In his Time column, Touré writes that we’ll remember Hemsley’s George Jefferson because, despite being difficult to like, he was unapologetic about black achievement.
Sherman Hemsley died on Tuesday at 74, but his work as George Jefferson, the star of the sitcom The Jeffersons, will live forever …
Hemsley played George as brash, arrogant, combative, swaggering, stubborn and refusing to suffer fools. I loved him for that. I think many did. He was one of the most abrasive and difficult-to-like men on TV, but he was adored precisely because he was unapologetic and defiant. His economic success gave him the ability to not have to ask anyone for anything, to not have to care, to not have to be humble, to never have to scrape. At that point in history it was liberating to live vicariously through a black man who wasn’t beholden to anyone, who could tell white people exactly what he thought of them, who might slam a door in their face when he was done with them.
Jefferson was conceived by legendary TV producer Norman Lear as a black version of Archie Bunker, the notoriously racist and sexist star of All In the Family, but while Bunker was a dinosaur — a holdover from the past — Jefferson was of his moment; of a time when blacks derived social power from financial gains. Where James Evans of Good Times was humbled by his work life and just barely keeping his head above water, making it any way that he could, Jefferson was a shining member of the black upper-middle class who stuck out his chest and peacocked around his pretty high-rise: one of those who’d finally gotten a piece of the pie. (The show’s opening theme song “Movin On Up” is arguably the best in TV history, using upbeat gospel tropes to sing of the family’s literal and figurative ascension.)
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