Sunday, December 10, 2006

Variety...and my email chat...

Below is an article that posted in Variety a couple of days ago about "progress" in Hollywood. I then had an email exchange with the author. Pleasant man, and of course, this is about ideas rather than anything personal. But I thought this would be good to read.

First, the article:

NAACP should acknowledge TV gains

'Ugly Betty'
America Ferrera as 'Ugly Betty'
HERE'S A NOVEL THOUGHT: Before the NAACP launches another campaign against television's perceived ills, would it set the cause back to pause and savor the group's recent victories?

Apparently so. Because after fatuously contending that Michael Richards' comedy club tirade is "a symptom of a much bigger problem" and emblematic of "an underlying current of racism in America," the NAACP scheduled, then canceled, an event this week to assail the TV industry for insufficient minority representation.

Certainly, TV still exhibits its share of shortcomings regarding race, but the NAACP chose a dubious time to level such criticism against television, coming in the midst of a very good fall for people of color based on those symbolic measures where the medium ultimately wields the greatest influence.

Such calculations are invariably subjective, but the two breakout stars of the new TV season are "Ugly Betty's" America Ferrara, who is Hispanic; and "Heroes'" Masi Oka, who is Asian. My third choice would be Lennie James, the black Brit who is the most mysterious character on CBS' "Jericho."

NBC's restored Thursday comedy lineup, meanwhile -- once attacked for lily-white casts on New York-set shows like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" -- now showcases diversity on "My Name Is Earl," "Scrubs" and "30 Rock." As for "The Office," that series not only boasts a multi-cultural cast but has brilliantly lampooned racism, as it did last week when an African-American employee was revealed to have done time as a white-collar criminal.

Some programs have also gone global, a la "Heroes," featuring natives of India and Japan. That's especially noteworthy given the narrow view U.S. television has historically assumed looking beyond its borders.

THE NAACP has singled out low employment levels within TV's executive and producing ranks as its next potential crusade, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson pithily lambasted news for being "all day, all night, all white."

Whatever the raw numerical data, though, once again, the symbolic advances are hard to overlook. As a prime example, consider producer Shonda Rhimes, an African-American, who presides over TV's hottest series in "Grey's Anatomy" -- a program that effortlessly displays a thoroughly diverse universe.

Hiring levels are of understandable concern to those pursuing jobs within the industry, but evaluating minority gains requires a more contextual analysis. In the past, equal attention has been paid to the separate question of onscreen imagery, recognizing that while the industry directly employs thousands, from a cultural perspective its product is watched by tens of millions.

Because there are never enough entertainment jobs to go around, the business's insular nature makes breaking down barriers difficult -- one of the hard realities of any closely knit club where merit can be subjective, and nepotism and connections frequently dictate who receives keys to the kingdom. As a consequence, the NAACP and other lobbying organs have every reason to keep reminding industry honchos to cast a wider net than the children of golf buddies and those they encounter at private-school PTA meetings.

Lobbying groups diminish their moral authority, however, when they appear unwilling to acknowledge when real strides are made, including those programs that convey messages about our ability to live and work together.

THERE IS ALSO HARM done by overreaching to generalize an incident such as the Richards episode. Beyond proving that the former "Seinfeld" co-star engaged in an ugly moment worthy of condemnation, seizing upon those slurs as evidence of an "underlying current" of racism in Hollywood or anywhere else makes as much sense as suggesting that Mel Gibson's drunken rant against Jews is proof of anti-Semitism among action stars or Australians. Nor does it bolster anyone's credibility, frankly, when cash settlements magically help soothe any wounded feelings among the aggrieved parties.

By exaggerating the significance of transgressions and turning a blind eye to progress, the NAACP risks doing a disservice to its legitimate gripes -- among them the occasionally distasteful depictions of minorities, through the wonders of editing, within reality TV.

In terms of symbolism, those programs warrant discussion, precisely because the portrayals are often the opposite of "Ugly Betty" and "Heroes" -- series that, in the best sense, represent genuine advancements within TV toward people of color.

Now, my response:

Hello Brian,

I read your article on the progress of minorities in television, and I was instantly reminded of a quote by Malcolm X. He once stated that if I have a knife in my back, and you pull it out half way, you can't call that progress. It's only when you pull it out completely and heal the wounds can you say you've made progress. This year, I'll graduate as an MFA screenwriting student from UCLA, and I'll be one of two African Americans in my class of 25 students. This is an early indicator of the odds I'll see in television. The fact that a Shonda Rhimes is so unique shouldn't be a cause for breast beating, but a reason to wonder why? In an age where mediocre writers, actors, producers, etc. are creating shows that air once and then get cancelled, who is going to give qualified African American writers/producers the opportunity to make shows that stretches convention and just may appeal to a diverse audience? No, the NAACP is right to ring the bell about the conditions of television today. The barriers to television for African American writers, producers, and actors are enormous. And the fact that television is just beginning to pull the knife out of the back is no cause for celebration.

