Do you remember that scene in “Sex and the City” when Carrie gets dumped by her boyfriend via Post-it note? “I’m sorry,” it reads. “I can’t. Don’t hate me.” That’s what I think of when my friends ask if I’ve seen the latest TV show populated almost entirely by white people: I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.
And that’s why the new dramedy “Run the World” is such a breath of fresh air. In the opening scene, we meet Renee (Bresha Webb), a Black woman wearing a pink fur coat and gold bamboo hoop earrings, ordering a bacon, egg and cheese at a bodega. As she waits, a white woman reaches over her and bumps into her without so much as an “excuse me.” “This female colonizer in here was literally standing on top of me!” Renee quips to a friend on the phone. When the sandwich is ready, both women reach for it, triggering a cathartic outburst from Renee — the kind that many Black women wish we could release when the rubs of racist microaggressions erode our patience for polite encounters.
Just two minutes in, I felt seen.
Created by Leigh Davenport, “Run the World,” which premieres on Starz May 16, doesn’t assert a social justice agenda; instead, what it offers is pure pleasure. As in “Sex and the City,” the main characters are a foursome of friends, and as in “Sex and the City,” the women gossip and swap one-liners in New York City clubs, parks and over brunch, in expensive clothes selected by the costume designer Patricia Field. But that’s where the similarities end. The essential fifth friend in “Run the World” is Harlem, and whether the four friends are drinking nutcrackers from bodegas, shopping at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market for African prints or accepting a plate at a street barbecue, they exude the ease of belonging to a Black community.
As well as Ms. Webb, whose Renee is navigating a divorce, the show stars Andrea Bordeaux as Ella, a writer struggling to find her place. Amber Stevens West plays Whitney, a banker who is planning an epic wedding to her Nigerian fiancé. And Corbin Reid plays Sondi, a graduate student and the intellectual of the group, who is secretly dating her adviser.
Ms. Davenport has described the series as “a love letter to Black women and a love letter to Harlem.” And indeed, nothing about the show caters to the white gaze. As I watched, I could not stop smiling — and that’s no small thing, after the year we’ve all had. Many of us are languishing, but Black women especially. We need a reprieve from both the pandemic and the toxicity of racism.
And we need more Black love stories — Black people loving their partners, their families, their friends, their communities, their careers and, most importantly, themselves. Even amid the explosive growth of the streaming universe, we are not getting enough of them. A recent research study conducted by McKinsey & Company found that Black talent is dramatically underrepresented in film and TV, both in front of and behind the camera. Only 5 percent of TV showrunners are Black, the researchers found, and Hollywood’s anti-Black bias costs the industry $10 billion in missed revenue a year.
To be sure, “Run the World” is not the first TV show created by and starring Black women. Black-led shows have blazed paths in TV history: Many have pointed out that “Friends” owed much to “Living Single” (a perfect comedy launched in 1993 by the showrunner of “Run the World,” Yvette Lee Bowser), as did a slew of other shows, including, arguably, “Sex and the City.” And an impressive list of recent shows on cable or streaming have Black creators and Black women leads, including “Insecure,” “I May Destroy You,” “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” “Queen Sugar,” “Pose” and “Euphoria.”
Many of these shows are gifts in their own right, illuminating essential aspects of Black women’s experiences and offering insights and laughs, but the last time Americans saw a show debut that I’d put in the same category as “Run the World” — an ensemble comedy focused on our joy, not our pain, by and for Black women — was over twenty years ago, with Mara Brock Akil’s “Girlfriends.” You can now watch old episodes of “Girlfriends,” “Moesha” and several other shows on Netflix — but stories of Black women loving and laughing and living fabulous lives shouldn’t come only via nostalgia.
Meanwhile, a new crop of shows focused on slavery, the horrors of racism and Black trauma have proliferated, and relentless videos of police shootings of Black men, women and children loop on news channels and social media. I’m tired of trauma. I’m tired of struggle. I’m tired of colorism.
As TV networks, cable channels and streaming giants fail to create entertainment for us, we have resorted to creating our own content. My social media feeds are filled with videos and TikToks of Black women performing coordinated dance videos, original songs and hilarious spoofs. “Run the World” finally offers us Black women whom we can relate to on TV — fun, sexy and flawed. These women are not noble archetypes, best friends to white women or victims. We are not afraid of us.
So, no, this is not a Black “Sex and the City.” Carrie Bradshaw’s New York City was absurdly void of race, an eerily whitewashed version of a multicultural mecca. Four Black women pursuing friendship, success and love should not feel radical, but because of the world that shows like “Sex and the City” have shown us for decades, it is.
Representation matters. Good TV matters. And as we demand justice, we also deserve joy. For this, I make no apologies. Don’t hate me.
Kellie Carter Jackson (@kcarterjackson) is a professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College and the author of “Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence.”