Jim Crow Hollywood
In 1968, the year I was born, the first TV show to feature an African-American in the lead debuted: Julia. For many, Julia was a turning point.
Mind you, I've seen the show and it was patronizing and melodramatic pap, but it was patronizing and melodramatic pap with a beautiful star, Diahann Carroll, that blacks could at least call their own. I'm sure many blacks in Hollywood back then weren't happy with their lack of opportunities, but they'd have to admit that things were looking a little better.
Now fast-forward three decades: the NAACP blasts TV networks for "whitewashing" programming, actor Charles Dutton declares he will never work in TV again because it will never portray real black characters, ER star Eriq LaSalle complains that the show's writers are afraid to devote an episode to his character, black actors and scribes claim they have been banished to a TV ghetto on the WB and UPN, and when Steven Bochco decides he wants to produce a show with a predominantly black cast, City of Angels, it is considered groundbreaking television.
Thirty-one years later, and they're still talking about the same old shit.
INT. OFFICE -- DAYI am not naive enough to think that putting a few more black characters on TV will solve the ills of society. It won't. I am not fool enough to think that the same industry that puts out drivel like Jesse has the wherewithal to tackle the lack of diversity on the airwaves. It doesn't. No, this is about the principle of it all.
If the television industry can get away with ignoring sizable portion of the population, what does it say about us as a society? What does it say that advertisers can use public airwaves to target only young, white and affluent viewers? What does it say when this injustice is largely met with a shrug by the majority?
Most whites, whether they know it or not, are born in country where it goes without saying that you are an American. They've never had to fight for what they consider to be a birthright. My grandparents weren't granted that birthright, neither were my parents, and I was lucky enough to be born during a time when it was earned and given to me, however grudgingly.
The point is that blacks have had to fight for things that many take for granted: to see someone who looks like you on TV, in the movies, on the playing fields, in the board room, in politics, what have you.
And to see that so little progress has been made in the thirty years since Julia has to be disheartening. After all, three decades is a long time for Hollywood not to get its act together.
And yet I almost feel sorry for TV executives. I really do. Night and day they work, performing the thankless task of entertaining the unwashed masses. At night, I imagine their retreating to their homes in the Hollywood Hills, a martini in hand, watching the tube, sagging under the weight of the world. Living with the knowledge that whatever they do, somebody is going to be unhappy about their decisions.
INT. LIVING ROOM -- NIGHTYeah. Those poor bastards.
I'm the first person to admit that television isn't reality. Real life teenagers aren't nearly so urbane and well-spoken as they are on Dawson's Creek. Six single folks with the after-tax income of the Friends could never afford apartments that spacious in Manhattan. And nannies just don't up and get married to their rich Broadway producer employers. Not sounding like Fran Drescher, they don't.
Still, it's important. Because, as silly as this sounds, television is the visual embodiment of the American Dream. To not have people who look like you on TV is to be basically cut out of that dream.
The problem goes beyond just putting a few more token dark faces on the tube. After all, if you're not given a chance to be a part of the process of shaping the dream as producer or writer, you really don't exist. Because if you randomly pick any "mainstream" show and at look their writing staffs you will note a distinct lack of black and brown faces.
According to the Writers' Guild of America's most recent statistics, only 4.5 percent of television writers are black. And the majority of them work for networks like the WB and UPN-- which unless you work for Buffy, Felicity or Dawson's Creek isn't exactly a jump start to your career. That's because you most likely work for one of those godawful black shows like The Steve Harvey Show, The Wayans Bros., or Malcolm & Eddie. Not exactly a bustling entrée into Hollywood's creative elite.
INT. STUDIO -- NIGHTOf course, blacks aren't the only ones getting shafted. Latinos and Asians are sorely underrepresented as well. And as consumers with billions of dollars to spend, I might add, people of color have the right to demand that they be served. They have a right to demand that networks have actors that represent them, that the networks and the production companies they hire have work forces that reflect the overall population and not just the white demographic. After all, to ignore 40 million people with money to spend is a silly thing to do.
Thirty-one years and I'm all grown up. It's high time that television did the same. But I'm not holding my breath.
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