Poor Hollywood. First the Federal Trade Commission, now “Bamboozled.” What’s next?
The FTC accuses the industry of intentionally marketing restricted movies to young viewers. Now comes “Bamboozled,” writer/director Spike Lee’s latest film and another shot at Hollywood. Lee bases “Bamboozled,” a so far well-reviewed comedy, on the following premise: A studio puts pressure on a black writer to come up with an idea for a hit television show. Out of frustration, he suggests a ridiculous, over-the-top show full of minstrels in blackface. To his dismay, the executives love the idea and turn it into a hit show. The not-so-subtle message: Hollywood seeks out the worst possible images of blacks.
Let’s address the premise — that Hollywood ignores positive portrayals of blacks in favor of buffoonish images.
Lee complains about programs such as “The PJ’s,” the Eddie Murphy-produced “foamation” comedy. Lee attacks the show’s “stereotypical” images, which include a wisecracking, recovering crack addict. But then, Lee seems always grumpy, once even criticizing the highly respected black actor Morgan Freeman for accepting a part in “Amistad,” a role that Lee felt demeaning.
Lee’s premise — that of a conniving, racist Hollywood — is simply wrong. Researchers Linda and S. Robert Lichter watched hundreds of hours of television. They found that networks portrayed blacks as doctors, lawyers or other professionals far more often than occurs in real life. The networks also showed blacks as criminals far less frequently than occurs in real life.
And politically, Hollywood’s heavy-hitters do not exactly think like, say, former conservative Congressman Newt Gingrich. Recently, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films said, “Personally, I am pro-choice and pro-gun control and strongly support the responsible dedication of additional resources to preserving education, health care, Social Security and the environment. And so I will be supporting Al Gore for president … ” Not exactly a call to roll back the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Now, Al Gore’s campaign manager, Donna Brazile, criticized the Republican party — the party of the “white boys” — because they “exclude, denigrate,” blah, blah, blah. But doesn’t Hollywood give far more money to Democrats than Republicans? Does this mean that Democratic-heavy Hollywood also “excludes, denigrates,” blah, blah, blah? Not very likely.
Lee’s “Bamboozled” raises another question. If television ignores positive images of blacks, if executives seek out demeaning, superficial roles, why do blacks watch so much television? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, black fourth-graders watch six or more hours of television three times more frequently than do their white counterparts. Black families as a whole watch more television than do white families.
Unfortunately for critics like Lee, when networks show “good stuff,” they frequently find black audiences AWOL. A few years ago NBC aired “I’ll Fly Away,” a drama about a Southern family and their relationship with their black maid. It went nowhere, later picked up by public television. James Earl Jones starred in “Under One Roof,” a drama about a proud black family. Few watched. In “413 Hope Street,” Richard Roundtree starred as the head of a neighborhood youth center. It failed.
One critic accused the major networks — CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox — of turning their back on black shows, calling it “Jim Crow programming.” Never mind black actors like Eriq LaSalle in “ER,” or Andre Braugher in “Gideon’s Crossing,” or the numerous blacks on television as anchors, sportscasters, athletes, or product spokespersons. “Major networks,” according to the critic, “have virtually no black prime-time shows while the second-tier networks offer an entire smorgasbord of updated buffoonery.” But, for two years, ABC carried the black family sitcom, “The Hughley’s.” UPN now carries it, much to the delight of its executive producer, who said of ABC, “We didn’t quite fit there. We were forced to be a family show. Now we’re a funny show that happens to be about a family. We have episodes about real adult issues. We don’t have to end our stories with a music hook and a hug.” On the one hand, people complain that the networks refuse black programs, but then the executive producer of such a program celebrates the creative freedom he now enjoys on UPN. Go figure.
What a horrible country! Given the intense, overt, covert, subtle, unconscious, institutional racism, Spike Lee’s East Coast mansion, private education for his child, and marriage to a corporate lawyer seem all the more impossible. But wait, maybe that’s a premise for a movie: a black man, born in America with talent, ability and drive becomes a success in show business, arguably one of the most competitive fields. Lee pushes the envelope, steps on toes, and turns out a string of provocative, controversial films. Despite, or because of, his in-your-face, stand-my-ground style, he earns respect and praise as a bold, creative writer/director.