Opportunities for black actors up but negative images persist

Ted Lange has seen the highs and lows of show business, and states emphatically that right now, in the late 1990s, is definitely not a low for the depiction of black characters on television.

On the other hand, it’s no high point, either.

The mixed, complex conditions for black characters and actors on the tube are a puzzle for working actors and directors like Lange, who alternates between television (where he’s recently appeared as guest star on UPN’s “Malcolm and Eddie” and Fox’s now-canceled “Martin,” while directing episodes of UPN’s “Moesha”) and theater (where two of his plays, “Four Queens — No Trump” and “Soul Survivor,” are running on Los Angeles stages).

“You’ve got more comedies than ever before,” he says, “but while some are funny without being offensive, there are others that are extremely broad and ethnocentric. I take advantage of the proliferation of black comedies, but still, if I were a dramatic black actor, writer or director, I would have a real problem with the lack of dramas with meaningful black roles.”

Lange, who first made an impact on TV audiences as bartender Isaac Washington on “The Love Boat” in the late ’70s, reveals that the key to his survival in the business was “to ignore the brothers saying the glass was half-empty, and instead look at it as half-full.” But he also shrewdly knows the pitfalls of criticizing fellow African-American artists’ depictions of characters: “I’ve mentioned specific titles in the past, and got heat for it, just like I got heat when I was quoted in print questioning the lack of non-white characters on ‘Murphy Brown.’ Let’s say it didn’t make things easy getting work with (‘Murphy Brown’ producer) Diane English.”

Indeed, the sensitivity of discussing black characters — positive or negative — is such that few African-American actors contacted for this story were willing to talk on the record or make themselves available. “It’s a hot potato,” Lange says, echoing comments by actor-comedian Steve Harvey.

“The reason I won’t speak out against other fellow black actors and creators of shows I may not hold up as the ideal on television is simple,” Harvey explains. “They need the work, and it’s been a struggle getting to the point of having your own show on the air.”

Other, non-industry African-American public figures, such as Jesse Jackson, have decried such sitcoms as “Martin,” starring Martin Lawrence. The Hollywood chapter of the NAACP suggested in a February protest that “Martin” was a regressive return to the stereotypical images — fat women, big-toothed smiling faces — projected in the “chitlins circuit” brand of theater derided by some and beloved by others in the African-American community.

Lange and Harvey, both masters of the subdued, post-“Cosby” school of TV comedy, personally distance themselves from the chitlins circuit style. Yet the open, almost celebratory manner and energy of “Martin’s” outlandish Sheneneh (Lawrence’s most notorious female character) or the loving homage to chitlins-style theater in a recent episode of “The Wayans Bros.” do cause critics to take pause.

After all, “Martin” is one of several “broader” black-themed sitcoms to clean up at the annual Image awards, sponsored by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People’s nationwide org.

But if one has Jamie Foxx gleefully making a fool of himself on “The Jamie Foxx Show,” one also has the nuanced stories abounding in such sitcoms as “Moesha,” “Smart Guy” and “Sister, Sister” — all depicting engaging, intelligent pre-teen and teen black characters.

These wide-ranging shows are on the WB and UPN netlets, whose programming schedules have allowed broad opportunities for African-American-created shows. “It’s much better now that there’s an alternative on WB and UPN,” says Harvey, whose “The Steve Harvey Show” airs on the WB. “We’ve got a place now where we can provide positive images for all of America, and also show younger brothers a character like mine — a guy who’s a respected schoolteacher — they can look up to.”

Another stride forward, Lange and others suggest, is the predominantly middle-class status of today’s black TV characters, who definitely have climbed the economic ladder from Redd Foxx’s working-class Fred Sanford on “Sanford & Son” in the 1970s. “I don’t think this is some phony strategy to project a positive image with nothing behind it,” Lange says. “It’s more basic than that. The new generation of black writers in television are themselves college-educated, from middle-class families. The stories they’re telling reflect their own lives.”

The combination of compelling character development and a substantial positive image is foremost in the mind of an actor such as Yaphet Kotto, who has starred on the five-years-and-running NBC drama “Homicide: Life on the Street.” “It’s a responsibility I carried into this show,” Kotto says. “It’s not just the fact that I’m in charge of the homicide department. Dignity and strength had to be depicted, because there’s such a lack of authority figures and fathers for black kids in this country. I have this chance to bring this authority figure into homes without fathers, so that when I’m boss to (fellow black co-stars) Andre (Braugher) or Clark (Johnson), the kids at home can see that, ‘Here’s the father I didn’t have. He’s not on drugs, he’s looking good in a suit, and he’s strong.’ “

On a six-network weekly lineup remarkably thin in hourlong dramas placing black characters at the forefront of the action — and no TV drama with a headlining black actor — “Homicide” features Kotto, Braugher and Johnson in prominent roles. (Indeed, many fans argue that despite the show’s ensemble nature, Braugher’s Pembleton is the series’ key character.) But the show adds a further dimension not lost on African-American viewers: It deliberately mixes light-skinned blacks, such as Johnson, with darker-skinned blacks such as Kotto and Braugher.

“This was the plan from the start, as Paul Attanasio and Barry Levinson devised it,” Kotto says. “Black people come up to me in airports and tell me how important this has been to bring their own friends of different shades together.”

Yet Kotto and others express frustration that “Homicide” and “New York Undercover” — two of the few critically acclaimed primetime dramas with dominant black characters — have been regularly ignored by the Emmys. “It’s heartbreaking,” Kotto admits, “because our show probably employs more blacks in front of and behind the camera than any other show on the air. We all feel sad about it, but it motivates us to work that much harder.”

Kotto’s co-star Johnson, who’s had the chance to direct “Homicide” episodes, notes that TV’s deeper problem goes beyond white and black: “If you’re an Asian or Hispanic actor trying to find decent characters to play on TV now, it’s way worse than it is for black actors. I think we need to stop talking about the black problem and talk about the non-white problem.”

“From the standpoint of African-American-made shows,” Harvey says, “the No. 1 problem is a lack of experience by the makers and actors to produce the best show possible. Because TV is historically not that interested in black characters, we haven’t had that much time to develop the craft.

“But the problem is on the other side, too. On my show, we get pressed by executives and producers to insert white characters on our show to supposedly boost our ratings.” (Indeed, most UPN and WB shows, including “The Steve Harvey Show,” air in only a third of the country’s 286 markets and average single-digit Nielsen ratings.)

“Some of these same executives, though, won’t greenlight dramas that could bring a richness of ethnically diverse stories to television,” Harvey continues. “The Big Three networks are doing a major injustice by not tapping into the kind of story-telling with more diverse characters.

“The choices are greater now than ever, absolutely,” he says. “But blacks are still absent from most of primetime — oh, except when you tune in the nightly news. Then we’re all over the place, robbing, stealing, getting shot or playing ball. That’s a limited image to send.”

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