If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that the time for representation is yesterday — and that people are willing to make public calls for change. But undoing years of messaging about the irrelevance of Black lives and voices isn’t easy. The TV and film industry, in particular, has been slow to include Black characters that don’t fall into racist stereotypes. (Yes, Disney archives, I’m looking at you.)
This extends to animated series, which provide younger viewers with some of their earliest glimpses of the broader world. While most have showcased white characters above all, here’s a roundup of series that have broken from that tradition, serving up noteworthy depictions of Black people and families. They reflect different styles and tones, and are geared for different ages, listed here from children’s to adult series:
As if the classic Black New York City institution that is the Harlem Globetrotters wasn’t beloved enough, this ’70s Hanna-Barbera cartoon drafted the team into a sporting animated version that became the first predominately Black Saturday-morning cartoon. Capturing the goofy, slapstick tone of the real-life Harlem Globetrotter performances, the series showed the talented, if lovably clueless, band of athletes who don the standard stars and stripes, including Meadowlark Lemon, Geese Ausbie and Curly Neal.
Following the standard Saturday-morning-cartoon formula, each episode of the series had the protagonists encounter some new obstacle that they good-naturedly overcame with the use of their talents — and usually some silly costumes and wigs. Later the Globetrotters joined up with Scooby-Doo and friends to help solve some mysteries — which is how I first encountered these brilliant ballers as a kid.
“Harlem Globetrotters,” like the other seminal Black ’70s cartoons “The Jackson 5ive” and “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” is not currently available to stream or buy on the usual platforms. However, the later series, “The Super Globetrotters,” and a “Scooby Doo”-Globetrotters crossover are both available to rent or buy on Amazon.
Before Bill Cosby faced a flurry of sexual assault accusations and a prison sentence, he was known as an essential figure in the world of Black television. After “Fat Albert” and “The Cosby Show,” Cosby introduced in the late ’90s his “Little Bill” book series, a favorite of mine as a kid. These moral stories were most memorable for their entrancing illustrations, by the artist Varnette Honeywood. Clearly steeped in the tradition of Jacob Lawrence, Honeywood’s art featured characters with skin in every shade of black and brown, their bodies often shown in bold, blocky silhouettes clothed in colors and surrounded by scenes that accentuated the complexions. This same sensibility was brought to the preschool “Little Bill” TV series, which was flash-animated to create an intentionally flat, two-dimensional rendering of the characters and the world around them, as if setting the illustrations from the children’s books to motion. The series, which also hosted an impressive voice cast including Gregory Hines, Phylicia Rashad and Ruby Dee, won a Daytime Emmy in 2004 for outstanding children’s animated program.
You wouldn’t expect a pint-size M.D. who fixes broken toys to have a marked influence on the culture, but “Doc McStuffins” has been widely praised by parents and educators for upending stereotypes and easing young viewers’ anxieties about doctors. The physician at work is a round-faced, blush-cheeked Black girl with tiny braided pigtails that loop upward as though inspired by Pippi Longstocking. But the show’s appeal isn’t just the fact that it stars a Black girl — it’s that this Black girl is a confident, self-assured doctor (and the daughter of a Black female doctor), creating a positive role model for Black children who aren’t treated to many characters who look like them to begin with.
Described by its creator as “ ‘Cheers’ for preschoolers,” “Doc McStuffins” features a crew of colorful characters — usually toys — who come alive to help the doc serve her patients (an anxious hypochondriac snowman is a favorite). In one episode, Michelle Obama herself calls on Doc McStuffins to use her skills to patch up a ripped doll. It’s just one example of the show’s outsize reputation and impact.
‘Class of 3000’
It’s a crime that this stylish, zippy series only got two seasons, but it was fun while it lasted. André Benjamin created and starred in the show, and managed to translate his signature André 3000 cool into animated form — think “School of Rock,” but instead of Jack Black, a dandy-dressing musician named Sunny Bridges leading a diverse class of misfits at an Atlanta performing-arts school. But the most distinct feature of the show was its regular music videos, which showcased more modish animation and the kind of funky, electric tunes André 3000 has been known for from his days in Outkast and beyond.
When it was released in 2018, “Black Panther” was lauded for bringing Black people into the predominantly white world of comic-book heroes. In recent years the small screen has also seen a few more Black heroes. But before T’Challa, Luke Cage and Black Lightning, there was Static.
In the series, a Black teen named Virgil Hawkins is exposed to mutagen gas — as tends to happen — and gets electromagnetic powers. Virgil rocks dreadlocks and surfs through the city via static electricity (a more powerful version than the kind that makes laundry stick together). Along the way, he fights superpowered villains called “Bang Babies” as well as the usual threats faced by a Black teen in an urban neighborhood: racism, bullying, gang violence and more.
