Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Oscar Season Diversity Check

I have a buddy that I have known since the 1980s.  A good guy.  Of the Caucasian persuasion with a job that paid quite well.  Considers himself to be a longtime, hardcore liberal.  In 2011, we got together one night to watch the first two episodes of the highly-promoted, new ABC series, Pan Am.  It followed a quartet of young stewardesses in New York City in 1963 as they had romantic adventures in flight.
Halfway through the second episode, I started to scrunch up my face like Aunt Esther on Sanford & Son.  My liberal, upscale white buddy thought the shows were "fabulous."  I said, "Did you notice there's hardly any black people -- even as extras -- on this show?"  He hadn't.  Then it occurred to me that I'd known him for over 20 years and he'd never introduced me to another friend of his who's black.  He'd highly recommended that I read The Help and wanted to loan me his book.  Yet, when I glanced at his long list of Facebook friends, I thought "Dang.  I've seen more black folks in an Ingmar Bergman movie."  Was I his only black friend?  In the Pan Am premiere episode, I saw one couple in African garb in an airport terminal scene. Then I saw one black man carrying bags for white travelers and another black man shining shoes.  That was it.  Four background actors.  The show took place in New York in 1963.  In 1959, Lorrraine Hansberry's groundbreaking modern play about an African American family in Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun, opened on Broadway.  It got four Tony Award nominations including Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Play.  African American/lesbian playwright was the first black woman to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.  After two successful years on Broadway, the play went on tour.  Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands and Lou Gossett Jr. all repeated their original Broadway roles in the 1961 film version.  Diahann Carroll, became the first black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for 1962's No Strings in which she played a top fashion model working in Paris.  In No Strings, she introduced the song "The Sweetest Sounds."  In the early 1960s, famed soprano Leontyne Price was thrilling audiences at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  In 1963, moviegoers were making the heartwarming indie comedy, Lilies of the Field, a box office hit.  The following year, it would make its star, Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  1963 was the same year as Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington.

But...on Pan Am..you saw only four black people in the whole show set in New York City, 1963.  And they were extras.  When we did see a black American with some dialogue, one of the stewardesses had to take a train uptown to Harlem.  As if we didn't live in Greenwich Village -- where jazz clubs thrived -- or work in midtown Manhattan, as we see in the opening scene of 1963's Love With The Proper Stranger starring Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood.  In the first scene, there's McQueen's character greeting fellow jazz musicians.  And they're black.  Vincente Minnelli's charming drama, The Clock, starred Judy Garland and Robert Walker.  It's a 1945 wartime love story.  One of the many things I love about this movie is that you see many black servicemen and families in the opening and closing scenes that take place in New York City's Penn Station.  I love that the images of black people in those scenes resemble photos of black friends and relatives in my parents' photo albums.

The movie was shot in Hollywood but Vincente Minnelli was fully aware that black people were part of the New York City scene.  You see black people in the Times Square crowd with Judy Holliday and Dean Martin, the stars of 1960's Bells Are Ringing, also directed by Vincente Minnelli.
Then came the New York as seen by Woody Allen.  Minorities weren't part of the upscale, sophisticated fabric.  On MTV, with its shows broadcast from and taped in New York City, we see racially mixed crowds of teen fans.  But when it came to Friends, a network presented a non-diverse group of hip young adults living in downtown Manhattan.  I lived for 20 years in the downtown area.  Honestly, I was surprised that we weren't seeing black, Latino and Asian-Americans as regulars in casts of shows set in multi-cultural Manhattan.  Shows like Friends, Seinfeld and Mad About You.  Hit American shows like that are shown all over the world and sent out the wrong message of racial diversity in New York City.  I was a Mad About You fan but one episode really irked me.  Helen Hunt's character and her mother went to see the Broadway musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk.  I saw that show three times. Loved it!  Savion Glover and Dulé Hill (later of TV's The West Wing and Psych) made that stage smoke with their dance skills.  Each time I saw that Broadway show, the audience was very racially mixed and very appreciative.  But, on Mad About You, when the characters went to the lobby during intermission, you saw mostly white faces as extras in that theater lobby scene.  That was nowhere near accurate.  I was in that lobby for three different intermissions in New York City.  That was not good casting of background actors.

