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January 02, 2008

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JVM

OK…you asked for it….

My 1st response to an entry in your blog….

I was thinking about movies and television shows the other day….Why are Romans always played by the British? Ever notice Jewish actors get to play EVERYBOBY and seldom get stuck with “Jewish” roles? On a planet where so many people are Asian, why is the future so full of white people? How come all the leading-women in that geisha movie were Chinese? Why is the black cop always the side-kick? Why was it in high school I had to beg to be Lear, but was automatically chosen to be Othello?

I guess the audience comes to the stage with their beliefs, and the players must speak to them in way they understand – and that how tickets get sold.

It is not a “false argument”. It is a very real argument that the media portrays people in a stereotypical fashion that those who tune in will be comfortable with. And without many alternative characterizations, they may come to perceive this as the “one-and-only-true” reality of the diverse life in this country. Let’s face it, many non-black people have little personal contact with the community and family life of black people….or Asian people, or Latino people and others, for that matter. But they do know what they usually see on t.v. or in the movies. To give them something different, is to serve an audience that’s ready for something different. The networks are only interested in that when the size of this audience is big. And we all know how that usually goes.

When I heard about “The Wire”. I wanted something different. I knew it wouldn’t be different. Oh, I was sure it was going to have interesting characters and plots and writing, and somebody was going to get an award for it, and HBO would make a lot of money off of it. But shine a new and different light into the reality(-ies!) of African-American life? I wasn’t so sure about that.

I was sure that I didn’t want to watch a show that would likely owe its recognition to further developing the drug dealing, crooked cop, single-mother, poem writing prostitute, philandering preacher, almost went pro characters that you’ll remember from the last t.v. show/movie you and I both saw about black people. I just got tired of that feeling…that empty feeling – knowing something was missing.

I got used to telling people that I grew up poor, to single-parent, who struggled to make ends meet so I could be the first in my family to go to college. It was hard at first, but it got easy. I appreciated the notion my audience would just look at the color of my skin and believe every word of it, without question. I figured most of what they know about me, and people who look like me, came from t.v., the movies, or what they read in the newspaper. As long as my story matched the award winning drama they saw on HBO (brought to you by the creator of that other award winning drama about black people in the inner-city) I’d be accepted.

But I knew that I’m leaving things out. Important things out. The same things that Elijah Anderson knows I’m leaving out. The same things the people behind “The Wire” know they are leaving out. Things that would challenge the comfortable beliefs that the viewers took so long getting used to. But sometimes it’s just easier and faster to leave things out. When they were looking for a poor kid from the projects to give that scholarship to. When they need a dark face to sit on their advisory committee. When they want to be sure that they’re handing a check to someone from the community to which their donation was intended, don’t bog them down with the WHOLE story. They’ll change the channel. And so it goes…

Like HBO, in order for me “to make the sale” I got to give the audience what they want. They don’t want their comfortable beliefs about black people challenged. To do that would be to upset all those other assumptions they made, subsequently. My show would never make it to primetime – if I actually challenged the viewer.

I knew it be a struggle to convince people that I could be Zhivago, James T. Kirk, the Last Samurai, or King Lear. But, there’d always be work as Othello, the Moor. The audience insists that Othello “look” like a Moor. They will not recognize him, unless he "looks" like a Moor. They won’t know which way to look when Othello is speaking, unless he "looks" like a Moor. They didn't pay all that money to see someone "play" a Moor, they want him to "look" how they believe a Moor should look. Get the picture?

Yes, NWA didn't describe every black man's world in the 80s and Ice Cube didn't speak for all gangsters post-Rodney King. John Singleton and the Hughes twins did make wonderful thug life movies – but they knew how the audience expected Moors to look, and they delivered what they were being paid to see. Most of their audience NEVER spent life as a black man in Los Angeles, so for the viewer, unless bombarded with an equal quantity and quality of alternative media representations, the only picture they get, becomes the entire picture.

They may not know that Zhivago is actually an Arab, Kirk’s farm boy from Indiana is played by a Canadian Jew, or that the Japanese geisha played by a Chinese actress named Ziyi, is actually a girl named Zhang. They may not know what a Moor is, but they when the see that Othello is black and Desdemona is white, they’ll understand that no goods gonna come of it. That’s why I always play Othello, to make the picture complete.

I’ll always remember “The Cosby Show”, where people lived in a house, with a mom and a dad, and bothers and sisters, and we usually caught up with them between school and work, enjoying each others company, laughing, crying and learning life’s little lessons. I know why black people loved that show. Finally, somebody was showing the rest of us to all of you.

“I’ll Fly Away”. It was my favorite show, about people and race. The audience was reminded that black people and white people weren’t getting along so well in the past and that much hasn’t changed since then. It won 3 Emmys, 2 acting Golden Globe awards for Regina Taylor and Sam Waterson, 5 NAACP Image Awards, a Peabody Award and a Humanitas Award. It was cancelled after two seasons.

I think these two shows did seek to portray that other, unseen, or rather… untelevised world where I think most black people, most white people, most every people actually live. I didn’t believe that “The Wire” would be that kind of show. To be fair, I didn’t expect it to be. To be fair, I’ve never watched it. I just want to see something different. Something that shows more about who black people are, not just going deeper into who the media expects them to be.

I do not believe that any one or a handful of programs or movies can or should be responsible for showing us all the diversity that exists in the lives of the more than 12 million African-American people. But I am worried for those who do, or attempt to.

The study of a television program to understand a people is no substitute for actually getting to know those people. At best, the programming is a study of what the creators think the audience is comfortable seeing. For me, it is comfort with an inner-city of black people consumed by drugs, poverty, crime and violence, Italian-Americans in New Jersey, Asian people running that DNA sample in the crime lab, Latinos being questioned by the police, Indians being wise and mystical (Native-American and South Asian, conviently) and every aspect of life from drama, to comedy, horror, game-shows, news, documentary, reality shows, etc – dominated by the presence of white people. And if the science fiction shows are any predictor, the trend continues well into the next few centuries – here on Earth and on most every planet we’ll discover; which should come as great news to white people everywhere, and the Jewish actors who play them on t.v.

If this is the beginning of the process of understanding our place in the world then, my brothers and sisters…let the church sing…

“Some glad morning when this life is o'er, I'll fly away;
To a home on God's celestial shore, I'll fly away (I'll fly away).

I'll fly away, Oh Glory
I'll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away)…”

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