'Family Matters' of Identity: Addressing Race on a Mainstream Level
Photo Credit: S & A

'Family Matters' of Identity: Addressing Race on a Mainstream Level

nullChildren of the 1990s, lend me your ears: The Complete Third Season of Family Matters, that sweet and charming sitcom about a loving middle-class black family living in Chicago, has arrived on DVD, thanks to the good folks at Warner Bros.

Famous for introducing America to TV nerd extraordinaire Steve Urkel (and as long lasting as another Miller-Boyett production, Full House), Family Matters stayed in line with typical episodic family comedies of the 20th century’s last decade, breaking few rules while commodifying annoying over-the-top characters and catchphrases; the sayings “You got it dude!” and “Did I do that?” served as Miller-Boyett cash cows.

Premiering as a spinoff to Perfect Strangers, another show about family values and the zany predicaments we often get involved in, Family Matters introduced us to the Winslows, a family consisting of a husband and wife, a grandmother, and three kids going through life in the era of George H.W. Bush’s presidency. Although the show rarely challenged its audience, this weekly comfort food featured episodes towards the end of Season 2 and beginning of Season 3 that touched on a subject foreign to much of its loyal Middle America viewership: racial discrimination.

With an audience of predominately pre-teens, Family Matters was very rarely a program about race. It featured stories about love, heartbreak, friendship, and family bonding, but larger social issues, when touched upon, felt more like public service announcements than organic attempts at an understanding. On the not so opposite end of the spectrum, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a family show about a black teen from West Philadelphia moving to the almost exclusively white and affluent neighborhood of Bel Air, dealt with race from the very beginning. Episode Six of Season One, Mistaken Identity, focused specifically on racial profiling, as Will and his cousin Carlton are arrested for driving what the police believe is a stolen vehicle. Carlton feels that the police are just doing their job, while Will is convinced that the car was presumed stolen because they were black men. Needless to say, this is heavy stuff for families in a group setting to be confronted with.

Family Matters, in Season 2 Episode 20, Fight The Good Fight, used Black History Month as its entry point into prompting a discussion about race. When Laura, the eldest Winslow daughter, starts a petition to get Black History courses added to her school’s year long curriculum, she is met with much approval and yet one horrifying incident. Upon going back to her locker, Laura discovers that is has been broken into. A note taped inside informs her that if she wants to learn more about Black History, she should go back to Africa. Disgusted and nearly in tears, Laura quickly closes her locker, only to see the word “Nigger” written across the door. Racial tension between white and black students quickly pervades the air, the principal almost going as far as to be against the idea of promoting Black History. By the episode’s conclusion, Laura is taught by her grandmother to keep fighting for what she believes in, and Black History courses are ultimately integrated into the curriculum. The perpetrators are never caught.

Born to be Mild, the ninth episode in Season 3, focuses on The Dragons, an all black gang causing mayhem to Aunt Rachel’s restaurant (Rachel’s Place) by vandalizing the property and and brutally attacking young Eddie Winslow. Carl, Eddie’s father and a noble police officer, vows revenge on The Dragons for the pain they’ve caused his family. However, Urkel quickly nixes this flirtation with vigilante justice by pointing out that the gang would just cite police brutality as a way to get off scot-free and cause Carl further damage.

This idea of police brutality, that cops would have to be extra careful about they way they manhandled potential criminals, was a topical one when Born to be Mild first aired. Eight months earlier, a man by the name of Rodney King had been in the news for the amount of physical abuse he had unjustly received by the LAPD. Did Urkel mention police brutality to Carl because The Dragons were a group of black men and thus should be handled with extra caution to avoid future legal reprimanding? Viewed today, the “police brutality” line may have lost some of its immediacy for new fans of the show, but in the Fall of 1991, it was a very serious topic of discussion when discussing the mistreatment of African-American men by officers of the law.

It’s still too early to tell if Family Matters: The Complete Third Season will be a success on home video, but the show’s legions of fans will surely want to have the set in their collection. By making a purchase, you are indirectly telling Warner Bros that you are interested in the release of future seasons, and we all know there’s a market out there for episodes featuring Judyann Elder, the replacement Harriet by show’s end.

While Family Matters is not considered a classic sitcom by most, for some it hit its mark and entertained the masses while occasionally reaching for something more. Aware of its youth demographic, Family Matters’ early seasons’ delicate dissection of race was blunt and to the point. Would the show now be considered a mainstream black sitcom for a white audience? Family Matters at times dealt with universal fears and pains, but in a few instances, became a show of specificity, a program about dealing with the specific issues faced by an African-American family living in a slowly progressing country.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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