In 2021, Black Boyhood Got More Complex on TV

It’s a refreshing change, but it also represents a major shift in television. With “The Wonder Years,” which premiered on ABC this fall, the network has joined a group of new shows, including “Swagger” on Apple TV+ and Netflix’s “Colin in Black and White,” in focusing on the vulnerability, curiosity, and emotional complexity of Black boys. As a result, we can expect to see more nuanced depictions of Black boyhood on television in 2021 than ever before.

There is a growing body of work that challenges the stereotypical representations of Black boys in popular culture as impoverished, clumsy, violent, or in some other way threatening.

Reboot writer/director/producer Saladin K. Patterson told me recently that he just wanted to be a part of that conversation. It’s important to portray a Black boy with a high emotional intelligence who is also intelligent and sensitive.

This isn’t unusual, but it still feels that way. When I was a kid in the late 1980s, I used to watch the original “Wonder Years,” but the only Black boys I saw on television were on comedic relief shows like “Family Matters” or “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” where Carlton Banks was frequently ridiculous. Of course, Theo Huxtable of “The Cosby Show,” a two-dimensional supporting character like “Dif’rent Strokes” and “Webster” that featured orphaned Black boys saved by wealthy white households, was the only hope I had.

Films like “Boyz N Hood,” “Juice” and “Menace II Society” depicted young black protagonists caught in the cycle of gun, gang and police violence. In the 2000s, it was difficult to find a show that addressed the concerns of young Black men with seriousness and nuance or without inevitably framing their lives as shaped by poverty and a lack of opportunity.