Friday, March 9, 2018

I Really Miss Robert Osborne

He was one of the best hosts on national television.  Notice I didn't write "movie channel" hosts.  He was the host on TCM.  However, Robert Osborne was one of the best hosts in any sector of programming be it movie channel, game show, talk show or PBS informational-type show. Robert Osborne was the perfect host for and symbol of TCM.  He appealed to all ages.  He appealed to classic film fans who just reached voting age.  He appealed to those who hold AARP cards.  Mr. Osborne died on March 6, 2017.  His host duties on TCM had lessened several months before his death due to health issues but his presence was, and continues to be, felt.
I became a TCM viewer in 1999 and I'm still a faithful, if somewhat disappointed, viewer. I was a Robert Osborne fan before his TCM years.  I watched him when he was a journalist for THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER who did segments on the CBS weekday morning news program.  Robert Osborne spotlighted the often unrecognized achievements of African Americans in Hollywood. He was a champion of diversity and inclusion.
Charles Burnett received an Honorary Oscar a few months ago.  He made independent films in and about the area in which I grew up -- South Central Los Angeles.  The first time I ever saw Mr. Burnett interviewed was in 2009 when he sat down to be a co-host with Robert Osborne on TCM.  Osborne frequently brought on African American talent to join the classic film conversation.  I am not the only Black TCM fan who deeply appreciated that.  Check my previous blog post. For decades, African Americans have been excluded from the TV field of film critics and movie historians on news and syndicated entertainment information shows. We're usually tapped for film talk when it's "politically correct " for something specialized like a Black History Month.  But when it comes to talk about a new Meryl Streep release or classics made by Wyler, Minnelli, Cukor, Capra, Kubrick, Kurosawa or Fellini... we're not included.  That lack of inclusion gives off the vibe that "Well, Black folks don't know about those films."  Wrong.

I'm sure you can tell where I'm going with this.  In the time that Robert Osborne has been gone from TCM, I have seen less representation of African Americans in TCM segments that air in between films.  Rarely have we been guest hosts or guest programmers in the last couple of years.  There's no Black contributor on the red carpet for TCM Film Festival.  I started to wonder if TCM upper management knows that Black folks watch the channel.  In late December last year, musician Michael Feinstein was a guest host.  He presented THE DOLLY SISTERS, a 1940s Fox musical.  Feinstein cheerfully told us to be prepared for the surreal "Powder, Lipstick and Rogue" number.  I was thinking that he should also prepare us for "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" number with poor Betty Grable and June Haver in blackface and dressed as pickaninnies.  The following month, there was poor William Holden in blackface for a musical number at the open of FATHER IS A BACHELOR (1950).  Then there was a white man rubbing a black man's head for good luck in 1932's THE SPORTS PARADE starring Joel McCrea.  That how Hollywood was then. But times have changed.

This coming April marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  It also marks the 50th anniversary of the first and only time the Oscars ceremony telecast was postponed.  Gregory Peck announced the Academy's 1968 postponement.  Dr. King's untimely, tragic death and funeral occurred around the same time the Oscars had been scheduled to air.  When the Oscars were held, the winner for Best Picture was a film that starred a friend of Dr. King's -- one who attended the now-famous March on Washington.  IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, a murder mystery and racial drama starring Sidney Poitier, won for Best Picture and Best Actor (Rod Steiger).

This month, history was made at the Oscars.  Jordan Peele became the first African American to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  GET OUT was Peele's directorial debut.  Like Orson Welles with CITIZEN KANE, Peele was an Oscar nominee for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  Also like CITIZEN KANE, his GET OUT was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor.
Dee Rees made history as the first African American woman to get an Oscar nomination in the screenplay category.  She directed and co-wrote MUDBOUND.  She also made history as the first Black American woman director to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination.  Mary J. Blige was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for MUDBOUND.

BLACK PANTHER, written and directed by African American Ryan Coogler and starring a predominantly Black cast, is a hot Hollywood box office blockbuster.  Ava DuVernay, one of the top Black women directors in the business currently, has A WRINKLE IN TIME in theaters.

In 2017, African American writer and director Barry Jenkins directed what turned out to be the real Oscar winner for Best Picture of the Year, MOONLIGHT.  Viola Davis, Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for FENCES, reigned as the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in all Oscar history.  She has three nominations.
 This year, Octavia Spencer tied with Viola Davis when she earned her third Oscar nomination.

50 years after the release of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, diversity in Hollywood is still an issue. So much so, that one of the applause-worthy highlights of this year's ceremony was Oscar winner Frances McDormand telling us all about the "inclusion rider."  She's been making movies for 35 years and just learned that there's now an agreement that can be signed assuring that a project will gender and race diversity in front of and behind the cameras.  Think about it.  The lack of diversity and inclusion was so severe that a contract had to be created to break through that barrier.  Thank you so much for that news, Frances McDormand.  The Best Director Oscar nominees list was a dream of race, gender and age diversity with Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele and (winner) Mexico's Guillermo del Toro.

