White bread

O'seas media caught in color bind

Doesn’t everyone simply want to be French? That must be one of the assumptions the Gauls have made about the three million Africans and Muslims who have been living uneasily in their midst for 30 years.

Only last month, in the wake of riots in the Parisian banlieues, did leading French broadcaster TF1 actually dare to promote a black newscaster named Harry Roselmack, (albeit from French-owned Caribbean isle Martinique) to the role of anchorman.

The Europeans – and indeed countries around the globe – are just beginning to wake up to the problem that disaffected newcomers in their midst represent. And the media in particular is being called upon to do something about it.

President Jacques Chirac convened broadcasters last month and instructed them to put more black faces on the box. Two weeks later TF1 unveiled a lead role for a North African in an upcoming primetime cop show.

In Holland, Germany and Scandinavia, minority groups are openly pressuring for more exposure in the entertainment biz and for more respect for their customs.

A Palestinian-born but Danish-bred female news anchor, Asmaa Abdor-Hamid, recently wore a headscarf on air to demonstrate her pride in her Muslim traditions.

Perhaps because America has always thought of itself as a melting pot, making diversity part of the media mix is something the U.S. has excelled at more than other countries.

Yank TV series producers routinely scrutinize cast lists to make sure that characters represent a cross section of genders and races. Every Hollywood studio hires with an eye to improving upon its quotient of minority employees among its staffers. Local station newscasts across the country are primed to include a black co-anchor, a Hispanic reporter in the field and/or an Asian weatherman.

In short, moves to modify the misleading but stubborn image of white bread America and project the reality of a diverse racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious and sexual landscape have gathered steam Stateside in the last few years.

But such a shift is just beginning to take place in Europe and elsewhere, and only by fits and starts.

Why now? Because these governments suddenly find themselves grappling with unprecedented unrest from ethnic minorities, especially recent immigrants from the Muslim world. If they don’t get their arms around this problem politically and socially, the reasoning goes, there could be riots, or worse.

Just consider the demographics.

Some 66% of the population under the age of 30 in Holland’s four largest urban areas come from minority communities (but only 5% of the Dutch film and TV industry are of ethnic origin). In Germany there are more babies born each year to newly arrived immigrants than there are to all women of Teutonic stock.

The increasing awareness of those percentages has galvanized efforts to bring more minority filmmakers into the community and to make more films that express their daily realities.

In the U.S., the media largely mirrors the range of political opinion in the country, and is sometimes out in front of government, prodding it in this or that direction. But in Europe, the media tends to be more reactive. Since foreign politicos had largely swept the immigrant problem under the rug, the press had largely done the same.

Thus, the entertainment biz in these countries has up until now either blithely ignored, naively sentimentalized or awkwardly attempted to assimilate these groups.

Across Europe and in key territories like India, China and Mexico, it has been largely the same story. There are few minority role models in the media to emulate and few storylines which deal with their lives and dilemmas.

Laws generally call for non-discrimination but there are few government-backed affirmative action programs.

On the film front, things are a little better. Every country boasts a few prominent ethnic filmmakers — like Turkish-born Ferzan Ozpetek in Italy or indigenous Indian doc-meister Dante Cerano in Mexico. Still, each country will probably need a dozen movies a la the British indie hit “Bend it Like Beckham” before multiculturalism becomes part of the national psyche.

On the TV front, the challenge is greater.

Italy’s pubcaster RAI features a show called “A World in Color” that spotlights the countries different immigrant populations. But it’s produced and anchored exclusively by Italians; there are almost 3 million African and East European immigrants in the country.

“Basically, immigrants are being ghetto-ized,” says Anna Meli, of Florence-based advocacy agency Cospes.

Over on Spanish TV, things are little better, with immigrant-oriented doc series “With Any Accent” relegated to the wee hours and news reportage problematic.

Immigrants in Spain often figure in news reports as criminals or low-lifes, rarely as upright citizens with jobs and families.

