Empire Strikes Out!

As the saying goes: “You can take a nigga’ out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the nigga’.”

Empire1That’s how I would describe Fox’s new hit prime time soap, Empire, starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henderson. Like Miami Vice of the 80’s which according to the grapevine Michael Mann sold on the basis of an idea using the catch phrase “MTV Cops,” I can imagine Lee Daniels and Danny Strong going to Fox execs and pitching a “Hip Hop King Lear.”

Not unlike  most Hip Hop and Rap videos that now show up on that same MTV, the genre is nothing but “ghetto fabulous” and America is tuning in. The audience for the show has grown week by week where according to an article titled ‘Empire,’ The Meteor That Never Fell To Earth in yesterday’s New York Times, 14.9 million viewers watch the penultimate show last week.

If past is prologue even more viewers will watch and tweet in front of their TV’s for tonight’s final two-hour season finale.

Fox execs shouldn’t have been surprised by the response the show has gotten in the coveted 18-49 demographic among men. After all more Rap and Hip Hop records are bought by white males than black folks. Hip Hop isn’t and hasn’t just been a “black thang” for a very long time, if ever. Back in the day when MTV first got started the tone deaf execs of the erstwhile “music network” had to be coerced by CBS Records to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the first “black” artist to break through MTV’s color barrier.

So when “white” network TV want’s to make a splash with a “new” show why not a Hip Hop “Dynasty,” or “Dallas.” At some point given Lucious’ gangsta’ background I can see a “Who Shot Lucious?” episode at some point in the series. Think of the ratings!

Empire’s Ghetto Boys

Of course “white” TV isn’t about image, or uplift, or even imagination particularly when it come to presenting “black” characters. Any shows that do would be the exception. Most go for the stereotype, the trope, the prejudice that the audience has become inured to.

Imagine an alternative universe where Lucious isn’t a ghetto expat, from a single parent home, but a self-conscious “black” man from a working class background who through sheer will and entrepreneurial determination has created a multi-media empire that consists of publishing, broadcasting, digital. He has to deal not only with his terminal illness and his dysfunctional family, but the larger “white” institutional roadblocks that despite his success have to continually be addressed to keep his “Empire” together. Imagine that unlike Daniels’ characters our Lucious understands his history, doesn’t just move in a “black” world, but in the larger society where, being bi-cultural, he must “code-switch.”

Imagine a show that not only “represents” but confronts the fallacies of American exceptionalism, critiques the notion a “post-racial” society, and skewers the growing inequalities among the one percent and the rest of us, that examines the conventional wisdom of what it means to be American.

Now that would be a show worth watching. And it can still have a Hip Hop sound track, if you insist.


Black Film?

This is reprinted from a post which appeared originally on The Gavin Media NU World Blog.

Bert Williams, The Quintessential Minstrel

Trying to define what makes a “black” film, television program, play, book, any form of art has to be analysed from the standpoint of its motivation, purpose and not just whether the participates happen to have a certain hue of skin tone and cultural background.

I’m always struck sometimes as to just how “white” so-called black films, black media really are. In some ways to be very super critical most “black” media (not being a student of media created by black folks throughout the Diaspora, I’m referring to media created by black folks in America) is in many ways an “aping” of white media forms and conventions. Because in many ways that is what we all have been conditioned to expect. Every mode of expression contains two essential elements, form and content. Both should be taken into account when defining what makes a film or any other mode of expression “black.”

Poster for Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Most “black” storytelling in the commercial space copies the same “western (white) narrative” form and conventions when it comes to film, television, theater, etc. Anything which strays “outside the lines” is considered “experimental” or avant-garde. Black film/media has essentially been boiled down to stories that have black characters as their protagonists and told by a “black” artist.

The problem I’ve always had with this definition is that it is shortsighted and does not take into account POV, (point-of-view), or motivation, which are the two key elements that truly set a story apart as being “black.” I think for example you could have a “black” film that wasn’t primarily about black people, but about “white privilege,” and its destructive nature.

Black when it comes to African Americans is never just a color, but must always have a cultural component and perspective. Black has to capture the universal as well as the specific. It has to seek to free our minds -to enlighten, inform, entertain, and most importantly, inspire. It must always not just deal with what is, or was, but what can be, possibilities. It must seek to change how we think about ourselves as humans be-ing, not just as “black folk.”

I am reminded of the so-called Black Arts Movement that came alive in the 1960s and 1970s, where poets, writers, playwrights, visual artists, were experimenting with new forms of expression that sought to break the bonds of white convention. Today we have settled in to a place, artistically speaking, that seems less about braking barriers or inventing something new or being creative and more with being popular.

