They’re out there, and they stretch back decades. Some you might remember from childhood, while others are recent favorites, but the fact of the matter is that there aren’t a LOT of animated series out there now featuring black characters. Plenty of series have individual black characters in supporting roles (i.e. Chef from “South Park,” Gerald from “Hey Arnold!”), but not enough black characters as leads. The early ’70s were a breakthrough time for this genre, and there was a great revival in the early millennium but there’s been a big drop-off the past few years, leaving a huge gap that needs to be filled.
So in that spirit, we wanted to feature 10 animated series that we love and think you need to watch if you haven’t already, so get ready to get hip.
1. ADOPTED BY ALIENS (2004-2006)
Most of this list features network or cable shows, but there’s also some action happening on the Web, like this show. You might not be bowled over by spiffy animation, but that didn’t really bother you with “South Park” either, did it? The concept, though, of a teenage girl who wants a family being taken in by aliens, works on a few levels with some obvious and not-obvious subtext to it. Written, animated and directed by sisters Shawnee and Shawnelle Gibbs (who also do the theme music), each episode is a few minutes long, which makes it easier to binge on all five episodes. In the pilot, the heroine, Whitney Ward, has a serious, over-the-top jones for ‘The Crosby Show” and gets lost in sweet, humorous fantasies throughout. Luckily, Whitney’s adopted extra-terrestrial family is pretty chill and snappy dressers, too, except for the malevolent but bumbling Uncle Q. The Gibbs sisters are currently working on a new steam-punk ‘toon, and we can’t wait for it.
2. BLACK DYNAMITE (2012-present)
It might be one of the only instances where the TV series improves on the original. The 2009 film of the same name was a chuckle-fest and welcome part of the blaxploitation revival, but the Adult Swim series one-upped it because the animated environment made it easier to take advantage of its comic elements. It also helped that the main cast of the movie came back to revive their roles in the series: Michael Jai White as the superhuman Black Dynamite (aka BD, who usually speaks about himself in the third person), Byron Minns as the always-rhyming Bullhorn, Tommy Davidson as ultra-smoothie Cream Corn and Kym Whitley as voluptuous-but-deadly Honeybee. Keeping the setting in the ’70s, the crew tangles with a drug-addled Richard Pryor (voiced by comedian Eddie Griffin), O.J. Simpson (an old nemesis of BD), Michael Jackson (who turns out to be an alien), Richard Nixon and such super villains as Tasty Freeze (Arsenio Hall) and The Fiendish Dr. Wu. Though not as poignant and savage as “The Boondocks” in its satire, the series can’t resist foreshadowing Simpson’s and Jackson’s unfortunate fates. Though it seemed to disappear after its initial 11-episode season, Adult Swim is supposedly going to air a second season later this year, and we’re dying to see it.
3. THE BOONDOCKS (2005-2014)
Kind of a no-brainer to include, but a list without “The Boondocks” would be incomplete. Some fans complain that without creator Aaron McGruder, the final season of this Adult Swim ‘toon is falling off, but I don’t see it. It’s still very pointed and very funny (though resurrecting Stinkmeaner is a stretch). Huey is obviously the heart and conscious of the show, but my favorites are the moral-less clowns he’s saddled with: roughneck-wanna-be Riley and horny, stubborn Grandad, not to mention the mind-boggling reverse racist Uncle Ruckus. Sometimes its satire targets are a little easy or obvious, but the series (like the original comic strip) doesn’t pull punches with them, nailing gangsta rap and political correctness, not to mention how it doggedly digs at the still-sorry state of race relations. It’s even raised the ire of some of the black community in its depictions of Martin Luther King and Tyler Perry. The show also has great guest voices from a host of rappers like Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killah, Cee Lo Green and Mos Def to give it a hip cache, but it also landed TV legends Ed Asner (“Lou Grant”) and Marion Ross (the “Happy Days” mom). Mind-blower: Huey and Riley are both voiced by Regina King, who’s also the “HR Lady” from “The Big Bang Theory.” Plus, the intro and outro music is great, thanks to Asheru and Flying Lotus.
4. FAT ALBERT (1972-1973, 1975-1976, 1979-1981, 1984-1985)
Right away, anyone who was a kid in the ’70s is going to complain that “The Jackson 5ive” (1971-1973) and “Harlem Globetrotters” (1970-1971, later revived as “The Super Globetrotters” in 1979) should be listed here, and they have a point. Both were fun and pioneering series, but this ghetto-based toon was the one with the best writing and best lines — how many ways did they come up with to cuss out the overly flashy Rudy for having “no class” (i.e. “You’re just like a teachers’ strike'”)? Bill Cosby, of course, was its mastermind, basing it on routines in his comedy act that centered on his childhood in Philadelphia. Not only did he voice Albert, but he also did Bill (based on himself) and boneheaded Mushmouth among others. The kids played in a junkyard band with a song featured in each episode, and as Cosby himself warned in the live-action intros. “If you’re not careful, you may learn something before it’s done.” Indeed, the original network that it ran on worried it was too preachy, but luckily Cosby found a home at CBS and had the show revived several times in the ’70s and ’80s and turned into a 2004 movie starring Kenan Thompson from “Saturday Night Live.”
