Welcome to Black History Month, the annual period when television attempts to squeeze an entire year’s worth of guilt into a few weeks in the hope that one month of unrelenting attention balances the scales for 11 of comparative neglect.
Which raises the question: Are minorities better off with havens and set-asides devoted to them, or does that do more harm than good — “ghetto-izing” the programs that get on while masking the need to compete year-round, night in and out, in the rough-and-tumble of the commercial marketplace?
There is no simple answer to this, even within the African-American community. Yet watching a smattering of this month’s “Black History”-connected offerings, I can’t help but think such a crush doesn’t achieve much, and that even a TiVo owner with the industrial-capacity hard drive would be overwhelmed by the cacophony of specials on display.
Television remains a puzzle on the issue of race, constantly engaged in a dance that seemingly takes a step back for every two steps forward.
In the medium’s defense, though, it’s difficult to gauge progress because of the disparate views of what that entails. There is some advancement, for example, seeing programs that star minorities fanning out across primetime — including NBC’s “Whoopi” and “The Tracy Morgan Show,” Fox’s “Bernie Mac” and ABC’s “My Wife and Kids” and “George Lopez.”
Yet at the NATPE conference in Las Vegas, an African-American woman passionately expressed dismay over Morgan’s sitcom being a minstrel show. The glib response would be that paunchy white guys would rather not be judged based on “According to Jim,” either, but that’s not entirely fair — especially given the notable absence of African-Americans featured at this year’s event.
On the flip side, people complained when it seemed that every minority show had to be sequestered on a mini-network or a single night — when Fox’s “Martin,” “Living Single” and “New York Undercover” topped the Nielsens within American-American homes and barely registered beyond them.
Why put a box around minority shows, some said, carving out territory that almost says “Blacks only,” making limited success a self-fulfilling prophecy? Granted, there’s Black Entertainment Television, but its traditional lineup of reruns and musicvideos hardly repped the sort of boon that alleviates the need for gains elsewhere.
The same thought comes to mind scanning the array of offerings for Black History Month, which only highlights how everyone would benefit from spreading the wealth throughout the year.
Like anything else, the programs vary widely in terms of merit. HBO’s beautifully made “Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks” deftly chronicles the Birmingham, Ala., bus boycott. Nickelodeon’s “The Legacy of Slavery,” meanwhile, is surprisingly shoddy given host Linda Ellerbee’s legacy, and includes an unfair and unbalanced exchange regarding the call for reparations with nary a word from those who might oppose them.
Then there are entries apparently designed solely to warrant inclusion in roundup stories, such as VH1’s “TV Race Riot! Television’s Illest Minority Moments,” a concept — “ethnic stereotypes and racial storylines” in TV history — about as inviting as the title.
Another hit-miss proposition is PBS’ “America Beyond the Color Line,” a four-part docu premiering this week hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. In the best seg, “Black Hollywood,” Gates comes closest in capturing the issue’s complexity, as struggling black actors discuss the roadblocks they face while established stars downplay the efficacy of outside pressure and activism.
“It’s not as simple as just saying we need more numbers,” actor Don Cheadle explains. “We do need more numbers, but if the stories aren’t intriguing, engaging, entertaining, then just sticking a bunch of people in a product that’s ultimately not going to be that good, that doesn’t help either.”
The ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson voices similar concerns, suggesting that criticism of the historic dearth of minority Oscar nominees doesn’t have much impact in a bottom-line-oriented business.
“Who do you want to nominate from ‘Booty Call’?” he asks with a laugh, adding in regard to the NAACP’s efforts to promote diversity, “Every time they get involved in Hollywood, something strange happens. … Leave us alone. Let us do our thing.”
As for the role racism plays, Jackson says, “Hollywood is anti- anything that’s not green.”
Indeed, the tyranny that currently assails minorities is more insidious than in the past, arising from a perception that projects showcasing people of color won’t sell well internationally. In Gates’ docu, director Reginald Hudlin lays the blame on a lack of imagination among cultural gatekeepers abroad who don’t understand how to market such fare.
“A lot of these things, it’s not racism at all,” he says. “It’s laziness.”
The assertion that “Oh no, the ‘foreigners’ are racist, not us” might sound like a minor distinction to those deprived of work due to that dynamic. Nevertheless, in order to press forward, minorities need to clearly identify where the impediments are as well as the legitimate inroads, from Oprah Winfrey’s Midas touch to Richard Parsons’ stewardship of Time Warner.
Moreover, if the goal is to stimulate change, some African-Americans say, dwelling on past or even present slights isn’t the best means toward that end. Hudlin’s brother, director Warrington Hudlin, co-founded the Black Filmmakers Foundation with the idea of convincing industry leaders that hiring minority talent is in their own interest. As he told me a few months ago, “It’s a matter of whining not being effective.”
Television’s exploitation of Black History Month strikes me as equally unproductive — symbolic, yes, but ultimately possessing little more consequence than using Valentine’s Day as an excuse for “very special” episodes.
So while channel-surfers will espy more black faces this month as TV pays its debt to history, let’s save the celebration until the day when March rolls around and the picture doesn’t rapidly fade to white.