Throwback: ‘Gimme a Break!’ Tackled Blackface In 1984

'Gimme a Break!' Tackled Blackface In 1984
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February 20th, 2019 – Ralph Northam may have not been a big fan of Gimme a Break! back in the eighties. The embattled Virginia governor continues to explain (and then re-explain) the blackface photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook as pressure for him to resign continues to mount.

When the scandal first broke, some people defended the racist photo saying that the times were different and wearing blackface wasn’t considered as offensive as it is today. Nell Carter probably would have disagreed.

The actress passed away in 2003, but from 1981 – 1987, she played Nell Harper on the family sitcom Gimme a Break! Set in the fictional town of Glenlawn, California, Harper moves in with the chief of police, taking care of his three young children, after he becomes a widower.

In season four, an episode titled “Baby of the Family” aired, and it put the issue of blackface front and center. Samantha, formerly the baby of the family, is upset that Nell is now giving more attention to the new baby of the family – Joey, a young foster child that Nell has taken in. To get back at her, Samantha convinces Joey to wear blackface during a performance at Nell’s African American church.

Throwback: 'Gimme a Break!' Tackled Blackface In 1984

As Nell confronts Samantha back home, she explains to her that wearing blackface is the same as using the n-word.

Throwback: 'Gimme a Break!' Tackled Blackface In 1984

“I never thought that I would live to see the day that you would use the word ni**er,” Nell said to Samantha. “Nell, that’s horrible. I would never say that,” she responded.

“Well, you might as well have,” Nell continued. “Cause that’s what you did by putting Joey in blackface. You offended me and a lot of other decent black people.”

Clips of that episode began circulating online as some people defended the choices Governor Northam made in 1984. Twitter user Anoa J. Changa said “In 1984 Nell Carter tackled Blackface. It wasn’t funny or acceptable. This was a mainstream show. @GovernorVA needs to go.”

Gimme a Break! was, indeed, a mainstream hit for NBC – producing 137 episodes, dealing with issues like depression, suicide, teenage angst and death, and allowing Nell Carter to earn two Golden Globe nominations.

The blackface episode ends with an apology from Samantha and an order from Nell to apologize to the congregation (as well as an order to fix the pot holes in front of the church. Governor Northam has also apologized but continues to step in some pot holes of his own making – most recently in an interview with Gayle King.

Do you think Gimme a Break! handled the issue of blackface well with their 1984 episode?

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