In celebration of Black History Month, TV One is presenting “Way Black When,” a month-long, high-profile programming designed to “reflect back on the golden age of black culture” that emerged during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
All month, the one-hour talk show will air each weeknight, showcasing black pop culture icons across three decades — including athletes, comedians and actors. During a TV One promo shoot in Los Angeles, The Wave dropped by the set to visit funnyman Tommy Davidson, whose landmark show, “In Living Color,” is central to the discussion of the final decade to be explored by the special series.
Some would say that the ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ was able to cross color lines. What are your thoughts on that?
Will Smith was somehow able to make the black experience palatable for White America — who wasn’t in contact or hadn’t been exposed to either the black or urban experience, which are sort of intermixed. He was a good representation that gave them more absorbency and a little more open-mindedness because the images that the media puts out are so bluntly to the other side that America doesn’t understand. I think he was able to do that on the show.
Which decade — the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s — was best for black pop culture and why?
I think the ‘70s was best for black pop culture because it was the first time after the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement that black Americans were accepted. It was our time to go out there and show people who we were. Just as a people, our minds were changing. It was a different movement. All of a sudden living amongst each other was a good idea, peace became a good idea, education became a good idea. It was a good time. There was a lot of coming together of the cultures and it created this landscape of tolerance.
What movie best captures the ‘90s black culture?
I would say somewhere between “New Jack City” and “House Party.” They had the styles, the trends and what we were all about. But you would also have to include “School Daze.”
What song or artist best captures the ‘90s black culture?
I think Biggie and Tupac coming on the scene really set the stage for every hip-hop artist that is hot right now. That is when hip-hop lyrics took on a certain individuality and a certain personality that was able to transcend all social lines. They were an important force in music and hip-hop. They are what music is now. Had they not been gone, you might not even know who Jay-Z and Kanye West are.
Was there clothing or a hairstyle that you once rocked that if shown to you today would have you embarrassed?
[Laughing] In the ‘90s Puffy tried to tell me. I went through a high-top fade phase, where it was short on the sides and had a box on the top. Everyone had one. [Puffy] asked me to cut my widows peak off and I was like ‘Naw, I’m not going to cut my peak off.’ When I watched “Strictly Business,” the movie I starred in with Halle Berry back in the day, this thing was sticking out so big that I was like, “That’s what he meant.” On the big screen, that little thing looks like Dracula’s cape, [some how] I turned into the hip-hop Eddie Munster, I don’t know.
If you could relive any moment from the ‘90s, what would it be?
It would be my “In Living Color” experience because we were able to finally get something really funny on TV.
What was it like revisiting the ‘90s today?
It was good. I took another look at that period in time. That was my foundation, that is where I became a star. It happened so fast. I started out doing stand-up, then TV and movies and ended up here. I was just blessed to be a part of it.
Are there any fond memories you have of that era?
My favorite thing about the ‘90s was that all of the actresses and actors that I worked around all saw each other, still talked and had dialogue. Competition didn’t influence our relationships. There was no separation between our relationships; we were all friends. That is the one thing I do miss. What Hollywood has the tendency of doing is creating competition and if you are not able to assimilate, you will stop friendships believing that will give you success. I miss the genuine moments.
This show is supposed to take viewers on a trip back through ‘Blackness.’ What does ‘Blackness’ mean to you?
I guess I can construe it as when blacks use to be on TV, with new shows and movies coming out all the time. That has seemed to slim up. Now you mainly just have your Tyler Perry. The ‘90s was an explosion of creativity. It was sort of like the Harlem Renaissance, where there were African-American poets, jazz musicians and others. We brought forth a whole new level of movie making, directing and producing. The ‘90s was our growth period where stars were made — Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, Wesley Snipes, Martin, Will Smith. The ‘90s were actually responsible for the lucrative position that Hollywood is in today, yet we find ourselves asking why we aren’t on TV as much any more.
Why do you think the black presence is not as frequent on television or in films as it was in the ‘90s?
I think it’s a liberal choice on behalf of the networks and studios because they control that. It sort of reminds me of the old Negro baseball leagues versus the major leagues. They knew the men in the Negro leagues were talented, they knew they could play and they couldn’t even beat them, but it was their choice if they were going to let them in the league or not. I think we are in that same position right now with television and film. It is their choice, but you would think that they would have continued to make the right choice, as they did then, since Black shows and films in the ‘90s provided not only lucrative benefits and creativity, but brought us together as a country.
Do you think we will ever see as many blacks on television and in film again?
I think we will. Things happen for a reason.
Photo: Tommy Davidson, who starred on the landmark 1990s series “In Living Color,” is featured in the series “Way Black When.” Credit: Courtesy of TV One.