5. FILLMORE! (2002-2004)
In this Disney production, the 12-year-old hero is a bad kid turned good who becomes the leader of do-good gang, The Safety Patrol that reigns in school shenanigans. Fil sports a pretty badass look with his bald head, granny glasses and huge eyebrows (reminds me of Morpheus from “The Matrix”), plus he’s got another ex-delinquent on his side in the Patrol, brainiac and former “Public Enemy #1,” Ingrid Third. Though the series throws in sweet, lovable weirdo sidekick Danny for laughs, it’s otherwise an interesting mix of hard-boiled noir, mystery and police procedural, all in a grade-school setting, complete with undercover missions, multiple acts and conspiracies. Other than Danny, the only yuks come from the occasional cool dry wit couched in catch phrases that you’d expect in action movies. A little strange and off-putting for a kid’s cartoon at first, once you get into the groove of things, you realize what a clever show it is with the cute winks to adult pop-culture replaced by sly homages and loving parody of film genres, making it a lot more readymade for grownups than a lot of Adult Swim programs. No DVD or downloadable episodes available yet, and full episodes are hard to find online (the video above is the intro for the show). One place you can find full episodes is on this site, but BE WARNED it features adult ads and is very much a NSFW site!
6. HEY MONIE! (2002-2004)
Created by comedians Angela V. Shelton and Frances Callier for Soup 2 Nuts, this series first found a home on BET as a group of shorts used as part of the channel’s “X-Chromosome” series and then it was later picked up by the Oxygen Network for a longer 30-minute format for which it won a NAMIC (National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications) award. In the show, Shelton-voiced Simone (aka Monie) works at a Chi-town PR firm and rooms with the chatty, well-meaning but pushy Yvette (Callier), who supposedly improv-ed much of the dialog, with the animation done in a shaky “Dr. Katz”-like style. Monie is trying to balance her life and career around the antics of her girlfriend/roomie. Not as explicit as “Sistas ‘N The City” (see below), which was also set in Chicago, the interplay between Monie and Yvette shows real comic chemistry. Unfortunately, only two episodes are found online, the one above and this second one with synching problems. Someone needs to make a DVD release or paid download of this.
7. LITTLE BILL (1999-2004)
OK, right off the bat, it isn’t a laugh fest and doesn’t have any slight nods and winks adults can pick up on, but that’s not the point here. This really is a cartoon FOR kids (as with other Nick Jr. programming), and part of its appeal that it’s so damn cute and sweet without being totally saccharine, a tough balance for sure. Once again, the auteur is Mr. Cosby, basing this series on a series of books he did with the settings alternating between a multi-ethnic school and Bill’s home. And sure, the name Bill doesn’t exactly mask who the little hero is here, but he and his family have a big heart and, just like the kids on “Fat Albert,” they’re there to teach something to youngsters. Unlike the older Cos, Little Bill’s stories aren’t too preachy, and the shows are peppered with cool jazz. Definitely not Adult Swim materia,l but we just love the lil guy. See part II of the cartoon above here.
8. THE PJS (1999-2001)
In an interview, Spike Lee once complained this series “shows no love at all for black people,” but that might have just been a sign that his funny bone was in need of a checkup. Co-created by Eddie Murphy, who also voiced grumpy, hapless lead Thurgood (aka Super), the show bagged three Emmys and featured theme music by George Clinton. Set in the projects (hence The PJs), Thurgood/Super and his wife Muriel deal with all kinds of wacky tenants, including angry old lady Mrs. Avery (Ja’net Dubois of “Good Times”), Smokey the Crackhead, a Voodoo queen, a Cuban neighbor who can only speak through an electrolarynx, good-natured neighborhood patrol officer Walter, a never-seen and unhelpful HUD (housing) lady and a fat rascal named Juicy who wears a “do not feed” sign. “The Cosby Show” it ain’t, but as Lee would have hopefully remembered from Dubois’ old show, it’s not meant to depict the happy middle class. Sanchez (the Cuban character) and Smokey turn out to be surprisingly lovable and even against his own nature, Thurgood himself does good, even if the whole apartment building hates him and always complains about him behind his back … and to his face.
9. THE PROUD FAMILY (2001-2005)
This Disney show wasn’t originated by Mr. Cosby but definitely riffed off his ultra-popular ’80s show. It focused on the silly adventures and mishaps of a middle-class family (also seen on ’90s live-action sitcom “Family Matters”) as well as other pop-culture touchstones (i.e. the O.J. Simpson car chase) in a lighthearted way. The heroine is 14-year-old Penny, who has two rascally baby siblings and has to maneuver around the antics of her nice-but-goofball dad Oscar (played by Tommy Davidson) and her feisty, sassy grandma Suga Mama. It’s not as edgy or innovative as some of the other entries here, but it wasn’t meant to be; “Proud Family” was good fun and has aged pretty well, too. It did make history as the first animated Disney Channel Original Series and featured the voices of Cedric the Entertainer, Al Roker, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Samuel L. Jackson and Cicely Tyson among others.
10. SISTAS ‘N THE CITY (2003)
Creator Tina Andrews had quite a career before this series, working as a actress on such classic ’70s TV shows as “The Brady Bunch,” “The Mod Squad” and “Sanford & Son.” Later, she not only got a role in the historic “Roots” TV series, but also collaborated with author Alex Haley. For her directorial debut (and only directing credit thus far), she did this women-based series set in her native Chicago. Obviously riffing off the popular Sarah Jessica Parker HBO show, “Sistas” was much raunchier than “Sex In The City.” The show wasn’t just S-E-X, though; the characters also struggled with identity issues about their careers and personalities. The foursome included business-like working girls Tamika and Jordan, the flaunting hottie Mercedes and activist/struggling musician/lesbian Athena (voiced by rapper Medusa). This became a web series appearing on the now defunct Urban Entertainment site. Nowadays, “Sistas” isn’t easy to track down (it still hasn’t even merited a Netflix release, and the only place you’ll see it otherwise is on an out-of-print DVD). It’s worth seeking out though, if only to see a different, VERY adult perspective on the black experience. Sad to say, clips aren’t available on the Web right now, but in the video above, Andrews talks about how “Sistas” came about. As a bonus, there’s also a clip of Medusa discussing her role in the series.