James “JJ” Evans may have been born to the proud, positive (if sometimes injuriously so) parentage of Florida and James Evans, but his bloodline runs thick with the watermelon sap of the Sambo family tree. Yet the blatant stereotype in JJimmie Walker’s kool-aid gulping, jive talking, chicken-hat sporting, velvet-clad JJ only distracted from the subtler affirmations of white hegemonic values. White viewers were distanced from the issues plaguing the residents of the Evans family’s neighbourhood – inflation, job shortages, gang violence, poverty – which were instead rested on the comfortably intangible powers that be. A monolithic government force, and not a society of individuals, caused the problems, and, as the show’s title and laugh track affirmed, things really weren’t so bad (Coleman 97).
As Herman Gray notes in Watching Race:
“The television programs involving blacks were largely representations of what white liberal middle-class television program makers assumed (or projected) were “authentic” accounts of poor black urban ghetto experiences. Good Times (1974-79)… for example, [was] set in poor urban communities and populated by blacks who were often unemployed or underemployed. But more important, for the times, these black folks were good-natured and united in racial solidarity regardless (or perhaps because) of their condition. Ironically, despite the humor and social circumstances of the characters, these shows idealize and quietly reinforce a normative white middle-class construction of family, love and happiness.” (77)
Even as viewers shared, guilt-free, in the struggles of the Evans family, the show quickly “degenerated into a boisterous racial farce” (MacDonald 186). Seeing the enormous popularity of the re-imagined minstrel, Lear insisted on JJ’s heightened presence on the series, writing his signature catchphrase, “DY-NO-MITE!” into every episode. “As scripts increasingly pandered to JJ’s buffoonery,” John Amos left the show, followed later by Esther Rolle, leaving television’s first wholesome, if cloying, black family in the hands of the eldest son (MacDonald 186). JJ’s foil and younger brother, Michael “the militant midget” Evans’ character arc followed much the same trajectory as the show itself. Without the intervention of the “proud, strong and determined image of Afro-American fatherhood,” the Malcolm X-quoting star student soon became his older brother’s double (MacDonald 186). The potency of Michael’s politics, however, is problematized by his youth. At the show’s start, Michael Evans is a twelve-year old encyclopedia of black history and mouthpiece for black pride mantras. Yet “the militant midget” poses no real threat of revolution; he still needs his mother’s permission to play basketball after dark. To temper the potential threat of JJ, a seventeen-year old, womanizing and smooth-talking black male, he is made ridiculous. His appearance is the subject of joke after joke (in the playful dozens-style taunts of his family), he is inarticulate, he fails school and carries himself like a peacock-feathered turkey.
I propose a close-reading of a pivotal episode of Good Times, season three episode twenty-four, the season finale, entitled “The Rent Party,” to further examine the image politics, both onscreen and off, present in the series. It is James Evans’ last appearance on the show and a rare episode not to highlight, let alone exclude, JJ. Following this episode, Michael’s transformation is most apparent, as is the exaggerated emphasis on JJ’s character.
The episode begins with an allusion to JJ’s absence; “Kid Dy-no-mite” is in St. Louis for an art competition. JJ’s (rare) exclusion from the episode only heightens his presence. The exaggerated buffoonery absorbed so intrinsically in the character as to desensitize the audience ] becomes blatantly and doubly visible when it is performed by another (and largely antithetical) character. Brother Michael, the “militant midget,” clears his throat and ‘blacks up’ to imitate JJ on the telephone. Adopting blackvoice (playing the suave dozens, Michael tells the caller “Mama, just make sure you are dressed for the test and I will do my best to take care of the rest”) and the accompanying gestural excess, the voice of black liberation, education and solidarity becomes a conduit for JJ’s cartoonish antics. Even when present, JJ creates a sort of negative cultural space, occupying the limbic area “between black invisibility and white-authorized representations of blackness” (Gray 156). When he is physically absent, then, the rounder, more fulfilled character of Michael fills the bean-pole shaped void, making visible the emptiness of the present-JJ and compromising his own representation. The layers of visible and invisible blackness, as well as the episode’s referentiality speaks to Stuart Hall’s intervention in textual reading:
“The directly behavioral ‘message’ has been stylized and conventionalized by the intervention of a highly organized set of codes and genre conventions (a code-of-codes, or meta-code). The intervention of the codes appear to have the effect of neutralizing one set of meanings, while setting another in motion” (Hall 52)
In the case of Good Times, genre conventions, specifically those of the black sitcom, are embedded in its reading. The obvious attempts at re-writing this code (the intervention of serious social issues in place of light comedic fare) are mere misdirects from the show’s actual capacity to complicate and subvert its layers of meaning. In spite of, or rather because of, its singular generic placement in the realm of the black sitcom, Good Times covertly reveals and hides a much deeper set of cultural codes, enclosing the full history of black television in what its four cameras show. Thus, as traced in the previous sections, Good Times, potentially, encodes vaudevillian/minstrel roots, the injurious TV minstrelsy of the 1950s, the empty space of the 1960s, government intervention and black reaction and the reel upon reel of news footage intrinsic to the contemporary image of African Americans. In most cases, these codes come out in obvious one-liners, like Michael’s assertion that “black ain’t beautiful on a yellow bus” or Florida’s lamentations that movie heroes were either white or Stepin Fetchit. Yet, in the episode “The Rent Party,” Good Times makes notes of its roots and their lingering presence.
