was an upstanding individual with a heart and a burden for ministry who sees the best in everyone. He wasn’t a stereotype and he wasn’t over-the-top. You could actually believe he presided over a church.

Roz Ryan from the earlier series plays a prominent and influential church member. Unlike the earlier series, more scenes take place during church services. The linked clip does not, but the first 2 1/2 minutes is a really funny moment from the short-lived series featuring a Randolph hyped-up on coffee in order to stay awake to host a telethon.


The Bernie Mac Show, “Saving Bernie Mac”, 2001

In one of the funniest of the “black church” episodes, Bernie’s younger niece (Dee Dee Davis) asks him why they don’t go to church. Failing an answer, Bernie takes them. The episode hilariously plays up several black church stereotypes – Oscar-length services, drawn-out sermons, seemingly interminable altar calls and overly helpful but stern ushers.

The portrayal of the bombastic preacher was refreshingly played down to a more realistic but still comedic level by guest star Richard Lawson -- who takes a special interest in Bernie's salvation by showing up at the house repeatedly and cramping Bernie's style even more than his nieces and nephew do.


Everybody Hates Chris, “Everybody Hates Easter”, 2008

Rochelle (Tichina Arnold) defends her three-year reign as the winner of the church’s annual Easter hat competition, but faces strong competition from a new member (Anna Maria Horsford of Amen).

The minister here is portrayed by Johnny Brown of Good Times fame. While his portrayal is on-point and a joke is made that this service has gone on more than four hours, there are a few over-the-top moments played up for laughs that wouldn’t actually occur in church. 


The black church has rarely, if ever, REALLY been portrayed all that honestly or realistically. So what we’ve seen of the black church on television is mostly what gets played up for laughs and parody.

While the black church has set itself up for most of that parody, there is much more to the black church that can respectfully played up for drama – or even just accuracy.