The Idiot Beat 

Further adventures in the screen trade

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000

I used to call it the Idiot Minute. Maybe I did. Maybe I called it the Idiot Beat.

Don’t remember.

Doesn’t matter.

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What matters is that it happened enough that I had a name for it at all. It was the moment just after walking through the door for a meeting with some unfamiliar, low-level studio slick-in-a-suit or D-girl No. 43 when their head would do a double take and their eyes would wordlessly but loudly wonder: “He’s black?”

When I came to the city of Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune and broads who’d throw themselves at me ’cause I had a nice car, I knew that black writers who earned so much as a decent living wage were rare.

Didn’t know how rare.

I learned they were rare enough that me actually landing an agent and getting pitch meetings was the equivalent of taking a Freedom Ride: I was heading into unknown and segregated territory; middle-aged white-male writers over here, please. Everybody else . . .

Thing is, unlike the Freedom Rides, I’m not talking about the rural South, 1962. Try right here, 1994, when I first started making the “Pleased to meet you, won’t you hire me to rewrite your crappy movie” rounds.

Six years ago.

Not that long. Forever.

Little more than six years ago, Run-DMC was considered hardcore rap, New Jack City was the first — not the thousandth — Black People Shoot Black People, Don’t They? movie, and Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society and all the rest of the black movies that were so cool they didn’t use all the letters of the words in their titles were just a blip on the entertainment horizon. Back then, the black writer was a new and exciting kind of thing, a cultural phenomenon brought on by post-’80s creeping PC-ism, as well as by the burgeoning success of black film and, on TV, The Cosby Show.

Television’s where I landed my first paid, professional writing job. It was on a show called Rhythm & Blues. It was short-lived. Not short enough. The premise of the show revolved around a white radio DJ who saves a failing Detroit R&B station. The National Broadcasting Co. was very excited about the program. It was taking ã over the slot previously owned by A Different World, which was moving into the slot previously owned by The Cosby Show, which had, the previous season, ended its run. No matter that it subscribed to the age-old but apparently forever-stylish notion that black people needed white people to swoop in and save us from ourselves, the brain trust at NBC — flush off the success of Supertrain — was convinced Rhythm & Blues would be a hit. And the show might’ve been a hit, too.

Might’ve been.

Except, between the time the testers tested the show and when it aired there were a couple of minor incidents that took place in Los Angeles. One involved Rodney King getting reduced to Silly Putty on grainy videotape, the other involved a good chunk of the city getting barbecued live on CNN for four days running. Thanks to that little piece of “civil disturbance,” America’s perception of race relations changed. At least, America’s perception of what kind of race relations they wanted to watch on Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. changed. Rhythm & Blues lasted all of four-too-many episodes. But in that life span of a tsetse fly, I learned my first lesson about being a black writer in Hollywood: There weren’t many black writers in Hollywood. Maybe it was more like a refresher course, but it was a fact that got made crystal clear to me in one queerly true moment. We were pitching out ideas for a Thanksgiving episode of the show, and one of the white writers on staff asked me, “Do black people celebrate Thanksgiving?”

That the question was asked was a little disturbing. What was more disturbing was that the question was asked by a decent, well-meaning guy. And if black writers were so alien to the decent, well-meaning people in Hollywood that they didn’t know how we spent the third Thursday in November, to the bigots we must’ve been downright mythical — like unicorns or Cyclopes or compassionate conservatives. It made me wonder what chance I had, what chance any writer of color had, of making it to the end of the Freedom Ride.

But the movement that was black entertainment was not to be denied, and real soon we were all over the airwaves. Programs like The Fresh Prince, Martin and the groundbreaking Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper (bringing that we’re-not-using-all-the-letters-of-our-title coolness to television) were hits and employed diverse staffs. But even with that, black writers were living in a Livin’ Single, Livin’ Color professional ghetto.

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