Minority leads top priority for NAACP

Why 'Ugly' is beautiful

“The NAACP believes in diversity, and our show is multicultural from an African-American point of view,” says Vicangelo Bulluck, exec producer of the NAACP Image Awards. “We have a unique relationship with the Hispanic community, the Asian-American community and the Native American community.”

This is not the first year that the NAACP spotlight has fallen on Latino stars. In 2006, Carlos Santana was inducted into its Hall of Fame. But with 2007 noms going to Penelope Cruz, America Ferrera, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and George Lopez, this year is truly a knockout for Latinos.

“Race is not as big an issue as sometimes people who sell the shows tend to think,” says Bulluck, who also serves as executive director of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau. “The American public is much more embracing. It’s not just us recognizing these shows. One thing that we continually discuss, even with the multicultural shows and the ensemble casts, is the need for more minorities as leads.”

Silvio Horta, creator-exec producer of ABC/Touchstone’s “Ugly Betty,” grew up watching Spanish-language telenovelas with his Cuban-American family, never dreaming he would find himself heading up an American TV series. ” ‘Ugly Betty’ is who I am,” says Horta. “She embodies the American experience. The search for the American dream. The underdog we can all relate to. She is what a big percentage of this country is. She is a first generation Latin American.”

The NAACP nod has a special meaning for Horta, who says that if it were not for the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship for African-Americans and Latinos, he would not have been able to attend NYU Film School. “I grew up in Miami and I wanted to go to NYU and couldn’t afford it,” Horta explains. “I started writing letters, calling and seeing any way I could get help. Within NYU there was a program, the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship. I got one. I wouldn’t have been able to attend NYU otherwise.”

ABC’s primetime hit is based on “Yo soy Betty, la fea,” the groundbreaking Colombian show that became an international phenom. “Ugly Betty” had been in development in Hollywood for several years before Horta came onboard.

“Its roots are Latin American,” Horta says. “At the beginning of the casting process the concern was, would we be able to find the right person who is Latin or would we have to expand the casting? This is such a specific role. I thought this is what makes it special, unique and different. She is Latino. She is a first-generation immigrant. It hasn’t been seen before. For me, it was a no-brainer.”

Horta appreciates the Image Awards recognition of Latino actors and

hopes it is just the beginning for more diverse faces on TV and film. “There has been sort of a gradual progression in that direction,” he says. “It seems that it’s getting to that almost tipping point where it’s not even a question when it hits casting directors or studio execs’ desks. Is it a viable project? Is it marketable? Is it

commercial? Now it’s sort of a given.”

Almost to the tipping point is the key question: While “Ugly Betty” certainly looks like it has opened a door, will that door remain open?

“How long-lasting will it be?” asks Bulluck, who goes on to note, ” ‘Cosby’ was a big breakthrough on a network and it’s surprising that we don’t have any African-American comedies with African-American leads on any of the major networks now. I don’t see why we don’t have an Asian-American in a lead. There’s sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy when shows are taken to the upfronts and the advertisers — that if there’s a minority lead, it potentially will have a limited audience. Corporate America still lags behind in what the audience wants.”

At the same time, while the Image Awards have increasingly recognized Latinos, the org curiously gave nary a nom to Logo’s recently canceled all-black, all-gay TV series “Noah’s Arc.” The show’s creator-exec producer, Patrik-Ian Polk, expresses disappointment. “At this point, there is only handful of truly black TV shows where the main cast is African-American,” he says. “I’ve counted five, including ‘Noah’s Arc,’ that are left. Every year the (NAACP) comes out with reports on how many black characters there are each year. This year the numbers were surprisingly low.”

Was “Noah’s Arc” too under the radar on the too-tiny Logo network to be considered for the Image Awards?

“Exactly,” says Bulluck. “The show was submitted. I just don’t know if enough audience has sampled the show. I don’t know why a major network wouldn’t gamble on ‘Noah’s Arc’ the same way they did on ‘Will and Grace.’ I’m not a programmer. I think that if it’s quality programming, it speaks to our humanity. That’s what broadcast television is supposed to be about.”

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