Missing You: Esther Rolle

by James Hill

November 8, 2016

Before Claire Huxtable, Florida Evans was everyone’s Black TV mom. And filling that role with a weekly sense of regality and dignity was actress Esther Rolle, who had spun the small role on “Maude” into a prime-time feature spot in America’s biggest show — Good Times.

Well, if you can believe it, it’s been 18 years without Esther Rolle today and to recognize and celebrate her life, we are remembering the moment in her career that none of us can ever forget: The “Damn, Damn, Damn” episode of Good Times.

 

1. We don’t know whose decision it was to turn down the audience track, but the silence in this episode is devastatingly powerful. Watch ANY other episode and you can’t go five seconds with the audience having a fit, but watching Florida try to out-fidget grief while tidying up the kitchen – all without a peep from the crowd — makes for hauntingly good TV.

2. Let’s face it – “Good Times,” like a lot of 70s TV, had some, uh, sub-par acting in it. Oh sure, we love it but it’s clear TV was trying to mimic the stage, leaving the actors to swing for the emotional fences. Not so in this scene. From JJ to Thelma to Michael and ESPECIALLY Florida, the characters are uncharacteristically human-sized here. Emotions run high, but the actors went with subtle vs. sledgehammer and we’re all better for it.

3. Speaking of which, let’s petition the Emmys to give Esther Rolle a “Sorry, We Blew It” statue to make up for the one she SHOULD have gotten for this scene. Yes, the climax is still shockingly good, but the way she tries to pour sunshine into lines like “this place is a mess, I better get started” just underscores how broken Florida’s heart really is.

4. Shout out to the “ugly cry” and to “Good Times” for the portrait of a Black woman who still has room to break down when the world has been ripped away from her. In this post-“Scandal” world, we thankfully have images of resilient Black women who have little time for personal drama, but this scene reminds us of the importance of ugly, raw emotion that goes unchecked.

5. When we decided to do this scene, we all chuckled as we recited “Damn, Damn, DAMN!” However, watching it again in context, our laughs feel like sacrilege as the dramatic tension expertly builds. From the moment she finds the rose to the dish in the sink and the pot on the fridge – we KNOW the glass bowl’s moment is coming but somehow we’re still shocked at the sudden violence of grief as well as her desperate hunger for her children’s touch. We hope you’re happy “Good Times,” now our allergies are acting up again.

Want more Breakdowns?

1. Penny Gets Burned on “Good Times”

2. “A Different World’s” Wedding Scene

3. Max and Kyle Sleep Together on “Living Single”

4. The opening to “What’s Happening!!”

5. Dwayne Checks Whitley on “A Different World”

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