As we kick off Black History Month I’ve decided to take a look at the State of Black America as it relates to entertainment–movies and TV in particular. Why? a. Because it’s my blog and b. because I think these are two areas of media that are outshining the rest.
But we can’t really praise the present without taking a look back at how we got here, which is really what Black History Month is all about.
We have so many choices now on TV and in the theaters that some of us may not even remember the struggle. So instead of going way back in history, I want to talk about our more recent pioneers and how tough it’s been for them to gain respect not only from mainstream media but from us– Black media and black audiences.
There was a time when BET’s co-founders Bob and Sheila Johnson were constantly bombarded with negativity surrounding the content BET provided. And Black people dished it out the most.
“Is that the best they can do when it comes to representing Black Entertainment? They’ve got a whole network and all that money and all we get are videos?”
“BET’s Comic View never paid black comedians the money they deserved and took advantage of their talents.”
The same with Spike Lee and Tyler Perry, two very different writers and directors on almost opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the films they brought us.
Yet, the backlash they got for their projects have been similar. “Spike needs to sit down somewhere and stop making movies we don’t care about and Tyler needs to stop making Black people look like buffoons.”
What if Spike had quit after She’s Gotta Have It, because you didn’t like it? We never would have had Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and School Daze. We also may not have gotten the subsequent work we saw from Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson, and Rosie Perez dancing to “Public Enemy’s Fight the Power! A must-see, I might add.
Comedian may not have gotten rich off of BET’s Comic View but how happy were they at the time for that platform? Where else could Martin Lawrence, Cedric the Entertainer, Mo’Nique and DL Hughley have gained such exposure to their prime audience?
Trail blazers like Bob Johnson and Tyler Perry made it possible for us to even be having the argument of whether Scandal is better than Empire. They primed the pump and proved to main-stream America, Black America and the world that we were hungry for more quality programming and feature films.
We’re much too critical of ourselves. The networks and theaters are full of mainstream junk with a few great gems that outshine the rest. The only way to get something out there is to put it out there.
We don’t have to love every movie or TV series written, directed or produced by African Americans but we sure need to support them. And to the thousands of people who flocked to the movies to see Tyler’s films, good and bad, Spike’s films, good and bad, and watched Donnie Simpson and Video Soul all day long, I say thank you. You hung in there and what happened. BET led to TV One and between the two of them we’ve gotten quality offerings such as Being Mary Jane, Real Husbands of Hollywood, Unsung and a lot more scripted series are in the works.
So, as we celebrate the creator of Blackish, Kenya Barish, the director of the movie, Selma, Ava Duvernay, and late night talk show host of The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore we can’t ignore Robert Townsend, and Keenen Ivory Wayans, the TV producer who brought us the longest running black TV drama Soul Food, Felicia D. Henderson and the list goes on and on.
These people had the toughest job of all…to try to convince corporate America that Black people were not a monolithic group who only liked to watch sitcoms, but along with that we wanted to see dramas, and sketch comedy, and documentaries, etc. Most importantly, we wanted to see ourselves portrayed the way we really see us. And the only people who can do that for us, is us!
We have a lot of choices now and that means all of our shows are not going to succeed, Blackish, hailed as the one of the biggest hits of 2014 may not make the cut, probably because Empire was got such great numbers. That’s the way it goes. The good news is there’s someone out there working on the next TV series, talk show or movie script. And the door is open a little wider because of the people who walked through it ahead of them. And that’s pretty cool.
Happy Black History Month!