Stream it on DC Universe.
‘Craig of the Creek’
In this earnest, buoyant series, a young boy named Craig has adventures in his suburban neighborhood, exploring and going on quests in the local creek along with his two best friends. Nerdy, playful and imaginative — and teeming with references to action movies, fantasy series, music, board games and anime — “Craig of the Creek” is nevertheless most notable for its heartwarming depiction of a close, loving Black family and its casual incorporation of Black cultural norms. Braids and Afros and fades — the Blackness of the characters is explicit without being the whole point. Instead, the show is primarily about a Black boy who uses his ingenuity and sense of wonder to see the world anew, using it as a playground for him and his friends.
‘The Proud Family’
Let’s start with the theme song: Disney got Solange and Destiny’s Child to deliver the R&B jam right at the point that the singers were reaching peak popularity, with that year’s “Survivor” album. But it was a fitting way to introduce a show concept that was, unfortunately, still novel: a normal Black family living in the suburbs. The Prouds comprised a Black teen girl, Penny (Kyla Pratt); her tightwad father (Tommy Davidson); no-nonsense mother (Paula Jai Parker); gruff grandmother (Jo Marie Payton); and her mischievous twin siblings. Most episodes focused on minor conflicts Penny faced at school, with her friends and with her family, but occasionally the series would jump into surprising, random territory — like a “Matrix”-spoof episode when Penny gets drawn into the digital world of illegal music downloads. (Remember those?)
“The Proud Family” distinguished itself by being unapologetically Black; one episode tackles the civil rights movement and segregation, and another has the Prouds celebrating Kwanzaa. Historically, Disney has been late to break its streak of lily-white content, but the Prouds brought a Black family to the channel. A sequel series, “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder,” is currently being developed for the Disney+ streaming platform.
Stream it on Disney+.
Eddie Murphy animated Black inner-city life with this stop-motion series about a cantankerous superintendent of a rundown building in the projects. The series, for adults, is shot through with Murphy’s signature acerbic, in-your-face antics, with poor Black communities being the punchline. After the show’s premiere, it didn’t sit right with some, like Spike Lee, who called it “hateful toward Black people.” Many of the jokes about delinquent youth, crackheads and neighborhood violence have not aged well. But the show — which won Emmys for animation and voice acting (for Ja’Net DuBois) — was notable simply for depicting Black urban life on television at all.
Stream it on Pluto TV.
My favorite series on the list, “The Boondocks” took an unparalleled approach to sociopolitical satire about stereotypes, tropes and prejudices Black people face in America. Created for adult viewers by Aaron McGruder and based on his cartoon strip of the same name, “The Boondocks” was about the suburban lives of the Freeman family: Robert and his two grandsons, Huey and Riley. “The Boondocks” took insider shots at Black figures and Black culture (BET, Tyler Perry and R. Kelly, in a biting take on his sexual-abuse trial), but it also indulged McGruder’s love for anime and kung fu flicks. The talented voice cast, which included John Witherspoon and Regina King and unforgettable cameos by Charlie Murphy, Samuel L. Jackson and Katt Williams, anchored the show’s comedy with hysterical performances.
As if ’70s blaxploitation wasn’t outlandish enough, with its raucous action sequences, loud fashion, pimps, prostitutes and impossibly large Afros, “Black Dynamite” banks in an overstatement of the genre. Based on the 2009 action-comedy film of the same name, “Black Dynamite” brings back the main cast to voice animated versions of their characters.
“Black Dynamite” is gratuitous in its satire, attempting the most off-color gags it can muster. For those who can hang without being scandalized, it’s satisfying and, even in its most brazen moments, always feels like it’s in on the joke. And of all the series on this list, “Black Dynamite” boasts perhaps the most impressive lineup of voice talent, including Orlando Jones, Erykah Badu, Arsenio Hall, Aries Spears, Charlie Murphy, Snoop Dogg, Chance the Rapper, Tyler the Creator, Cree Summer, Samuel L. Jackson, Mel B, David Alan Grier, and many more.
The most vividly stylized pick on this list, “Afro Samurai” is an entrancingly jarring hodgepodge of cultural referents. There’s the old-school samurai flick, there’s shonen anime, there’s blaxploitation. There’s even bits of McGruder in there, in some of the dialogue and the very style of homage/appropriation. Visually the series reflects its taste for violence: Sharp, jagged lines are combined with stark shading and a grim palette of blacks, slate grays and reds. And then there’s Nick Fury, a.k.a. Samuel L. Jackson, providing the voice of the hero.
Honorable Mentions: “Kid ’n Play” (1990), “Waynehead” (1996), “Tutenstein” (2003), “The Boo Crew” (2006),“Friday: The Animated Series” (2007), “The Cleveland Show” (2009) and “Black Panther” (2010).