Sunday, April 15, 2018

Muller, Mankiewicz and Minorities

MYSTERY STREET, a 1950 MGM crime thriller starring Ricardo Montalban as a Mexican-American police detective aired on TCM Sunday morning, April 15th.  It aired on TCM's Sunday morning Noir Alley hosted by Eddie Muller.  He's the writer/host who presents film noir classics and other crime thrillers.  Muller's hipster intro was extremely well-meant but it came off slightly like something that could be lampooned in a Christopher Guest mockumentary about a movie channel network that shows old Hollywood classics and strives to make them relevant to today's audiences while coming off like a production made within old Hollywood attitudes.
This relates to something I've noted previously as a veteran network TV/print entertainment news contributor and film reviewer and talk show host who has had to kick open some diversity doors for employment consideration.  As we saw less of Robert Osborne in host segments before he passed away, we also saw less African American presence.  Mr. Osborne presented African American talents as guest co-hosts and Guest Programmers on a regular basis.
Ben Mankiewicz is now the senior host.  We have Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, David Karger, Alicia Malone and occasional Leonard Maltin as hosts.  Ben brings up the importance of racial equality and acceptance.  He mentioned it last April in red carpet questions for the 50th anniversary screening of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. Before BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S aired one day, Ben addressed the offensive Asian racial stereotype in Mickey Rooney's performance.  On Easter Sunday, while introducing HOLIDAY INN, Ben cautioned us that Bing Crosby was in blackface for one big number.  In January on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day, Ben was the solo host for the prime time salute to African American filmmakers. No black guest co-host was with him.

Although TCM doesn't promote it the way it does its Sunday morning's Noir Alley, Saturday mornings now feature Tarzan adventures at 10a ET. I've watched for four consecutive Saturdays.  You know what Hollywood was like in the 1930s when it was making those jungle adventures starring Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Black actors weren't given upscale roles. Each one of those four Tarzan movies I saw had a greedy white dude the Africans called "Bwana" who treated them like Congo slaves and killed several of them because they didn't want to carry his European luggage on their heads through the jungle. The other African natives were seen as deadly "savages."  No TCM host gives a disclaimer on those films before they air like Ben did with HOLIDAY INN.

Eddie Muller introduced MYSTERY STREET and highlighted that forensics play a big part in  the 1950 film.  This was made years before forensics, he said with an air of hipster snark, became prevalent on CSI franchises on network TV such as "...CSI: PEORIA."

I listed the group of hosts now seen on TCM.  What do the CSI casts have that the TCM host quartet doesn't?  People of color.  Eddie Muller has never had any people of color in any of his several TCM WINE CLUB spots.  In fact, if you really observe TCM -- a network I still love -- its segments for TCM product and its intros with talk about classic films are predominantly white and driven by a white narrative.  Look at the spots for the TCM Wine Club, the TCM Back Lot and the TCM tour buses.  Black guest co-hosts, guest solo hosts and monthly Guest Programmers have been rare since 2016.

Eddie Muller also highlighted the praiseworthy racial diversity of MYSTERY NIGHT.  Montalban's character, he accurately told us, could have easily been a white guy played by someone like Van Johnson.  But Ricardo Montalban played him and the detective was Mexican-American.

This was ironic because, for one year, TCM had its first Latinx host.  Tiffany Vazquez was the knowledgeable and lovely weekend host.  Last year, she was in a TCM promotional "Let's Movie" commercial with Muller and Mankiewicz. Her contract was not renewed.  New Yorker Tiffany Vazquez was replaced with....a white woman.  Australian Alicia Malone.
So...when diversity and inclusion in the film/TV industry are hot topics and Frances McDormand's mention of "inclusion riders" in her Oscar acceptance speech this year gave more muscle to the inclusion campaign, TCM dropped its only minority host.  Meanwhile, the current Caucasian hosts mention the importance of diversity in their host segments.

It's like if Christopher Guest made a mockumentary about a classic movie channel and had someone playing a TV news reporter interviewing its on-air talent.  All five hosts are assembled on a studio host set for a group interview.  All five are white and they sincerely discuss the need for racial diversity and equal opportunities.  They comment on how Hollywood has grown in its presentation of racial images.

And in the background, as they're saying all that, we see a black janitor mopping the floor.

The 2018 TCM Film Festival takes place in Hollywood later this month.  Let's see if, beginning with this year's festival, there's some inclusion in the "Let's Movie" narrative.  Cicely Tyson will be honored by TCM during the festival.  If she's interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz and if she happened to say, "I'm a big TCM fan.  I've watched it for years. But how come you don't have a black host?,"  what would be his answer?  Would nearby TCM Public Relations reps break out into a nervous flop sweat like the Albert Brooks reporter anchoring the evening newscast in BROADCAST NEWS?

Ben loves sports. If he went to a baseball or a basketball game or watched NFL action on TV and noticed that Black players were no longer playing, no longer on the field, wouldn't he say something? Would he express that something was wrong on the playing field?  Well, look at the field of film critics on network morning news shows and in syndicated shows with film critic teams.  Look the movie hosts on national TV from the old days when cable's AMC was still American Movie Classics and aired old movies.  That field of film critics and movie hosts from 1980 to 2018...did you notice there were no people of color?  Did you notice that the playing field wasn't level?

Representation matters.

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