Brian's response:
Well, for starters, thank you for the response. Here are a couple of points
to consider:
- The people currently in a position to employ you aren't the ones who
jammed the knife in when Malcolm was around, and not even 20 or 30 years
ago. So given that they've been bashed for this for some time, failing to
acknowledge progress is a piss-poor strategy. In the case of the NAACP and
especially Jesse Jackson, it's led to them being largely tuned out. I don't
see how that helps anyone.
- Shonda Rhimes is only significant because it sends a particular message -
namely, that if you can or have delivered a hit, people will line up to be
in business with you, regardless of color. She proves it can be done.
- Yes, you face a HUGE hurdle to breaking in. But so does everyone else who
doesn't have a mom or dad who runs a studio. The odds against ANYONE making
it are extremely long.
- Those 2 out of 25 odds sound terrible on the face of it, but just by
percentage of population, African-Americans are at about 12% of the U.S.
Would three out of 25 make a significant difference? And how many Latinos
and Asians are in your class? In most cases, blacks are overrepresented, at
least in terms of performing roles, relative to population, while those
groups are underrepresented.
- Finally, I'm sympathetic toward anyone trying to break in, and I wish you
all the luck in the world. But if you think the NAACP or Jesse Jackson are
going to help your cause employing their current approach, I don't think
that's the case, and most of the reaction I received from those within the
industry tends to support that conclusion.

Brian Lowry
media columnist/chief TV critic

And then, my rebuttal:
I'm a bit puzzled. Are you saying that before Shonda Rhimes, there weren't African Americans who could have delivered a hit? I'm fine with celebrating Ms. Rhimes' success, but to point to one successful black writer/producer as a trend, or indicates something larger than one instance is disingenuous. It is not about the success of one, but the lack of opportunity for the many. Too often, African Americans are supposed to be satisfied with the bare minimal gains in television employment, while we watch the less talented get opportunity after opportunity. And you're right, my analogy wasn't about whether or not that people employed today are the same as were around when Malcolm X lived. I wasn't born then. The analogy was about how we should judge progress.

However, the film and television industry is one of the few places were access tends to be limited to ones peer group, or personal interest. Fine. That's life. The schools I've attended, the organizations I've joined, and the contacts I've made, probably gives me a lift over someone else. But without diversity in the industry, you've automatically relegated individual minority success as aberrations in an industry designed to stamp out aberrations.

Without higher level African American executives employed by either the studios or networks, who understands pitches that may not fit the narrow personal experience of a white executive? Sure, you might find someone who understands the "universiality" of a story, but what if that story is as narrow as a "Seinfeld"? And before we point to projects like Ugly Betty, which is simply an adaptation of a show done on Mexican television, let's understand that they are rare and infrequent.

As for over/under representation of African Americans, what is the representation of white executives in television? Are they over represented via the population? Actually, since film and television mainly occurs in California, what is their representation versus the population of California, a majority minority state? My point being is that African Americans/Latinos/Asians are looked upon as adjuncts to the main body of the entertainment industry, which are white employees. Inroads into the industry for these groups is looked at as being a "necessary evil" rather than a way to for the corporation to reflect society. Their presence has to be justified, while white employees don't have to do anything like this, simply because their presence is a given, almost a right.

As for the huge hurdles, I'm not worried about that. One doesn't write for pay without understanding the huge hurdles involved. Call it confidence or arrogance, but I'm optimistic about my television future. But that's neither here nor there. I'm fine with the playing field being tough, unrelenting, and geared toward the best quality possible. However, when I pitch, or send a spec script, or interview for a job, it is the industry's responsibility to make sure that the decisions being made about who to buy, who to reject, and who to employ, are done with a staff that looks like the audience they're serving.

I'm not surprised you've received a lot of reaction against the NAACP or Jesse Jackson. One, Jackson is a polarizing figure, so for some, regardless of the topic (milk for school children, food for the poor), if Jackson advocated it, people would be against it. Fair enough. And I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the respondents led off their posts to you with the "I'm a black..." as they agreed with you. For some African Americans, the idea that someone is stirring up controversy, or is drawing attention to the Hollywood's difficiencies, is a threat to their own employment. Who wants to walk into a room having to answer for the views of someone you've never met? But that's not the point. For all of his faults, and he has many, Jackson has the national voice to place attention on a subject that network executives would rather not either talk about or have to deal with. And I would suggest that network executives tune out at their own peril. One of the most loyal television watching demographics is the African American market. Whether those eyeball watch "Smith" or "Grey's Anatomy" can be the difference between a show being successful or cancelled. And one last thing. Never forget that the first major protest for the newly formed NAACP was against the entertainment industry. The reason? D.W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation.

Hey, besides all of that, thanks for the luck!

1 comment:

odo coileus said...

Without the pressure placed by Jackson and the NAACP, there would be no black folks to speak of anywhere in the biz.

My impression based on working in the biz is that a lot of people haven't gotten over OJ. They're still bitter about the killer who used to be their favorite Tom.

Still, I think Debra Dickerson has it right. Nobody gives up privilege willingly. Anyone who has it holds on to it tightly. A human flaw, not a black or white one.

It's a question of how creative one can be about prying the privilege out of its accustomed hands.