The first time I thought about how art could be a form of community building was with HBO’s Insecure. The dearly departed comedy series created and starring Issa Rae provided audiences with more than just weekly laughs over the course of five years, but it also created space for other Black artists and entrepreneurs to thrive-- from all the Black businesses that the show has collaborated with to the Black music artists that the show has put audiences onto. It even created opportunities within entertainment journalism for many up and coming Black journalists who got their start by reviewing the show or hosting after shows unpacking the mess that went on in the episode.
The latest show with that level of cultural impact is ABC’s hit comedy Abbott Elementary. There is such a palpable tenderness I feel whenever I watch Abbott Elementary or anything remotely related to it, from cast interviews to memes. There’s an earnest sense of care and love amongst the cast that can only be rivaled by their onscreen personas.
On several occasions, the show has donated the money that was meant for marketing campaigns to underfunded teachers for school supplies and new wardrobes and book fairs for kids.
“We chose to put the marketing money toward supplies for teachers,” the show’s Emmy-winning creator, writer and star Quinta Brunson told NPR. “It’s about being able to make those kinds of decisions that really excite me, things that can really materially help people.”
The cast also aims to change the way we as a culture think about and value teachers–particularly Black teachers. In an interview with Teen Vogue, Tyler James Williams says that his hope with playing Gregory on the series is to spotlight an earnest portrayal of a working class Black man. “That's my goal, is to push [Gregory] to the forefront so that when you see somebody who's not making a lot of money but they're doing work that fulfills them and is changing the conversation, that's inherently attractive.”
The series is also impacting the way child actors are received and treated in Hollywood. There’s been a lot of warranted and necessary discourse as of late, catalyzed by former child star Jeanette McCurdy’s book I’m Glad My Mom Died, about the ethics of children being in the business. In tandem with these discussions, I think about how the child actors that are in Abbott are treated and spoken about by the adult actors, including Williams, who was a former child star himself.
On Abbott, the child actors don’t have heavy responsibilities to carry the show, which focuses on the stellar adult cast and allows the kids to just be kids, playing in the background. In a recent talk show appearance, the Emmy award-winning actress Sheryl Lee Ralph who plays Barbara, spoke about how one of the kids approached her on set and told her how they felt sad because they recently lost their grandpa. Ralph said that she and the child hugged one another until the child felt better.
Gentleness and kindness are often thought of as secondary in the world of show business. But the cast of Abbott has shown us how it's not only welcomed but necessary to create art that positively reverberates with people.
Most importantly, I think about the impact this show will have on the imagination of what’s possible. Abolitionist magazine Scalawag broke down how Abbott’s intentional omission of police and “school resource officers” helps us to imagine a world where our children don’t have to be policed just for going to school. And I think about all the Black educators who will be born from this series with these images in their minds; all of the Black teachers and principals who will see that compassion is just as necessary a tool in education as books and calculators. And all the young Black students who will benefit from that care.
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