By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
IS ETHNICALLY CORRECT TELEVISION A CIVIL RIGHT?
Laugh aloud if you must, but the Los Angeles Timeshas speculated on that possibility in its fevered reporting of the fact that network television, as it heads into the last fall season of the millennium, doesn't have a single new show featuring a minority lead character. This has prompted outrage from black people, chiefly the NAACP, which has declared the situation emblematic of a general lack of parity; the association has mounted something of a march on Hollywood and has threatened to sue. (Latino groups have done the NAACP one better -- beat it to its traditional punch -- by announcing an upcoming "brownout" of prime time.) Such militance in an age of black reticence is both heartening and unnerving. I get the feeling that Kweisi Mfume and the television industry might settle out of court and agree upon a legal recipe for rectitude: no fewer than 10 new shows by next year, each of which must feature 3.5 black faces mininum (identical twins, such as Tia and Tamra Mowry, or two child actors under the age of 12 counting as one).
I would like to cast an unpopular vote: I don't want to see any more new black people on TV. With all due respect to Mr. Mfume, enough is enough. With few exceptions, the black television presence has come to mean fetishized ghettoism or insipid vamping on the middle class, buffoonery across the board, nonexistent character development -- to the point where the only black programs I watch with any regularity are T V Land reruns of Sanford and Son and The Flip Wilson Show. They at least represent the high point of what's always been a nadir. In the black-consciousness '70s, the characters of Sanford and Son and even Good Timeswere engineered with some dimensions beyond skin-color pathology, which is why they endure as family in America's collective TV memory, occupying as definitive a space as the Cleavers and the Bunkers. A generation ago, black characters in even the cheesiest shows earnestly aspired to some kind of progressivism -- Linc in the The Mod Squad, the inner-city hoopsters in The White Shadow -- but in the age of crack cocaine and Def Comedy Jam, blacks are mined almost exclusively for hood sensibilities or comic relief, frequently both. Today, our perspective on the creation and control of images is so out of whack that we embrace tokenism -- now called diversity -- as empowering: Lisa Nicole Carson, the sassy, wild-haired sidekick of Ally McBeal, is heralded as a star in black fan magazines increasingly eager to chronicle stardom.
Carson's prime-time "success" notwithstanding, the fact is that the dregs of talent and resources are being thrown to black audiences like offal was thrown to slaves. Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at Chitlin TV, and I, for one, ain't hungry.
THE PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION IS WHETHER IT IS better to have junk food than to have no food at all. Like radio and film and advertising before it, television is a lap dog of popular culture, and as such has never been a reflection of our best impulses about race, but our basest. It is certainly invested in perpetuating minority images, just not the sort we want to see: Amos 'n' Andy and The Little Rascals were more than popular in their day, even among blacks, but popularity came at the dear price of dignity and a sense of artistic worth. Buckwheat, Lightnin', Urkel, Martin -- we would like to think we are progressive, that we Americans embrace forward motion as a thing beyond absolute necessity, but in the case of bettering black images, we have in fact succumbed to entropy. So what is progress? Given the lowest-common-denominator syndrome, a thousand new black shows in a single season might actually militate against it, as WB and UPN demonstrated with tripe like Smart Guy and Homeboys From Outer Space. The irony is that only a few short seasons ago, the L.A. Timesrolled out a story not on the vacuum, but on the impressive volume of black-themed shows debuting on network television -- and subsequent vicious reviews and commentaries rendered that volume pretty much beside the point.
Despite blacks' criticism of the current crying lack, the representation we are clamoring for is not merely physical or numerical, and it is rooted in Hollywood's history of keeping blacks underemployed and black images viciously circumscribed. Comedy has always best suited the latter purpose, which explains the rarity of black television dramas -- no one wants to view black life in anything but exaggerated terms. Black programs without a comedic core have historically failed: Nat "King" Cole's variety show in the earliest days of television was high-quality and black-headlined, an apparent contradiction to the nervous white sponsors who ultimately refused to support it, despite Cole's enormous popularity as a singer and entertainer. (Flip Wilson succeeded many years later where Cole couldn't, but Wilson was, of course, a standup comic.) Now, with black comics the most visible, venerated and youth-friendly of television performers, we are staring down the barrel of the same problem. Even those few thoughtful black shows that succeed in spite of the odds, that cross over to a wider audience -- Cosby, for one -- do not establish patterns for future successes; Hollywood rushes to knock off Melrose Place, but who is really looking to knock off Cosby, with the exception of Cosby himself? Black longevity has tended to be personality-driven, not industry-driven or industry-cultivated, perhaps because while few blacks appear before the camera, far fewer appear behind it -- as writers, directors and producers.
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