TCM has had a monthly Guest Programmer night.  Before we meet the guest programmer, an intro video plays with a montage of previous guest programmers.  None of the African American talents that sat with Robert Osborne has a moment in that montage.  There's no Black representation.  Nothing against the folks we do see -- like Michael J. Fox, Conan O'Brien, singer Chris Isaak, Bill Hader and Cher.  But what about the African American stars we saw with Robert Osborne as guest programmers -- like Spike Lee, Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, Oscar nominee Diahann Carroll and Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg? Alec Baldwin hosted "The Essentials" on Saturdays.  Baldwin never had an African American talent as a guest co-host.
Drew Scott, Canadian TV personality, was the March 8th Guest Programmer with senior host, Ben Mankiewicz.  One of the film's Scott selected to air was TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  Back in October 2014, remember who the guest host was for TCM's month-long salute to Africa featuring films shot in and about Africa with Black actors as Africans? Fellow Canadian Alex Trebek. Drew Scott is the host of a cable show about home renovation.        
During the intro, Drew Scott and Ben Mankiewicz mentioned how achingly relevant the message of racial tolerance in 1962's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD still is today and how the problem of racism still exists.  That was nice. But I was irked.  In January, TCM saluted African American filmmakers on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  But there was no African American guest co-host with Ben Mankiewicz.  He was solo introducing films by African Americans.  In last April's TCM Film Festival, there was the special 50th anniversary screening of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. Sidney Poitier, Lee Grant, director Norman Jewison and producer Walter Mirisch attended.  Ben Mankiewicz, on the red carpet, asked Mirisch a great question about the enduring relevance of the film's racial messages in this current age of "Black Lives Matter."  But there was no Black contributor on the TCM red carpet to complement Ben's question with a follow-up or a personal observation.  I was a kid and saw IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT with Mom and Dad and my younger sister and brother.  No Black person who saw that movie in a theater will ever forget how the audience erupted and cheered when Detective Virgil Tibbs slapped the taste out that racist white man's mouth.  For us, at the time, that was a slap at the racism in the country that we and leaders like Dr. King were fighting.

This month, TCM added two new hosts.  Its host roster is now Ben Mankiewicz...
 ....Eddie Muller......
 .....Dave Karger and Alicia Malone.
They're all good, talented people.  But there was more racial diversity in a 1930s comedy short starring The Little Rascals.
If we don't see any Black TCM fans sipping wine with Eddie Muller in TCM Wine Club spots, if we rarely see African American talent now as Guest Programmers, if there's no African American contributor on the red carpet for TCM Film Festival and if there's no African American host, how should we African American TCM viewers feel about that in 2018?  Let me put it like this. What if beloved screen legend Sidney Poitier visited the TCM studio for an interview with Ben Mankiewicz.  Suppose a network TV news crew from, say, CBS SUNDAY was present to do a feature on it.  If Mr. Poitier said "Ben, I'm a great fan of TCM.  But I must ask -- why don't you have a Black host?," how awkward a question would that be for Ben and for TCM Public Relations?  That's my disappointment.  That's why I really miss Robert Osborne.  He always seemed to understand that "Representation Matters." He kept our history and contributions alive.  He kept us in the picture.

Trust me on this -- I am not the only African American who loves classic films.  And I am not the only one who would appreciate seeing more African American representation in the discussion about films, new and classic, on TV.

For you to watch later, if you have time, here's my live 1999 interview of screen legend Tony Curtis.  I worked for Fox5's GOOD DAY NEW YORK and Mr. Curtis came to promote his special appearance on TCM.  A TCM executive was in the studio with us and watched our interview.
Here's some of the VH1 show that I had the privilege to host.
One final thing:  Last year, Dave Karger was guest host for June.  That's Gay Pride month.  Karger hosted a month-long look at Gay Hollywood with a focus on LGBT talent in front of and behind the cameras.  I watched, very interested to see if there would be some Black representation.  There was not.  But there could have been.  I would've aired the 1961 screen adaptation of A RAISIN IN THE SUN, starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Lou Gossett, Jr. and other members of the original Broadway cast.  The screenplay was written by the woman who wrote the groundbreaking play -- playwright/activist and the openly lesbian artist, Lorraine Hansberry.  You can learn about this in the fascinating new documentary that premiered on PBS, LORRAINE HANSBERRY: SIGHTED EYES/FEELING HEART.
Chiz Schultz (a lovely man who took me to dinner once) produced the documentary.  Chiz was also a producer on Norman Jewison's A SOLDIER'S STORY, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1984. 

Thanks for your time and enjoy your weekend. 

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