Saturday, July 4, 2020

America's Woke Up Call

HBO Max announced it would air the 1939 classic GONE WITH THE WIND, a Civil War epic. John Ridley, the talented African American who won an Oscar for his 12 YEARS A SLAVE screenplay, complained in an article printed by the Los Angeles Times. Ridley felt GONE WITH THE WIND, major box office champ from 1939 through to reissues in the 1970s, should not be shown because of its creaky racial images. Vivien Leigh won the Best Actress Oscar for her work as the headstrong Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara. Hattie McDaniel co-starred as Mammy and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
I can well understand. However, I feel it can be shown -- in its entirety -- with a disclaimer before the opening credits saying "This film was made in Old Hollywood days. You will see racial and stereotypes that, in no way, reflect the viewpoints of HBO." GONE WITH THE WIND was removed from the schedule. Temporarily. When it was announced that it would air preceded by a discussion on its racial images and history, I knew we'd see a Black film historian. There is no shortage of Black film critics and historians in this country. Black people who can write and talk about all kinds of films -- new releases, classic Hollywood fare and foreign films. But do you see those people on TV? No. They're available and willing to go on, but white TV producers usually only contact them when...

A.  They need recommendations for films viewers should see during Black History Month
B.  There's a diversity controversy like "Oscars So White"
C.  There has to be a discussion on racial images in films
D.  A Black celebrity has died or been thrown in jail.

Professor Jacqueline Stewart, a Chicago teacher and an excellent Sunday night host on TCM (cable's Turner Classic Movies), led the GONE WITH THE WIND discussion. Yep. She's Black.
Instead of Ridley and some other folks being mad at the late Hattie McDaniel, the woman who made history by winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, I say let us see how she made Hollywood history and why she deserved that Oscar. Move on to asking why TV news producers and syndicated film review show producers have kept the TV field of film critics segregated. It's been predominantly white male. This goes from when each network morning news program -- on CBS, ABC and NBC -- had a weekly film critic who did reviews on Friday. Then there was the famous Siskel & Ebert film review show and similar duos that followed. Black critics were overlooked or just downright ignored. Look at the fine 2017 HBO documentary called SPIELBERG. It runs an interesting 2 1/2 hours.  There are 7 film journalists giving soundbites about Steven Spielberg in that documentary. Not a one is Black. There's not even a Black film critic in the 10 minutes devoted to Spielberg's THE COLOR PURPLE. All the comments about that film are delivered through the white gaze.

I worked as a regular on local New York City morning news programs from 1992 to 1999. The first show was on WNBC. That job lasted from 1992 to 1995. The next one, on local Fox TV, lasted from 1995 to 1999. I was approached for each job. I quit each one because I felt a definite inequality of opportunities. During the first four years of my professional TV career, I was a weekly film critic on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate. I was half of a weekend film review team that aired on a local independent station.
The work got me noticed by Chicago PBS. Execs contacted me to audition to be half its new film review team when Siskel & Ebert left PBS for Disney syndication.

I went to WNBC's new project, WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK, after three great years at VH1. There, I had my own weeknight prime time talk show. I'm proud to say I got excellent reviews from the New York Times, People magazine and TV Guide.

Not only that -- VH1 flew me to London for a special one-hour interview of Paul McCartney and, on St. Patrick's Day in 1989 while I was in L.A. taping for VH1, Lucille Ball invited me to her home that evening for cocktails. Of course, I went.

I accepted the part-time WNBC offer because, when I met with execs, it was mentioned that I could do weekend film reviews in the studio. This appealed to me. I grew up in Los Angeles. Neither in L.A. or in New York City, had I ever seen a reflection of myself in film reviewers on TV. I wanted to do reviews to show that Black people could do them. I hoped I could help open a door for others.

The day before the show premiered, the Caucasian producer said "I don't think you have the skills to do film reviews." I would do lifestyle features and be the funny man-on-the-streets. I challenged my Caucasian producer. I fought to do film reviews. I would've had an easier time getting a permit to open a Hooters in Vatican City. I did movie reviews on three consecutive weekends. Even though one of the anchors complimented me on the writing and viewpoints on the air, the news director forbid me to do any more reviews. No reason given. He aired my taped interview of Robin Williams who was promoting his new film, 1993's MRS. DOUBTFIRE. The news director refused to air my taped interview of Robin Williams' co-star, Tony-winning playwright and actor, Harvey Fierstein. His reason was this: "I have a problem with him being openly gay." A TV news executive in New York City said that. Not a local TV news exec in Biloxi, Mississippi. I relayed his statement to Harvey. Harvey was once a guest on my VH1 talk show.

