IS ETHNICALLY CORRECT TELEVISION A CIVIL RIGHT?
Laugh aloud if you must, but the Los Angeles Times has 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 Times were 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. Times rolled 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.
In one paradox among many, black performers have always been the backbone of American entertainment, but not its payroll, and while blacks have always argued for more sheer numbers, they have argued louder for better industry regard — not more shows, but the latitude to produce shows, such as Frank's Place or I'll Fly Away, that don't rely on black shtick. What's at stake here is an essential American freedom, that of self-determination. It's not quite a civil right, but it's bigger, more spiritually encompassing, and therefore harder to attain; nor, in this case, can self-determination be accomplished entirely by the black collective self. We are tired of appearing stupid to ourselves, but the peculiar thing is, has always been, that we can't solve it alone.
Some good may issue from this. I'm glad the somnolent NAACP has rediscovered its fighting spirit (though I would be happier if it took up the fight against, say, substandard public education of black children), but it is still stepping rather gingerly around the issue of quality. It gets raised here and there, with The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, with Eddie Murphy's The PJs, but it's often wrong-headed; to miss the satire of The PJs is to accept the straight-up jive of Martin as irrefutably hip and culturally accurate. And we are loath to implicate ourselves as bricks in the wall: BET congratulated itself recently for launching the nation's first black production studio, but its maiden project is a slew of television movies based on black romance novels. I certainly don't quibble with blacks' right to be as lowbrow as whites or anyone else, but please, let's not describe the peerless Angela Bassett or Loretta Devine knocking about in a soap opera as freedom.
THE ISSUE CIRCLES BACK TO PROGRESS, WHAT IT
is or isn't, what it's been downsized into, and whether or not we are all asking too much of television to do its part in shifting the course of history. How can we redirect a corporate behemoth like television when we can't persuade Macy's to stay put in the Crenshaw mall? Black people and television may appear to be at each other's throats at the moment, but they have a far more symbiotic relationship than anyone would care to admit. Networks put out shows and black people watch them, 20 hours more a week than nonblack households. Representation, lest any diversity zealots forget, is the result of politics and influence, not numbers.
Having said all that, I have to confess that I'm still a marginally active member of our TV nation. All right, all right — I've watched my share of Martin and Malcolm and Eddy and Sister Sister, when I was actively trying to kill an evening, when I was in a mood to spite myself. Occasionally I laughed, but more often I'd get sour. Who did these television producers take me for? Who did Martin Lawrence take me for? I smelled collusion, and one night I turned abruptly to the A&E channel, where I was equally flatlined by a biography of Jamie Lee Curtis. I was bored, but bored in peace. I was staging a nonviolent demonstration against racial inequity — King would have been proud. There might be some civil rights potential in this stuff after all.