CNN documentaries examine ethnic groups

CNN has been on an odd kick, going from examining one ethnic group or race to another. The two-part documentary “Black in America” was followed by “Latino in America” — with more such fare to come next year.

But black and Latino like who, exactly?

Lately, there’s been a tart exchange between Tyler Perry and Spike Lee. The back-and-forth volleys have been entertaining — who doesn’t like watching rich people argue? — but also enlightening. After all, here are two successful men of the same race and profession, with sharply differing views of the world.

In an interview with Ed Gordon, Lee complained that there’s too much “coonery and buffoonery” in African-American depictions onscreen that “hearken back to ‘Amos and Andy.’ ” Perry — during an extremely soft “60 Minutes” profile — countered that Lee’s statement “pisses me off” and is “insulting.”

Lee’s remarks were actually more nuanced than that — acknowledging that in terms of the black community’s role in determining the content of its entertainment, “A lot of this is on us. You vote with your pocketbook. You vote with your time sitting in front of the idiot box.”

Still, he added, the imagery is “troubling,” leaving him “scratching my head.”

It’s always tempting to speak in sweeping terms — especially now, when generating Web traffic and Drudge links have become so influential over the tone of journalism. Yet just as it’s silly to look at “Transformers” and say “America wants” this or that, it’s equally dangerous to broadly lump minority groups together as if they were homogenous.

Too often, particularly in discussions of politics, culture and commerce, that’s precisely what happens. Whether it’s African-Americans or Jews, senior citizens or soccer moms, great swaths of time go into parsing what those voters or consumers are collectively “saying.”

The short-hand makes such groups seem like monolithic entities — and has a way of alternately dismissing or inflating dissenting viewpoints that don’t fit a pre-ordained narrative.

There’s been a fairly robust debate online, for example, within the gay community about two new programs that air opposite each other: “Modern Family,” the ABC comedy; and “Glee,” Fox’s teen musical.

Both series undoubtedly traffic in stereotypes. It’s just that whether the overall messages are ultimately uplifting or offensive — a gay couple raising an adopted baby; a flamboyantly gay teen enamored with fashion and Beyonce tunes — hasn’t produced a clear consensus.

Plenty of people seem to love “Modern Family,” including yours truly and the editor of the website, who wrote that the characters are “sympathetically drawn and just as quirky in their own ‘gay’ way as all the other family members on the show.” By contrast, a blogger on the website Democratic Underground trashed the portrayal as “disrespectful” and “stereotypically queeny.”

Although it’s hard to quibble with that last characterization — or argue with someone about what offends them — the reaction feels misplaced in the larger context of the series.

Frankly, the Bravo network’s image of gays, carefully culled from the fashion-fabulous, is more relentlessly “queeny,” and has come to be accepted in such a way that it’s seldom questioned anymore. Whether that increased exposure counts as progress, however — especially absent more balanced representation — is by no means a settled question.

If it sounds painfully obvious to say there’s a lack of unanimity within the African-American and gay communities about entertainment-related issues, though, such qualifiers frequently disappear in the heat of battle. Movies and TV shows are regularly pigeonholed within demographic brackets, from chick flicks (women) to zit flicks (teens) to the assumption, punctured by Lee, that Perry’s commercial success is proof that African-Americans wholeheartedly endorse his work.

Among the latest fracases in a media sphere with an unquenchable appetite for them, a Catholic group expressed outrage over a broadly comic scene in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which Larry David’s character inadvertently splashes urine on a painting of Jesus. The conservative lobbying organization the Catholic League pounced on this indignity, yielding headlines like “Catholics PO’ed at Larry David.”

Really? All Catholics — and not just the subset represented by the League and its combative president, Bill Donohue?

As David’s show observes, people can certainly be strange and funny. But perhaps inconveniently, they’re seldom that simple.

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