I've blogged about this before, but here's the thing:  Are the critics and columnists -- upscale, white liberals like my buddy -- noticing this?  Are they not seeing the racial imbalance like I did when he and I watched Pan Am?  Will they raise the issue like we minority movie and TV viewers do?  NBC, CBS and ABC don't have weekly film critics on their network morning shows like they used to.  That's probably because the networks are now more closely attached to film companies like ABC with Disney and NBC with Universal.  But when we did see a lot more of movie critics on TV, that group was predominantly white.  And still is.  Last January, the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, there was no black entertainment contributor on Today, Good Morning America or CBS This Morning and not a one that night in the panel of critics discussing the Oscar nominations on The Charlie Rose Show.  And one of the big movies being talked about was the racially intense and controversial Django Unchained.  Are any entertainment reviewers noticing that?  They'd notice racial exclusion onscreen in a movie like The Help but do they notice it within their own group that gets TV attention?  Wesley Morris, when he was with The Boston Globe, won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism.  I didn't see him on any of those shows on Oscar nomination day.
Wesley Morris was the fourth person to win the Pulitzer for 2011 film criticism.  The first was Roger Ebert.  Wesley is the first black winner.

I lived in New York for over 20 years.  It would've been great to see black, Asian or Latino reviewers doing weekly film and/or theater segments on New York City newscasts, local or network.  And there were plenty of minority entertainment reporters available to do such segments.  If movie critics and theatre critics on television were predominantly black, I think white viewers would notice and question that.  Why aren't entertainment journalists noticing we're absent from certain TV and movie scenes?  I think there's a story in there.  Or, at least, reason enough to ask a pointed question or two.

We heard a lot of news about the lack of black women in the Saturday Night Live cast.  That's one high-profile situation.  Entertainment journalists should look at the bigger diversity picture and ask sharp questions about casting, about submissions, about the number of minorities in top network management positions who could give voice to diversity issues and even to the number of top agents in the entertainment business who are minorities.  Grey's Anatomy creator, Shonda Rhimes, talked about her initial frustration while casting actors for the 2005 debut.  All she saw coming through the door was white actors who'd been submitted by agents to audition to play doctors.  She demanded diversity, the kind of diversity that was ultimately seen on the series.  I worked in New York from 1985 to 2011.  In all that time, I had appointments at several major theatrical/broadcast agencies.  I saw only one black full-time entertainment agent with a noted agency...and that was in 1990.  That was also her last year with the company.  From 1985 to 2009, all the broadcast agents I met with -- all the ones who asked if I'd ever done on-camera TV hosting and/or said they wouldn't know what to do with me as a client -- were white.  When Watch Bobby Rivers, my prime time weeknight celebrity talk show premiered on VH1 in 1988, I didn't have an agent.  I had a VH1 executive who believed in and was familiar with my work.  In New York and L.A., how many big theatrical agencies have black agents? Did we see a high-powered black agent negotiating a movie deal on episodes of HBO's Entourage?  I'm just throwing out ideas for entertainment journalists to cover.

I totally dig the work of comedian/actor Jeffrey Joseph.  He and I were once paired up for a TV commercial audition in New York City.  Jeffrey saw the new Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis.  On Facebook, Jeffrey wrote that it's about "a struggling folk singer in a 1960s New York that's devoid of people of color."  I've yet to hear or read any movie critic bring up that point.

Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the African-American legend, Odetta, performed at the 1963 March on Washington.  Dr. King called Odetta "the queen of American folk music."  The Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s gave great fuel to the folk music scene.

Inside Llewyn Davis along with 12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniel's The Butler and Gravity could be up for some top Oscars  when the nominations are announced on Thursday, January 16th.  Because of Jeffrey Joseph's comments, I want to see this new Coen Brothers film.  If Vincente Minnelli or Shonda Rhimes had directed Inside Llewyn Davis, I bet there'd be some black folks in the mix.

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