Monday, September 23, 2019

They Saw Us! THE EMMYS

There were moments of the Emmy Awards show that gave me that wonderful Easter feeling. That feeling of a restored and refreshed spirit. A feeling of new hope. Tears welled up in eyes when Billy Porter won the Emmy for his dynamic performance on POSE. To see him on that stage accept his award, an openly gay Black man, and then to quote James Baldwin in his acceptance speech, well...my heart took wing. Back in New York City, Billy and I are acquaintances. We've stopped on the street and chatted a few times. There is a grace and humor about him that this world needs. His victory kicked a door wide open. Especially for us gay men of color. The playing field was not level for us. The entertainment industry had one certain way it wanted to present us in images. That one way was never in the lead role, always in a supporting role, and often as the big queen sidekick cheering on the white male or white female lead character. Our stories were not told. Off-camera, our truth could keep us from being employed. When I was approached to work on a top local New York City news program in the early 1990s, gay employees pulled me aside with this warning: "Do not tell management that you're gay. Do not tell management your partner has AIDS. If you tell them, they may find a way to not need you on the show anymore."  I won't go into details now, but there was wisdom in their warning.
I know I'm older than Billy Porter. Hell, sometimes nowadays I feel older than the Sphinx. But his Emmy win recharged my spirit. I do want to work again and if an agent, producer, manager or whatever cannot deal with me as I am, I don't need them.

When the five Black/Latino youths were called "The Central Park Five" in the press and wrongfully convicted of a brutal crime back in the 80s, Donald Trump spent big money taking out full page newspaper ad calling for their execution. He has never apologized. Today, those men are The Exonerated Five. Young Afro-Latino actor Jharrel Jerome was stunning as unjustly imprisoned Korey Wise in WHEN THEY SEE US, the story of the five and the disgusting miscarriage of justice. It was directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay. It's a moving, blistering work that I watched on Netflix. Jerome won for Lead Actor. Before WHEN THEY SEE US, he played a key character in the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2016 ... LA LA LAND MOONLIGHT.
Director Ava DuVernay said this about Jharrel Jerome"  "The world is his oyster. But he lives in a world that doesn't see him in the same way it see Ansel Elgort or Timothee Chalamet. My highest hope is that the industry rushes to his talent."

Bravo, Jharrel Jerome! They saw us! We are so very, very proud of you.

As for Michelle Williams, winner for her extraordinary work as Gwen Verdon in FOSSE/VERDON, she should be nominated next year for her acceptance speech. She not only politely called out the industry for its inequality in pay for women, she went one step further and called them out on the extra inequality when paying women of color. She said, "So the next time a woman, especially a woman of color, because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white male counterpart, tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her, believe her."

Preach it, Michelle Williams!

Do you mind if I add a personal story to give more perspective to the pay inequality that women of color endure?

Los Angeles is my hometown. I graduated from college in Milwaukee. I started my professional TV career in Milwaukee on the ABC affiliate. I was the city 's first African American film critic seen on weekly Milwaukee TV. This was in the 80s. On an independent TV station in Milwaukee, I also had a weekend half-hour film review show. I was half of a couple and we were a mighty fine pair.
When Siskel & Ebert departed Chicago PBS to do their film review show for Disney syndication, Chicago PBS contacted me to audition to be half of its new film review team.  I auditioned and I was extremely grateful for the opportunity. I was especially grateful that they considered a Black person to be its new film critic.

In 1985, I landed my first New York City job and eventually get my own celebrity talk show on VH1. I had national credits. I got excellent write-ups in TV Guide, US Magazine, People and The New York Times. Fast forward to 2000. A noted TV columnist, and a friend of mine, hears from an ABC News producer that it's launching a live weekday magazine show and wants a weekly film reviewer. She mentioned me. The producer said, "Does he know anything about movies?" This was a middle-aged producer who'd been around for a while. The columnist told me that she replied, "Are you kidding?"

I pushed to get the audition. I got the job. Later, the producer admitted to me that she'd never looked at my resume or bio and was not aware of my history. The job utilized my new and classic film knowledge. I wrote the reviews, reviewed new DVDs, gave Women's History in Films every week, wrote for the show's website and did my weekly 8-minute segment without use of a TelePrompTer. I didn't need it. All the info was in my head. I produced my segments and I was given a title: Entertainment Editor.  I was represented by a Broadcast/TV agent that year and notified him I got myself the job. I gave him all those details and added that it paid $500 a week. He said, "A spot like that on a national live show should pay $1500 a week."  I told him who to call and negotiate.

The ABC News answer to him was "$500 -- and not a penny more."

My wonderful, longtime TV/Radio commercial agent got me auditions on a regular basis to do commercials and voiceover work, much of which aired in other parts of the country. If I ever booked something and the pay was $600 or less, Linda would never take a 10%. I would've gladly given it to her because she was terrific. But she wouldn't. She'd reply, "I"ll take my 10% when you make more money."

That Broadcast/TV agent was not my then-retired commercial agent. He could not get me a penny more. But because he'd done the work of trying to get me more money, he was contractually subject to a 10% of my $500 a week salary. He took that 10%.

There I was every Friday on live national TV in an ABC News production, doing the kind of work that was denied Black people when I watched network and local TV as a kid in South Central Los Angeles -- and my weekly take home pay after deductions that included an ex-agent's 10% came to $330. If I'd worked behind the counter at a Burger King, I would've made more money.

But I loved the job. Yet, I did think "It wouldn't be like this if I was a white guy on national TV."

So, if that's what I experienced as a Black man with network credits on my resume, think of how women of color are treated in the pay department.


10 comments:

  1. I am so happy that Jharrel Jerome won and very happy that When They See Us was nominated for several Emmys. Still, we do have so much more progress to make. I seem to recall reading that out of all the Hollywood productions, only 3% of producers were Latinxes. Of those, men out numbered women 4 to 1. I imagine the same holds true for other minorities. And don't even get me started about this year's on-air Oscars In Memoriam! I am really looking forward to the day when Hollywood is truly inclusive.

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MOONLIGHT in Black History Month

Now that another Black History Month is coming to a close, I want to highlight some Hollywood history that was made just a few years ago. Th...