“Most men have no idea about the female sex drive,” Lillian Williams (Saycon Sengbloh), the middle-aged African American mother on “The Wonder Years” warns her nerdy 12-year-old son, Dean (Elisha Williams). “I don’t want you to turn out like them.”
For a Black woman in Montgomery, Ala., in 1968, Lillian’s confession that the pornographic magazines stashed in the basement belong to her rather than her husband (Dulé Hill) is rather unexpected. But this revelation is less about sex specifically than about reiterating one of the primary themes of this delightful reboot.
“I don’t think it is too much for me to ask, that my son grow up to be a caring and tender man,” Lillian says.
Thanks to his close relationship with his mother, his artistic role model of a father (a musician and college professor), his idiosyncratic friends and his own inner spirit, Dean is a tender boy, even as the tumultuous events of the late 1960s form the backdrop of his life.
And while this makes his character refreshing, it also signals a significant turn in television. “The Wonder Years,” on ABC, is part of a group of new shows, including “Swagger’” on Apple TV+ and Netflix’s “Colin in Black and White,” that this fall joined existing series, like the CW’s “All American” and OWN’s “David Makes Man,” in centering the vulnerability, curiosity and emotional complexity of Black boys. The result has been that in 2021, we could find more nuanced portrayals of Black boyhood on TV than ever before.
These shows challenge not only the predominance of coming-of-age narratives about white male adolescents but also the longstanding typecasting of Black boys onscreen as impoverished, clownish, hyper-violent or otherwise threatening.
“I just want to be a part of that conversation,” Saladin K. Patterson, the creator of the “Wonder Years” reboot told me recently. “And just show a different side of a Black boy that is intelligent, that’s sensitive, that doesn’t always get the girl, but has a very high emotional I.Q.”
This shouldn’t feel exceptional, but it does. I watched the original “Wonder Years” as a kid in the late 1980s, but the only Black boys I saw on television at that time were there for comedic relief, like the awkward Steve Urkel from “Family Matters” or the frequently ridiculous Carlton Banks of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” The best I could hope for was a two-dimensional supporting character like Theo Huxtable of “The Cosby Show,” and of course his portrayal was a rejection of earlier shows like “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Webster” that featured orphaned Black boys saved by wealthy white households.
Later, I watched movies, like “Boyz N The Hood,” “Juice” and “Menace II Society,” all of which showed young Black protagonists trapped in the cycle of gun, gang and police violence. With the exception of the more well-rounded comedy “Everybody Hates Chris,” it was still hard in the 2000s to find a show, even well-intentioned ones like “The Wire,” that attended to the concerns of young Black men with seriousness and nuance or without inevitably framing their lives as shaped by poverty and a winnowing of opportunity.
These new series, in contrast, insist on depicting Black boyhood as spaces of innocence, possibility and political awakening. They are defined as much by our recent racial reckoning as they are by the original catalysts for Black Lives Matter: the murders of the Black teenagers Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. As a result, they function as correctives to the racist stereotypes that made those boys vulnerable to such violence.
Though Dean’s story unfolds more than 50 years ago, during the Vietnam War and the rise of Black Power, there is a timelessness to his youthful resilience amid upheaval. The first episode of “The Wonder Years” is set in the wake of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Dean’s emotional complexity exemplifies how Black boys try to hold onto their racial innocence despite the real-life discrimination they face.
“We just embraced what we are experiencing in the present day,” Patterson said, as being “analogous to what the country was going through in the late ’60s, as well — and embraced the fact that we were able to use the current day to inform how we wanted to tell the stories of the past.”
The drama “Swagger,” which just wrapped its first season, is set in the much more recent past. Based on the early life of the N.B.A. all-star Kevin Durant, who grew up outside of Washington, D.C. (and is an executive producer), it is set in our present as it frames the story of Jace Crawford (Isaiah Hill), a star 14-year-old athlete who faces as much adversity on the court as off it.
