Race, Religion, And Respectability In Oprah's 'Greenleaf'

Greenleaf is currently a successful drama series on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Craig Wright created the show and Oprah Winfrey is the executive producer. The series premiere on June 21, 2016 had 3.04 million viewers making it the number one series debut in OWN history. Greenleaf has a 42-minute run time airing on Wednesday nights from 10 pm to 11 pm with the first season recently concluding on August 31, 2016. It is a drama structured around the lives of the members of an elite black family who preside over a megachurch conglomerate located in Memphis, Tennessee starring Keith David (Bishop James Greenleaf), Lynn Winfield (Lady Mae Greenleaf), and Merle Dandridge (Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf).

This program is not Empire though it may be considered, at times, an over the top melodrama. Greenleaf is successful where Empire fails when it comes to representations of blackness by detailing the intrinsic role of religion in Black life. OWN’s Greenleaf surpasses the Fox production in that the vast majority of African Americans may find the characters in Greenleaf more relatable. PEW Research Center’s "A Religious Portrait of African Americans" indicates that the African American community is the most religious ethnic group in the United States (U.S.) at the present. Greenleaf’s Bishop is a man that most blacks might be familiar with as compared to Empire’s audacious Lucious Lyon. Lyon is a caricature of black masculinity or a black brute stereotype while the Bishop, though flawed, seems more human and relatable as evidenced with David’s stellar performance.

OWN’s team of writers and producers have managed to bring to the fore a portrait of black life not yet seen on television. Characters such as the Bishop and his Lady of the church have been fixtures in black life within an entity (the Black Church) that has been the most important social institution in the history of African Americans. There has not previously been a drama series on television that has made the most significant institution in black life its central focus. This show is unlike NBC’s Amen starring Sherman Hemsley that was a slap-stick comedy rife with stereotypes based on a local black minister and his struggling small church community. Black elites (the Greenleaf family) are at the center of the OWN production; but, there are a host of other characters outside of the Greenleaf family seeking to improve their lives through the church that functions also as a class and identity making resource for many in the community.

Faith remains at the center of black life not gang-banging and rap music. This does not mean that Hip Hop culture is in anyway subordinated to African American religious identity but rather that religion and faith remain so intrinsic to black life that they impact this popular form of artistic expression in profound ways. Hip Hop culture has a religiosity that is in several ways influenced by the historical dominance of the Black church in the African American experience, more generally, as scholars such as Ebony Utley have suggested. That said, a more realistic and relatable television series about black society is one that seriously engages religion in African American life minus exaggerated popular stereotypes.

Greenleaf is a respectable series. This term respectable is multi-functional when applied to this production. Oprah has long been understood as a practitioner of the politics of respectability. The politics of respectability essentially involve the policing and maintenance of good manners/morals by social elites within marginalized groups. Shelby Steele has labeled Oprah a "bargainer" as opposed to a "challenger" concerning race. Steele contends that bargainers are blacks who bargain with the white establishment as opposed to those who directly challenge/question racial disparities. In other words, Oprah practices a type of respectability politics in her comportment as well as in her cultural productions.

Greenleaf is a production that puts on display the imagined good manners, morals, values, and achievements of the black elite as juxtaposed with a host of flawed characters such as Uncle Mac (who molests his niece) and Gigi (a minister who commits an act of fornication with her soon to be married ex-boyfriend) who are members of the “respectable” black family at the center of the show. This is coupled with a host of other characters such as the church secretary and the gay choir director who exist as a challenge to elite sensibilities. Oprah’s cameo role as Gigi’s aunt makes her though the enforcer of morality (she reveals to Gigi Mac’s crimes then encourages Gigi to act on this knowledge) in Greenleaf thereby reinforcing a politics of respectability. Nonetheless, because of the articulation of faith and religion in Greenleaf, as a key components of black life, combined with the variety and complexity of the characters, OWN has produced a relatively authentic portrait of black life for television despite its politics of respectability.

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