The WNBC news director called me in for a January 1995 meeting. He wanted me for another year on the show. He said that my work was very good and I was very popular with viewers. However, I would only be a part-time WNBC News employee. Only on weekends. I'd never graduate to full-time and I would never move up to doing segments for the network edition of WEEKEND TODAY. And I would no longer be under contract. I gave him my two weeks notice. I walked away from a hit show.

To put this in perspective, Billy Bush was hired by WNBC local news in 2001. He had no prior TV experience. He'd been a rock morning radio DJ in Washington, DC. He did lifestyles features on WNBC local news. Four months after his local news debut, he was doing segments on TODAY with Matt Lauer. Two years later, he'd been added to NBC's ACCESS HOLLYWOOD. In the summer of 2010, college student Cody Gifford, the son of Kathie Lee Gifford, did weekly film reviews on TODAY. He was on summer vacation and had taken a film course in his previous semester. I had more credentials and experience on my resume than Billy and Cody did. But it seems they had ... le privilege du blanc.

At local Fox5's GOOD DAY NEW YORK, the situation was sunnier. I had weekday exposure. I did funny man-on-the-street live segments. Several items revealed in my celebrity interviews were picked up my national press. I was told that my work was good and I was popular with viewers. But in 1998, new management had renewed my contract -- for $10,000 less. In 1999, I was told I was wanted for another year. Without a raise. I decided to move on.

ABC News hired me in 2000 to be the weekly film reviewer/historian on its live, hour-long Lifetime TV production called LIFETIME LIVE. I was hired after I pushed for an audition. Why did I push? Because the white producer kept asking "Does he know anything about movies?" I got the job. The show lasted one year. I loved that job. I wrote, researched and performed an 8-minute segment live every Friday without TelePrompTer. And I wrote reviews for the show's website. Besides the reviews of 2 new theatrical releases and a DVD release, it was my idea to recommend a strong performance by an actress in a classic film as a "Women in Film" history spot considering it was Lifetime TV.

For this network job, I got $500 a week and, as the ABC News rep said, "...not a penny more." $500 a week -- before taxes. Yes, I loved my network TV job even though I could've made more money wearing a paper hat and working behind the counter in a fast food franchise.

I heard that CNN was seeking an entertainment reporter in 2002. I contacted the producer. He asked if I'd ever done entertainment reports. I was no longer interested in the job. I pitched myself to CBS SUNDAY MORNING from the 1990s to 2004 to be an entertainment contributor. I never got a response. Oh. About pitching myself. I got myself the following jobs:

VH1 veejay/talk show host
CBS Late Night semi-regular on THE PAT SAJAK SHOW
PBS New York, Host
Food Network, TOP 5 Host
The Whoopi Goldberg Morning Show on PREMIERE RADIO, Entertainment contributor

I got myself those jobs because -- during all that time -- broadcast agents (who were all white) turned me down for representation. They usually said, "I wouldn't know what to do with you."

That, in a way, ties back to why a lot of us African Americans wanted to be entertainment contributors. We knew the systemic racial barriers Black/Latinx talent hit in the entertainment industry. The Hollywood Credo was "Black stories don't sell." Because top studios wouldn't green light stories with predominantly Black casts, there weren't as many work opportunities for Black actors and filmmakers. If there wasn't work for Black talent, agents would say "They're not gonna bring me in a big 10% like a Reese Witherspoon or a Robert Downey Jr. So why bother representing them?" If you get Netflix, go there and watch the first 10 minutes of a Chelsea Handler special. It's called HELLO, PRIVILEGE? IT'S ME, CHELSEA. In her opening segment, she tells how easy it was for her to get show biz representation. Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart tell her how they could not. They had to ask their white friends who had agents if they could help hook them up with a meeting for one. I saw John Leguizamo in a PBS special talk about having that same experience.

