Why Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson Was Pitch Perfect

Hemsley's George Jefferson was one of the most abrasive and difficult-to-like men on TV, but he was adored precisely because he was so unapologetic about black ascension

  • Share
  • Read Later
Everett

Sherman Hemsley died on Tuesday at 74, but his work as George Jefferson, the star of the sitcom The Jeffersons, will live forever. The show ran from 1975 to 1985 and remains the longest-running network sitcom with a predominantly black cast in TV history. In its first year it was Nielsen’s fourth-best rated show on TV. But more importantly, George was a seminal character, representative of upwardly mobile blacks in the midst of the affirmative action-powered 1970s. He symbolized the post-Civil Rights Movement era nouveau riche black man benefitting from the economic tides, living in a deluxe penthouse apartment on the swanky upper east side of Manhattan with a live-in maid. Jefferson was a millionaire who owned seven dry cleaners — he got his start after his car was rear-ended by a city bus and his civil suit settlement allowed him to open one store, indicative of a world where the system could work for blacks. His social power was derived from his professional success, but we rarely saw George at work — the show took place almost exclusively in his home, as if showing us the king in his castle.

(MORE: Sherman Hemsley, The Jefferson‘s Star, Dies at 74)

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.

(MORE: “Breaking Bad” and the Downfall of the White ‘Anyman’)

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.)

(MORE: Coming Out In Hip-Hop: Frank Ocean’s Powerful Moment)

By the time Bill Cosby‘s Dr. Huxtable came along in the buppiefied 80s, black professional success was more common, so it felt right for him to be cool about it. But Jefferson’s persona came from an earlier era and proclaimed that he took no mess from whitey. We not only forgave him for being the proudest, loudest rooster on the farm, we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Hemsley read the Zeitgeist and shaped Jefferson to give voice to the feelings of an ascendent generation at a critical juncture in history, and he made us proud.

MORE: The New Black Irony 

11 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Jacklyn Johnson
Jacklyn Johnson

Bless your

beautiful soul and may you rest in peace Sherman Hemsley.  Thanks for the heads up on the Evertalk

page Christina. I will visit it.

christinasmythe
christinasmythe

I got a chance to meet him twice in my life. He was a great man with great spirit. I see a lot of people have shared memories about him on his memorial page within Evertalk in Facebook. Here's the link: https://apps.facebook.com/ever...

Anvisoft
Anvisoft

Thanks for providing a solution so cleared. Your guides are valuable. Anvi Smart Defender is a powerful trojan removal tool. I used Malwarebytes, now would like to try Anvi Smart Defender.

Anvisoft
Anvisoft

Thanks for providing a solution so cleared. Your guides are valuable. Anvi Smart Defender is a powerful trojan removal tool. I used Malwarebytes, now would like to try Anvi Smart Defender.

ULURU
ULURU

I loved the show, and Hemsley was great as George Jefferson. But the implication in your comment is that the easiest, best way to become a successful black uppwardly-mobile entrepreneur is to sue somebody else. That is not the best role-model for anyone, let alone blacks. I hope that was not your intention. All that aside, "The Jeffersons" was one of the best sit-coms ever.

Timfrk
Timfrk

Timothy replied I'm shocked that a mother can earn $4464 in four weeks on the internet. did you see this(Click on menu Home)

JeffreyeoBill
JeffreyeoBill

Jesus replied I'm startled that a person able to get paid $9526 in four weeks on the internet. did you look this(Click on menu Home)

drorbenami
drorbenami

actually, i had an Italian American friend who was rear ended in 1977 and he used the money to open a business....

Regardless, you're missing the point: how he got the money was irrelevant, how he behaved after becoming a success is the issue and the show really had a refreshing perspective. It must have been really great to have watched, if you were black during those years...sanford and son was also funny, but sanford was poor....george jefferson was rich and you had to respect that....