In one particularly poignant episode, Jace responds to the police harassing his team by kneeling during the national anthem before his game and then by joining a contemporary racial protest on his way home. The fact that he has this political awakening so early in his life is deeply unfair, and it is yet another byproduct of society in which Black children are forced to develop a racial consciousness at a far younger age than their white counterparts.
Reggie Rock Bythewood, who created “Swagger,” told me that he conceived of that story line before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked widespread protests and cultural conversations about racial inequity in America.
“This idea of a loss of innocence was really something that we really leaned into,” Bythewood said. “Because those experiences existed before 2020. I think what 2020 did was make it land more, and hit harder.”
The blue and yellow color palette of the show’s opening credits and Jace’s team uniform was partly inspired by Lisa Whittington’s 2012 painting “Emmett Till: How She Sent Him and How She Got Him Back.” “Emmett Till was a big inspiration for us,” Bythewood said. “He is the North Star that challenges us to ask ourselves: How do we treat our kids in this country?” (His wife, Gina Prince-Bythewood, is a director and executive producer of the upcoming ABC limited series “Women of the Movement” about Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.)
“We are fighting to preserve their hope and innocence,” he continued. But “in many ways, this is just a sad right of passage, because at some point our children are going to face racism, and we hope for positive outcomes when they do.”
Through his thoughtful performance, Hill, the first-time actor and former high school basketball player who plays Jace, is able to strike a delicate balance between the imposed maturation his character must undergo and the youthfulness of his middle-school life.
“In my generation, a lot of Black boys and young men bottle up their feelings, so Jace has to struggle with that,” Hill, 19, told me. “And without a father figure in his life, he has to just learn how to deal with that as he keeps going, and that comes with a lot of trial and error.”
In “Colin in Black and White,” the limited series from Ava DuVernay (“When They See Us”) and the athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick, based on Kaepernick’s childhood, a political awakening like Jace’s is already a foregone conclusion. In fact, given the circumstances of his upbringing, in which he was adopted by white parents and attended a predominantly white high school in Turlock, Calif., Colins experiences primarily revolve around race — those feelings of alienation, confusion and betrayal that come when a coach, hotel manager or even his own parents lob a racist insult his way.
One of the most compelling episodes is about his search for a Black salon where the young Colin (Jaden Michael) can get his hair braided into cornrows — and his parents’ fear that such a style makes him look like a “thug.”
That label becomes even more heartbreaking because of how difficult it was for him to find a stylist. But the salon, which is also a clothing store and hangout for young Black people to check out the latest rap album or streetwear, is a revelation for young Kaepernick because it gives him a sense of both what he has been missing and what might still be culturally possible for him.
By acknowledging his boyhood longing to be with other Black people, as well as the limits that he, as a child, faces when trying to understand the big and small acts of racism that he endures, “Colin in Black and White” lays the groundwork for Kaepernick’s later evolution. Just as important, it gives us access into the passion and perseverance that undergirds both his past achievements in the N.F.L. and his quest for racial justice today.
While the new series are largely focused on youthful milestones, earlier standard-bearers have reached the point in their stories when we see the men such experiences have made.
This year, the CW sports drama “All American” explores how its protagonist, Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), whom we first met four seasons ago as a high school freshman, makes the transition into young adulthood and college life. The second season of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s impressionistic “David Makes Man,” a show that initially used fantasy sequences to capture the vivid imagination of its 14-year-old protagonist (a wonderful Akili McDowell), we find David now fully grown (as played by Kwame Patterson) and having flashbacks to the traumatic events of his high school years.
Over the past year, I found all of these shows nourishing and fascinating. Each takes place in a different setting and stage of life, and across a vast spectrum of time. Taken together, they create a complex portrait of the rich inner lives and strength that enable Black boys and men to overcome the racism they will invariably face and to forge relationships that are intimate and honest.
Most radically, these tender stories are another way to pay homage to Emmett, Trayvon, Michael and others, like Tamir Rice — to the boys they once were and, tragically, could not fully become.