Touching on race in The Get Down

Now four episodes into The Get Down, this week’s reading on televised portrayals of race in the 1970s became incredibly pertinent to my viewing of the show. The Get Down covers numerous issues that faced the real-life Bronx in the 1970s – corruption, politics, racial divides, debt – that are concisely described in this article. Though most of the characters in The Get Down are fictional, much of the history covered in the series, though a dramatic interpretation, is true.

Image result for the get down

[Photo from Variety]

The lines in Jones’ chapter about J.J. of Good Times that read, “He plays off his Blackness with self-loathing glee, tossing out jokes…that are guaranteed to provoke shocked, nervous – and occasionally liberating – laughter” and “Negative images have been quietly slipped in on us through [his] character” portray a problem that, in a way, reverses the Archie bunker effect: by using a black character to joke about racial stereotypes, the show invites a white audience to reinforce those harmful ideals within themselves.

In this fantastic interview in Vulture with The Get Down’s lead actor, Justice Smith, he candidly speaks on the pressure he felt in high school to do the same thing. However, as a biracial male, the situation was much more complex, as he beautifully articulates in this quote:

“You hear stereotypes on TV. All of those stereotypes are funny so I laughed, but it was the first time that I was like, I’m black?And then it kept happening and at first, I would say, well, I’m biracial. I was trying to appeal, and that’s where internalized racism comes in because everyone comes at you with these jokes. I want to be friends with these people, so I’m going to make jokes about myself and make jokes about my own race. That’s how I’m going to move forward in this school. That led to deep depression and deep self-loathing. Not only was I experiencing normal teenage hormones and what it means to be in high school, I was also experiencing this racial backlash that was masked in this well-intentioned humor. Every joke would tear a little bit away from me. It was a struggle to navigate because no matter what you do, you couldn’t win. If I made jokes about myself that would just say that it’s okay for them to continue to do that, and if I were to say, “Please, stop, that’s not funny,” they would be like it’s just a joke, and I would be too sensitive. I didn’t learn the language of what I experienced until after high school.”

He then says of The Get Down that the “characters are not monolithic. We have an array of people of color and they’re all different types of people,” which is something that drew him to the part initially. The show portrays two distinct cultures – the African-American and Hispanic communities in the Bronx – and how they interact and mix with one another (quite literally, as Smith’s character, Zeke, is half-Puerto Rican and half-Black). But rather than out-of-touch writing to reinforce stereotypes of such ethnicities, the show seems to strive toward a genuine portrayal of them in that time period. Smith noted that one of the show’s creators, Baz Luhrmann, invited the actors to “debate with him about [their] own characters’ journey. He gave [them] the opportunity to find some autonomy in the character,” which is particularly important because Luhrmann is a white. Australian man working with a cast almost exclusively of people of color. The cast even went through an extensive hip-hop boot camp for two months before shooting. Shows like The Get Down help to highlight some of the progress that television shows have made when basing storylines around POCs; though there are always impending improvements, it’s cool to feel like you’re watching something authentic.

-Kristina Kokkonos

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