ColtraneBlack media can be both “black” and popular. We only have to look at the history of “black music” as an example. There are no black filmmakers working today (commercially) who can claim the same kind of creative innovation that a Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, had in the musical arena. These “innovators” created a whole new musical genre with that same “raw material” that was available to every musician.

When will “black” film artisans do the same for the motion picture, or television program that these black musical artisans did for records?

TV & Diversity – Strange Bedfellows

In a recent post published in the Huffington Post by Gabriel Arana titled,  How Melissa Harris Perry Beat Out The Other Sunday News Shows On Diversity (the bulk of the post is included below, used by permission), we see another example of the disconnect between the editorial and creative decision making and the bottom-line when it comes to media diversity. Why?

A recent study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, titled Flipping The Script makes the point very clearly that “diversity sells,” both in movies and on TV. But you would never know it from the vast majority of programs that continue to be churned out by the Hollywood studios’ and TV Networks’ monochromatic cultural mindset.

“This year marks yet another inflection point on our way to becoming a “majority-minority” country. In 2015, for the first time, millennials — 42 percent of whom identify as non-white — are set to outnumber the majority-white baby boomers.

But you’d have little clue America was in the midst of a huge demographic shift from watching the weekend news shows, which more closely resemble a Tea Party rally than the rising “Obama electorate.” In the last year, around 75 percent of the guests on the major Sunday programs were white, according to liberal watchdog group Media Matters.

There was one exception: “Melissa Harris-Perry” on MSNBC, which featured more guests of color than white ones.

“My curiosity about the world, how it works and the choices people make in it tends to drive the choices we make about stories and topics to cover,” says host Melissa Harris-Perry, who is also a professor of political science at Wake Forest University. “The entire team is dedicated to the idea that the best way to satisfy our curiosity is to gather a diverse table of guests.”

Sunday Shows

It’s not that the other hosts and producers aren’t curious; it’s that in the flurry of activity before the “on air” sign lights up, few dedicate time to thinking about the makeup of their panels. If asked, almost all see diversity as a worthy goal in the abstract, but with guests booked on the same day and with frequent cancellations, most are happy just to have someone in the seat come airtime. But in relying on the existing Rolodex of middle-aged white men, producers are limiting the scope of the discussions they broadcast — and their appeal.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is make sure you’re not hearing from the same cast of characters giving the same talking points time after time,” says Eric Salzman, executive producer of “Melissa Harris-Perry.” “The very people who you invite to the table for discussion are going to inform how the discussion takes place.”

While Salzman says the show has no formal mechanism for keeping track of the racial composition of their panels — “Media Matters lets us know,” he says — the staff talk openly about diversity every time they assemble a lineup.

“If we’re doing a survey segment, we very deliberately talk about the race of our guests,” Salzman says. “We don’t shy away from it on the program and don’t shy away from it at the office.”

The primary challenge for producers looking to expand their circle of contributors is that bringing on guests of color frequently requires inviting those without previous television experience — drawing from the backlog is a safer, easier bet. One thing that’s helped “Melissa Harris-Perry” cultivate a diverse array of guests is the host’s ties to academia; as a black woman and scholar of African-American politics, Harris-Perry is also plugged in to a wide network of intellectuals of color.

“One of very first things we do is say, ‘Melissa, anyone come to mind?’” Salzman says. “One of great things about working with Melissa is that she is an atypical news television host — the background she comes from, the work she does in academia means she’s just aware of all sorts of different people.”

Among the regular contributors of color the show has tapped are Columbia University professor Dorian Warren and University of Connecticut history professor William Jelani Cobb, who are black; Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, the son of Indian immigrants; and Cristina Beltrán, director of Latino Studies at New York University.

But while Media Matters commended the “Melissa Harris-Perry” show for far outpacing its competitors in terms of diversity, its annual report noted that the bulk of the program’s contributors of color are African American; Latinos, Asian-Americans, and other racial and ethnic minorities are still underrepresented.

While NBC shows — including Harris-Perry’s — may have room for improvement on the diversity front, Salzman praised MSNBC’s commitment to inclusivity.

“It sounds horribly corporate, but the company we work for has a huge commitment to this issue,” Salzman says. “I can’t begin to tell you how much that matters — the most important thing to do is first acknowledge this is something [the company] cares about.”

MSNBC has a diversity committee and meets regularly with minority journalism associations like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association and National Association of Black Journalists to ask for recommendations. The company recently hosted a mixer to introduce Asian-American scholars and experts to executives and producers.

“The idea was to get producers in the room and let experts from different fields deliver pitches,” says an NBC spokesperson. “Diversity is important throughout the whole company.”

Among the event’s attendees was Sayu Bhojwani, founding executive director of the New American Leaders Project. Bhojwani was booked on “Melissa Harris-Perry” shortly thereafter.”

Walter Harris Gavin is a writer/producer & author of the novel, The Autobiography of Obsidian Dumar