If a Black filmmaker made a film that got a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, that's terrific news. However, it doesn't mean Hollywood will give him/her the juicy marketing budget that it would give a white filmmaker. THAT'S where we Black entertainment contributors and talk show hosts come in. We know how that game goes. We want to spotlight Black/Latinx talent so folks will see the work and the directors/actors can get more work. if their film does mild business at the box office, that gives Hollywood a chance to recycle its tired, discriminatory "Black stories don't sell" philosophy. Unfortunately, when pitching features on up and coming Black/Latinx talent, Black entertainment contributors have to punch through white bosses saying "I don't know who these people are. Why should we do a story on them?" and publicists not giving Black entertainment journalists equal opportunities on the red carpet. After stars have chatted with white entertainment reporters, I've seen publicists whiz their stars past the Black reporters on the red carpet so quickly that the stars experienced G-force. People of color in entertainment press, be they focused on Hollywood or Broadway, have often been treated like second class citizens. My WNBC news show producer nixed my opportunities to do live in-studio interviews of actress Pam Grier, singer Dianne Reeves and singer Patti LaBelle. She felt they were "not our audience" and viewers wouldn't be interested.

In the second month after the 1992 premiere of WNBC's WEEKEND TODAY IN NEW YORK, I was assigned to cover a Madonna press event. Unexpectedly, I got soundbites from her.

Katie Couric left me a voicemail message at work congratulating on my piece. The TODAY Show contributor couldn't get anything at all from Madonna. As the months rolled by, I'd run into Katie in the 30 Rock commissary grabbing a bite. One time, she came over to me and complimented me on my work. She'd seen my VH1 talk show. She praised me on my talent followed by "Why isn't your career bigger than it is?" Bless her heart. I'm sure she thought the playing field was level. By the way, there's a major difference between "Why isn't your career bigger than it is"? and "Why isn't your career bigger than it is? What can I do to help?"

Our lives were suddenly, drastically changed by the coronavirus pandemic. During our health lockdown, the murder of George Floyd brought the national virus of racism to a fever pitch. "Black Lives Matter" became a global chant in protest marches. Then companies got "woke." They started embracing the "Black Lives Matter" statement. In entertainment, TV shows stopped streaming episodes that had white actors in blackface. I had no idea so many modern shows had blackface moments. White actors who'd been doing the voiceovers for Black characters in animated shows stepped away from their jobs to allow actual people of color to do the voiceovers. Last month, Jon Stewart said that he could've done more to have racial diversity in his THE DAILY SHOW staff. I love that show.  Nevertheless, over 10 years ago, I always noticed Jon's writing team was practically all-white each time it went onstage to accept Emmy awards. Last month, the co-creator of FRIENDS revealed she could've done more to bring diversity into its cast. Hello! Oprah brought up the all-whiteness of FRIENDS when she had the cast on her show in the 1990s.
In 2009, I saw Disney's THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. How I loved seeing Disney's first African American princess. The story was delightful and the animation gorgeous. Then Princess Tiana was gone. I wondered if she'd entered an animated witness protection program for some reason. In 2013, Disney's FROZEN comes out and it's all about Princess Elsa. Blonde Princess Elsa gets a FROZEN sequel, she gets a star spot in Disney on Ice and she gets a Broadway musical based on FROZEN. One Halloween on GOOD MORNING AMERICA, did Robin Roberts dress up like Tiana from THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG? No. They put a long platinum blonde wig on Robin's head and made her dress up like that frigid white girl.

Another Oscar-wining box office champ starred Hattie McDaniel and caused a controversy. Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH is a 1946 live action/animated musical fantasy about life on a plantation. Hattie plays the plantation cook. She's friends with storyteller Uncle Remus. They perform a song together after he introduces the Best Song Oscar winner, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." For decades, that song had been the Disney company signature tune. No more. Today, Disney hides that feature. You cannot see it on Disney sites. Still, its Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland still had the SONG OF THE SOUTH plantation character images from the movie. The chants of "Black Lives Matter" forced Disney to get "woke." Finally, Princess Tiana will make a comeback. The Splash Mountain ride will be renovated with a THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG theme. Here's some Hollywood history. Hattie McDaniel was the first Black woman to be nominated for and to win an Oscar. The first Black man to receive an Oscar was actor James Baskett. He was presented an honorary Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus in Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH.
This 2020 wave of "woke"-ness tells me that folks and companies who considered themselves to be quite liberal had not really embraced racial inclusion and equal opportunities -- and they knew it. They treated Race like it was a Jehovah's Witness knocking at the door early on a Saturday morning. They pretended to not be home and peeked at it through the Venetian blinds until it went away.

Today, they've been forced to open the door.


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