The results of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition's eighth annual diversity “report cards” came out last week and they weren't promising. The reports covered progress made in network television during the 2007-2008 season by writers, actors and producers who were Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. Despite a rather ingratiating tone taken toward corporate TV (the nets, we are told, did the best they could in the face of the Writers Guild of America's “devastating” strike that “nearly crippled” TV), the report cards, posted on the National Hispanic Media Coalition's Web site, show that as far as Latinos were concerned, only Fox had increased its grade over last year (from a B- to a B), while ABC went down (from A- to B+).
The geography of race: San Bernardino County's Pickaninny Buttes. (Photo from Google Earth)
Asians fared worse, with ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC earning, respectively,
grades of B-, C+, C+ and C+. American Indian participation in network
programming earned the same nets, respectively, grades of C-, C, B- and
B, respectively. Sometime this winter “A Different America on Screen,”
the Screen Actors Guild report on casting data, will be published.
It'll look at how well minorities fared over 2006-2007. SAG's previous
report noted that while Asian/Pacific Islanders' presence on TV and
film had increased, onscreen representation by African Americans,
Latinos and American Indians was down.
Many white people, if they even glance at these kind of reports,
probably figure they have no more impact on their own lives than the
latest Nielsen ratings. Words like “multi-ethnic” and “diversity”
carry the kind of cringe charge that fat-free diets and good-posture
Nevertheless, the MEM Coalition and SAG figures point to an industry
culture of denial — as America becomes a darker-skinned country, its
Caucasian elites are making what we see on TV and at the multiplex
paler and more suburban. No, it's not a case of overt racism, although
it occurs against a backdrop of a country that denies race means
anything any more.
Decks of race cards were flung high into the air, of course, during the late
presidential campaign, when an explosion of bigoted invective and
“humor” aimed at Barack Obama suddenly made the chattering classes
reassess where the country stood in its racial attitudes. Then, when
Obama was elected his victory seemed, in these pundits' eyes, to
confirm that we had nothing to worry about. See, even a black man can become president. Case closed.
President George W. Bush is about to move into an exclusive Dallas
community that, until 2006, was a whites-only neighborhood. (Servants
were okay, though.) White tolerance — toward racism — even seems
ingrained in our geography — San Bernardino County still has peaks bearing
such names as Pickaninny Buttes and Negro Butte. (At least the latter
was changed some years ago from its original designation — Nigger
But back to Hollywood. One lucrative avenue for black and other
minority actors has been voice-over work — work that is typically
submitted on tape or DVD by an actor's agent. Yet even here sound is
not always “color deaf.” David Fennoy is one of the industry's leading
voice actors and is heard on many commercials, animated programs and
video games. An African American, he also illustrates a series of
cartoons dealing with topical events called “Chillin With Dreadman,” which appears on Ebony magazine's Web site.
“We live in a world where racism is still here, but it's more subtle,”
Fennoy says. He recalls a moment in his career that suggests how foggy
gray an area minorities must navigate in the entertainment industry.
(David Fennoy photo from davefennoy.com)
“I was up for the role of Superman in a cartoon,” Fennoy says. “I had
done the original audition at my agent's place and we got a call-back.
When I walked in the door I saw the look on their faces. I didn't get
the part. Maybe they decided to go with someone else because they were
better.” Fennoy says it wasn't the first time he thought he had a gig
in the bag, only to be rejected once he showed up in person.
And so the surveys continue, although the man who won the presidential
audition is definitely a different kind of actor. How Obama's
presidency will effect TV and movie casting will be watched during the
next few years. Perhaps Hollywood will discover a black Superman in its
midst after all.