Barack Obama brought change to Washington. Now, can he bring change to our television sets?
The new president and his family have barely settled into their new Washington digs, but that question is already being pondered by members of the entertainment community. They cling to the hope that an “Obama effect” eventually will lead to richer and more varied depictions of black Americans on the small screen and more opportunities in front of, and behind, the camera.
“The fact that we now have people who we traditionally haven’t seen in these kinds of roles should open Hollywood’s minds to all kinds of possibilities,” says comedian D.L. Hughley. “Hopefully we’ll see a case of art imitating life.”
Hughley, who dabbles in political humor as the host of CNN’s “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News,” headlined a family sitcom (“The Hughleys”) on ABC and UPN from 1998-2002. It has the dubious distinction of being among the last wave of predominantly black TV shows before the current drought hit prime time.
This fall, even as Obama was becoming the biggest TV star on the planet, the out-of-step broadcasters unveiled a roster of new shows stocked with casts that were alarmingly pale. The drop-off came after a period in which the networks seemed to making a move toward more diversity - a move spurred by harsh public criticism in 1999 by the NAACP.
“I was shocked to see that not a single pilot had an African-American family or protagonist,” says Elvis Mitchell, a pop-culture critic and film producer. “It just seemed obvious. Why not? It’s what everybody was talking about. On the other hand, there was no shortage of shows about the travails of rich white kids.”
In 1997, the broadcast networks offered 15 black comedies, albeit mostly on the now-defunct WB and UPN, which relied on the genre to carve out an audience. Today, that number is down to two: “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game.” They air on the smallest network - The CW - where they have been banished to the dead zone known as Friday nights. In addition, basic-cable station TBS offers a pair of black sitcoms - “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns,” both from Tyler Perry.
When it comes to black dramas, television’s track record is even more abysmal. The most recent predominantly black network drama was Steven Bochco’s short-lived “City of Angels,” which aired on CBS in 2000. These days, the only black actors who headline network dramas are Dennis Haysbert on “The Unit” and Laurence Fishburne, who just took over “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Both shows air on CBS.
Mara Brock Akil, the creator and executive producer of “The Game” and the recently departed “Girlfriends,” deplores the trend.
“I have a theory: Everyone wants to see themselves in storytelling, whether it be TV, stage, movies or books,” she says. “It’s like a validation of their humanity. And black people really haven’t had that on television - at a high-profile level - since ‘The Cosby Show.’”
“The Cosby Show,” starring Bill Cosby as pediatrician Cliff Huxtable, aired on NBC from 1984 to ‘92 and can still be seen in syndication. One of the most popular programs in television history, it was a warmhearted sitcom - free of street conflicts and ghetto stereotypes - that broke ground for its depiction of an upwardly mobile black family. In the weeks following Obama’s election, the “Huxtable effect” was cited by some as a factor in his victory.
Cosby, for one, downplays the show’s influence on the election (“It was, perhaps, one of many spokes in the wheel,” he says). Moreover, he’s not all that optimistic that Obama’s presidency will make a major difference in terms of onscreen diversity.
“No, because these people are stupid,” he says, referring to network bosses. “Look at how NBC is struggling. You would think they would make some changes and be talking about trying to get another ‘Cosby’ kind of show. But they would probably die before putting another show on about a black family and black pride.”
Brock Akil, however, has a bit more hope for the network that also aired the groundbreaking show “Julia” (1968-71), with Diahann Carroll; and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-96), with Will Smith. NBC recently bought from her a script based on a book by Nick Adams called “Making Friends With Black People.” It’s a buddy comedy that focuses on the state of race relations in the U.S.
“In our pitch to NBC, we referenced Obama,” says Brock Akil, who is awaiting word on whether the project will be turned into a pilot. “We talked about how he has gotten us to the table to talk about race in a meaningful way and it’s time to continue the discussion. So our new president has already had an impact.”
Some believe that impact will take on additional power as the nation - including Hollywood - is exposed to countless images of Obama along with wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha as they hold court in the White House.
“You would like to think that will make a difference,” says Bishop T.D. Jakes, a prominent pastor, writer and film producer (“Not Easily Broken”). “I think sometimes the only images we see of people of color are the images that Hollywood projects: the hip-hop, the gangs, the street life. Now, it would be wonderful for them to recognize what has always existed in the African-American community and what Obama’s presidency suggests: middle-class African-Americans who are articulate, intelligent and thoughtful.”
Mitchell echoes those thoughts, adding that black women, in particular, could benefit from an Obama effect.
“Every day we’ll be looking at TV and seeing these three females of color in the White House,” he says. “That has got to change the (pop cultural) equation. Over the next few years, I hope we’ll see a much different and fuller depiction of African-American women on television and in the movies. The representations just can’t be as single-minded and negligent as they have been.”
Still, there are skeptics. They include Henry Hand, aka Hadjii, a humorist, writer and actor who last year created “Somebodies,” the first-ever scripted sitcom for Black Entertainment Television.
“Oprah has been one of the most powerful women in the world for years, but we certainly haven’t seen a lot of shows about strong, successful black women,” he points out.
Hadjii, whose show was not renewed by BET, fears that Obama will follow the footsteps of other highly famous black celebrities such as Michael Jordan, Will Smith and Oprah who “transcend their blackness.”
“Once some time passes and we get into the groove of things, he won’t be considered black anymore (by whites and others),” he says. “I hate to sound pessimistic, but I don’t see people making the connection between Obama and black people. And there will continue to be a large segment of the population that associates African-Americans with poverty.”
But Jakes, who is in discussions to host a syndicated TV talk show next fall, maintains that television would be blatantly derelict if it failed to tap into the cultural climate Obama has created. He hopes to see an increase in jobs in Hollywood for people of color (“We need to tell our own stories. We can’t sit around waiting for others to do so”). And he points out that the medium isn’t always behind the curve when it comes to social progress.
“In fairness, TV played some part in opening hearts and minds to the idea of a black president,” he says, referring to Haysbert’s portrayal of David Palmer, the fictional commander-in-chief on the action drama “24.” “It was a case of one hand washing the other.”
Brock Akil believes the Obama effect might even go beyond bolstering the presence of blacks on television and actually bring about a tonal change in programming. During the fear-plagued post-Sept. 11 years, she says, prime time was riddled with dark, paranoid dramas, and also with shows that wallowed in excess.
“When there’s fear, you either completely shut down or you live life with abandon, figuring it doesn’t matter anyway,” she says. “But for now, at least, there’s a sense of hope and optimism with this administration. And we also have a president talking about buckling down and making sacrifices for the higher good.
“I’d like to think that the decadent shows will be replaced with something more in-depth and meaningful.”