As the title suggests, the primary conflict of this episode is the impending eviction of an elderly (and sassy and audience-beloved) tenant, Wanda, and the Evans’ efforts to keep her under their ghetto’s collective roof. Wanda’s forcible eviction is not rested on the shoulders of the dominant race or classes and their institutional ignorance of inner-city issues, but rather, indirectly, on the weak-willed, overweight, clumsy, lazy and disliked (black) janitor. Bookman, in fact, despite his blatant scripting as a flat (but blubbery) post-Amos Andy, is somehow outside of the black experience; in a barely audible in-joke, Bookman says to James, you just can’t be nice to you people,” to James’ indignant, “you people?!” Failing to implicate the white populace in blame, yet assigning it to a exaggeratedly stereotypical character who nonetheless identifies with whiteness complicates the centers of oppression and injustice in the show’s microcosm of black experience. Thus, Bookman is the “good nigger,” who caters to white society to the extent that he identifies with the oppressor despite the obvious ridicule of him. For the show’s run, Bookman’s justified unpopularity is alluded to often, yet its roots in “whiteness” only come to light in James Evans’ final moments.
The titular rent party becomes a stage for an intra-textual variety show, placing the sitcom in the cultural space of Ed Sullivan and T.D. Rice. The episode becomes a frame for the diegetic entertainment at the party, creating a variety/vaudeville show within the coding of the sitcom. The “pride of the projects, Michael Evans,” as announced by standing emcee James Evans, begins the rec-room variety show, performing Ruby and the Romantic’s “When You’re Young and in Love.” Despite the innocence of the lyrics and the tameness of the dancing, this performance, when combined with Michael’s earlier performance of his older brother, marks the militant midget’s transition from perverse intelligentsia to women-chasing re-imagined buck.
Constructed mulatto Bookman then performs a nuanced imitation of Ed Sullivan and his interviewees. Playing the roles of popular white cultural figures to the delight of a fictional black ghetto audience and an actual studio audience, Bookman situates himself precariously between white-scripted blackness and black-scripted whiteness. Such is its meta-code: the conventions of vaudeville are re-imagined through the lens of the variety show which is then distorted by its containment in a sitcom. The implicit audience in the vaudeville reference is doubled by the onscreen audience of the show’s tenants and tripled by the studio audience adding to the laugh track. And the conflation of vaudeville with variety updates the minstrel image to exclude possible direct readings of inverse minstrelsy, and hide/reveal the possibility of racial farce turned around.
Good Times’ potential power relied on a slow but inexorable mixing of authentic black culture and problems into white values and white assumptions of authentic black culture and problems. Thus, its gentle comedy and upholding of normative white middle-class values were the assimilationist and pluralistic prelude to the eventuality of multiculturalism. Yet, following one episode of slightly more visible subversion, its potential collapsed under the weight of plurality. The two world could not mix, so the son killed off the father to maintain the blackness approved of by whites. In the hands of “Kid Dy-no-mite,” a show with mild, but real potential for change imploded; the Evans’ project was long-condemned.