Black men in mainstream television and movies are often relegated to two types of roles — athletes and criminals — with minimal nuance.
A TV series produced by former Bear Thomas Q. Jones aims to change the pace.
“Johnson,” which airs 7 p.m. Sundays on Bounce TV, details the lives of four lifelong friends — Black men with the same last name who aren’t related — who are dealing with fatherhood, careers, the stigma regarding mental health, divorce, relationships, entrepreneurship, microaggressions, barbershop appointments and massaging hair care products into their lover’s scalp, among many other topics.
“This is an original show, an original idea, and an original concept,” said Jones. “The whole show is seen through our perspective. No veering left or right at all. We keep our narrative consistent. It reinforces everything that we put together — all the money, time, sweat, and tears.”
Jones, a running back who played in 12 NFL seasons — three with the Bears — followed up his NFL days by building an acting resume. In pop culture he’s more known for his “Straight Outta Compton,” “Luke Cage,” “Being Mary Jane,” “P-Valley” and “Bosch” roles, among many other acting credits, than his time on the gridiron.
“I think I went into [acting] with the mindset — to be honest — wanting to reinvent myself and get away from football,” said Jones, who plays Omar on the series. “I’m not the guy who just played for the Jets and Bears. I wasn’t a football player — I played football.”
“Johnson” debuted earlier this month to 2 million viewers, becoming the most-watched half-hour series in network history, officials said. Bounce TV
Why name the series “Johnson”?
Series creator Deji Laray (“Bosch,” “Greenleaf”) wanted to bring to light that Johnson is a common surname among Black folks.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that Black men and Black women historically haven’t been accurately represented in the media,” said Laray. “There has been some representation here and there I think we can be proud of. Ultimately, it’s all about balance.
“Johnson is the most common African American last name in the United States. We all know a Johnson; we’re all related to Johnson. We all have the same experiences as Black men, but you know when you go to our first names — Greg, Omar, Jarvis and Keith — you peel back those layers and you see how different we are once you get past the last name.”
The series — which has Cedric the Entertainer as an executive producer, and fellow “Kings of Comedy” star D.L Hughley as a recurring character — seems to indicate that viewers want more than what they’ve been offered historically, as “Johnson” debuted earlier this month to 2 million viewers. That’s the most-watched half-hour series in the history of Bounce, which is available on Roku, on many cable and satellite systems, and on Chicago’s Channel 38.2.
“We’re happy that people respect how grounded the show is,” said Laray. “We’re happy that men and women feel like the show is balanced.”
In the aftermath of the series’ initial success, Jones recalls the feedback he received from industry gatekeepers when shopping the pilot.
“They just didn’t think that people would actually tune in for 10 episodes of Black men having a voice in something not being street drama or a straight comedy,” said Jones. “One person we pitched the show to has brothers and uncles, so when she saw the pilot, she understood completely — It took one person.”
Thomas Q. Jones (pictured in 2005) played three seasons for the Bears.Getty Images
The series also normalizes a niche — often met with amazement and ridicule — rarely seen in movies and TV: Black hockey fandom.
“I think what we do there is that we make the audience aware that there is this mindset that [hockey] isn’t 100 percent accepted in the Black community,” said Laray. “You know there is that stereotype about this sport, but we also normalize it. … It’s really up to the audience to figure out who they’re gonna side with on their opinion on this.
“Greg [the character played by Laray] and Jarvis [Derrex Brady] make a pretty good case that this is a sport like any other sport and there’s nothing wrong with people loving hockey, people playing hockey, and finding it a great sport to watch.”
And the takeaway from the show?
“To show Black men in all of our glory and in all of our flaws as well — we’re chasing greatness,” Laray says. “We’re brothers, we have goals, we have dreams, and we have good intentions.”