While Black History Month would seem the most appropriate time of the year to air programming focusing on African-Americans, TV execs emphasize that their scheduling extends beyond February.
But both Jerry Offsay, Showtime’s programming prexy, and Colin Callender, president of HBO Films, realize February is when the public is noticing.
“Black History Month is part of our ongoing desire to create a body of work that really explores every aspect of the contemporary and historical African-American experience,” Callender says. “It’s an opportunity to tell stories from a historical perspective that complements the other programming we create.”
“Since the media pays so much attention to Black History Month, it gives you added promotion,” says Offsay. “If I put Adam Clayton Powell on in April there wouldn’t be separate feature articles. By airing them in February, it gives those movies a higher profile and gets them more public awareness.”
“Keep the Faith Baby,” which stars Harry Lennix and Vanessa Williams, is Powell’s story of tackling racism in the halls of Congress. Showtime is also airing “10,000 Black Men Named George,” the story of the Chicago Pullman strike starring Andre Braugher, and “The Red Sneakers,” with Vincent D’Onofrio and Gregory Hines.
“Faith” exec producer Dennis Johnson has mixed feelings about the rise of African-American programming during Black History Month. He agrees the extra press coverage it provides is important in helping to teach audiences about personalities such as Powell, who many have never heard of, but he is leery about oversaturation.
“There’s so much black programming in one month — in essence ghettoizing the programming — that we get much more competition,” Johnson says.
“We give it a quarter-turn more attention in February because we don’t want anybody else who’s only doing it once to somehow be perceived as having done more for the community than we do because they did their one-month obligatory piece of programming,” explains Offsay.
This year Showtime’s outreach featured an unprecedented dozen-plus screenings at venues such as Harlem’s Magic Johnson Theater, Chicago’s Pullman Porter Museum and Washington’s Newseum.
HBO began touring its “relationship between Africa and America” menu in January, taking the “Lumumba” biopic of the Congolese leader and “The Middle Passage” (a French-inspired look at the slave trade) to Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations. February venues include Texas Southern U., Clark U., Temple U. and Howard U., as well as the Smithsonian-affiliated Anacostia Museum, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Apex Museum in Atlanta.
Helping to organize the Harvard confab was professor Henry Lewis Gates Jr., the chairman of its Afro-American Studies Dept. and a fan of “The Middle Passage.”
“I really like this film,” says Gates. “You have a more complex representation of the truth than you do in most of these other films (that cover the same material).”
On pubic TV, PBS’ kicked off its 18-work lineup with the Oscar-nominated docu “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” (the 1931-1934 trials of nine black teenagers brought twice to the Supreme Court).