A LOOK AT . . . Race and TV; Protesting Too Much, We Hurt Ourselves
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Television programming; Blacks; Activists
Jul 25, 1999
The criticism of Earl Ofari Hutchinson and other self-appointed spokespeople for the black community strikes
me as the height of hubris. Speaking as an African-American actor, I think the drumbeat of protest is one reason
the television networks have shied away from using black actors in major roles.
Time and again, TV shows that feature black leads are targeted by these black activists. Last October,
Hutchinson wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times arguing for the cancellation of UPN's "The Secret Diary
of Desmond Pfeiffer," a comedy about a black butler to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
("Desmond Pfeiffer" drew the ire of the NAACP and others. UPN canceled the series, citing poor ratings, and
said the protests were not a factor.) Now, after doing his best to help torpedo a show with a black lead, he
shows up again complaining about the lack of shows with black leads. Hubris, indeed.
Nearly every type of "black" show seems to draw some sort of flak: If a show portrays wealthy black people,
it's criticized for ignoring the plight of poor ones. If a show features poor blacks (as in "South Central"), it's
criticized for stereotyping black people as poor. The lack of interracial love stories is protested, but so, too, are
interracial love stories (as in the recent controversies over story lines in "Ally McBeal" and "ER"). Protests
about the lack of black voice-actors are followed by protests against the use of black voice- actors for unsavory
roles (such as the Jar Jar Binks character in "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace"). Were I cynical
enough, I'd suggest that there was something calculated about it, a way for activists to forever stay in the
In past years, there were complaints that the TV show "Seinfeld" never featured a black main character during
its run as the most popular show in America. But let's be honest--which "Seinfeld" character could have been
cast as an African American without drawing protests from the activist crowd: The spastic, bug-eyed Kramer?
The chronically unemployed, lazy George? The sexually promiscuous, self- centered Elaine? Had these
characters been black, would "Seinfeld" have lasted even one season?
It's gotten to the point where the networks are wary of hiring black actors for lead roles. Why would a network
want to spend millions of dollars to produce and promote a show, only to be confronted with angry protests?
Advertisers don't want their products attached to shows that are the objects of controversy.
Unless African-American activists abandon the destructive tactic of trying to ban shows they don't like, actors
like me will continue to suffer the consequences. I speak from experience: Several years ago, I lost a role in
which I'd already been cast because the producers feared charges of racism.
My character was a high school principal who was made to look foolish by the white teenage lead. The show
was a science-fiction comedy, and these kinds of bits happened all the time. Instead of this being seen as a hip,
irreverent student sticking it to the stuffy principal, it was seen as a white guy making a black guy look like a
African-American activists seem completely out of touch with the level of fear that exists among TV industry
people about being labeled "racist." It is this fear that has hindered "colorblind casting," the noble goal of which
is to make race secondary to talent when casting a role. This goal is impossible when activists insist that every
black actor must play a role that is a "positive image." This is a burden white actors don't carry.
African-American activists say this double standard is necessary, because black people still face racism. So
what? So do other groups. For example, the vicious, slanderous stereotype of the Jew as "evil capitalist"
tormented Jews in Europe for centuries, but what would the state of the Jewish community be today if Jews had
refused to take jobs in "capitalist" enterprises for fear of perpetuating this stereotype? What if Jews had refused
to work in the entertainment business out of fear of perpetuating the stereotype that "Jews control Hollywood"?
Hutchinson has dismissed some black sitcoms (such as "The Wayans Bros." and "Martin") as "minstrel shows."
He implies that these shows, with their exaggerated physical comedy, are somehow harmful to the black
community. What proof exists for that? During the 1950s, what images of Jews did Americans see on TV? The
rubber-faced Sid Caesar, the cross-dressing Milton Berle, the mugging Danny Kaye and, of course, the king of
exaggerated comedy, Jerry Lewis. Did these performances harm the Jewish community?
Of course, there are racists in America. But I have yet to see any evidence that any racist bases his or her
bigotry on sitcom images. If we want to change the image of black people, it would perhaps be wiser to start
attacking the disproportionately high level of crime committed in our community, and the disproportionately
high drop-out rate among our students. These factors are far more responsible for negative black images than
Indeed, the networks are even blamed for shows that were created by maverick black artists. Should the
network executives turn aside people such as Eddie Murphy or the Wayans brothers when they develop
productions that some black activists deem to be offensive (but that don't trouble black viewers, judging by the
ratings)? Wouldn't that also draw charges of racism?
Black activists would do better to celebrate the tremendous progress that has been made in TV in the past 20
years. It does no good to hobble black performers, writers and others in the business. Stop defining us by our
race. Fifty years ago, television's message was that that we could only be on TV if we were "a credit to our
race." Now that same line seems to be coming from our own people. . . and that's a tragedy.
Damon Standifer's credits include the film "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" and several TV series, including
"Martin," "Becker," "The Wayans Bros." and "Mad About You." He lives in Los Angeles.
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