“The media only presents one viewpoint — illegal immigration, delinquency, terrorism,” complains Sonia Ziadi Trives, manager of inter-cultural consultancy Conectando Culturas.

There may be another reason why mainstream commercial television in Europe has been slow to take up the cause: Many ethnic minorities in the continent are not desirable targets for advertisers because they generally have little disposable income.

In Mexico, the abiding stereotype of the indigenous Indian in movies and telenovelas is a lazy, illiterate drunkard or a foolish servant. For the first time ever a Televisa telenovela recently featured an indigenous character who spoke her own native language, Nahuatl. (She played a maid, however.)

Given the country’s deep-rooted racism against its own indigenous population, it’s actually hard to find anyone on the smallscreen who really looks Mexican. (To be fair, native Americans in the States are also still under-represented in the media, though they are a much smaller percentage of the population than indigenous people are in Mexico.)

Down Under, Aussies have their own aborigine population as well as a huge post-Vietnam influx of Asians, but things are not that much better.

While the Oz pubcasters SBS and ABC have instituted traineeships and community broadcast services that cater to minorities, mainstream soaps and dramas have remained impervious.

The country’s long-running sudser “Neighbors” still trundles along without a single significant Asian character, though producers claim that will soon be rectified.

And in China, the thrust for half a century has been to unify and modernize the country of 1.2 billion through a single language (Mandarin); recognition of local diversity thus tends to take a paternalistic or colonial approach. State-run CCTV carries untold celebratory docs looking at handicrafts, costumes and foods of the different groups, but if you’re looking for a Mongolian face on the news, forget it.

Few of the media institutions abroad either actively recruit, train or promote those who are not in the ethnic majority. There are few minority faces in primetime series or feature films and even fewer sitting in executive suites.

In the world’s other most populous nation, India, it’s fallen to a “Sesame Street” Muppet called Anchoaa to promote tolerance and cultural diversity. Otherwise, little else has been done to break down barriers.

Still, a growing number of politicos and media mavens are realizing that just broadcasting folk dance extravaganzas or sponsoring basket-weaving contests is simply no longer enough.

What Europe (and a number of other foreign territories) could use, in short, is their own homegrown crop of George Lopezes, Dennis Haysberts or Sandra Ohs. Not to mention an executive class peopled with minority decision makers like Time Warner’s Richard Parsons, Univision’s Ray Rodriguez or ABC’s Andrea Wong.

Oddly enough, the most noticeable efforts to deal with the culture clash in Europe so far have come from comic writers.

Germany recently debuted a laffer called “Turkish for Beginners,” which centers around a Teutonic teenager whose mother decides to move in with her Turkish boyfriend and his kids.

Ditto the Dutch. “Shouf Shouf Habibi” and “Schnitzel Paradise” are feature film comedies that have done well with multicultural audiences. Though they were made by non-minority filmmakers, the actors were Moroccan and Turkish who had significant input in the script.

These are firsts in that they grapple knowingly and amusingly with diversity, and at the same time promote tolerance.

But for every step forward, there is a half-step backward.

Recently proposed in Germany is a 100-question citizenship test that would make it harder than it already is for non-Teutonic types (including some of the 2.3 million Turks who live there and a growing number of other Muslims) to pass.

That follows a similarly inspired move in Holland, where would-be immigrants are encouraged to view a two-hour video about the Dutch way of life before deciding to relocate. That tape includes scenes of nude bathing on the Zuider Zee and gay men kissing in public — images likely to give pause to socially conservative ethnic groups.

The troubling Dutch and German moves are emblematic of the difficulty that Europe has with this latest immigration wave, particularly the prevalence of Muslims among them.

Might these newcomers, if left to their own devices, spawn Islamic extremists in their midst? Whether or not they do, they’re certain to tip the ethnic balance of their adopted countries as they raise a whole new generation of Muslim children.

The good news is that these issues are now out in the open, and are part of the discussion about how to change the status quo. The following is a country-by-country snapshot of what, if anything, is being done to address the issue.

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