The perception and portrayal of blacks from Roots to the Present, in Television

Jarron Collins
Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race
June 1999

In 1975, African American 1eaders went to the office of ABC-TV executive Lou Rudolph to voice their dissatisfaction because blacks were not seen on television in any type of prominent roles. The leaders of the Los Angeles Urban League, the NAACP and other group from the black community fe1t that blacks were deliberately kept off television. Gil Avila, ABC’s former head of personnel, said that "it [the meeting] was very tense. [and] very heated" (Braxton, 1997, pa 1). Rudolph, who was then ABC’s vice president charge of two-hour movies told the African American groups that they were "going to be very happy soon. [ABC] just brought this new property called 'Roots,' and we’re making it into a major miniseries"(Braxton. 1997. Pg.1). This rarer will show the misrepresentation of African Americans in the media by examining the perception and portrayal African Americans from the television show 'Roots' to the present.

Alex Haley's 'Roots' is an epic story in which he traces his ancestry back to Africa and the slaves of the American South. In the fall of 1976, the book "Roots: The Saga of an African Family" hit No. 1 on the bestseller list, and ABC was hoping that the miniseries would share the same success. Historically, television executives are reluctant to use blacks in mainstream appealing roles out of fear that b1ack characters would offend the large white audience. The lack of an audience would result in poor ratings and adversely affect sales of advertised products offered by the sponsoring company (Bush! Hair, & Solomon,1979; Cagley & Cardozo, 1970; Guest, 1970; Qualls & Moore, 1990). The premiere of the twelve hour miniseries 'Roots1 on Jan. 23, 1977, gripped the country as no other entertainment program had before (Braxton, 1997, pg. 2). Executives at ABC, who secretly feared that the costly and risky project would be a ratings catastrophe, were stunned with the overwhelming response from viewers. During the week of 'Roots.' restaurants and theaters were empty, and entertainers ended their performance early. It was estimated that half the U.S population watched the drama, with approximately 100 million people tuning in the final installment (Braxton 1997, pg.2). The telecast still ranks as the third-highest-rated broadcast in U.S history.

The African American community recognized 'Roots' as a dramatic and vibrant thread that wove perfectly into the tapestry of the civil rights movement (Braxton, 1997, pa.2). Blacks inside and outside the entertainment industry felt that 'Roots' was more than a special event. Never again, the African American community, could a network television executive turn his back on them, using the excuse that there was no interest in black stars and stories. With the success of ‘Roots’, many felt that the floodgates had been opened, and they waited for the flow of opportunities.

Today, 21 years after its premiere, 'Roots' is still regarded by many in the entertainment industry as having marked a turning point in the perception and portrayal of b1acks in Hollywood However, there is also a widespread belief that the expectations prompted by 'Roots' have not yet been met (Braxton, 1997, pg.2) There are more African Americans working in front of and behind the camera than ever before, and there are shows with all-black casts or major black characters that can be seen every night of the week. Despite these achievements by African Americans, ABC, NBC, and CBS, the three network in existence when 'Roots' aired, still have largely segregated TV comedies, and these networks do not have a single drama series built around a black actor. Blacks and other minorities have a minimal presence in made-for-television movies. Moreover, critics say that many of the black-themed shows are "demeaning and filled with negative images." (Braxton, 1997. Pg. 2) The producer of 'Roots' Stan Margulies said: "I would say there has not been as much progess in TV as I hoped there would be [21] years ago Back then African Americans were confined to the sitcom ghetto. Unfortunately, (21] years later, it's still true. TV executives have always perceived their medium as the entertainment for white America." (Braxton, 1997, pg.2) The current debate over portraya1s of African Americans on television echoes the controversy regarding many black images during the mid- 1970’s.

In 1976, the few shows that featured major b1ack characters were critcized. "Good Times," a comedy about a poor family in an inner city ghetto, featured a named J.J, a teenager who regularly yelled "Dy-No-Mite!" Another comedy, "Sanford & Son." was a story about a junkyard operator and his tempestuous son. "The Jeffersons" was yet another comedy that focused on a rude black bigot who owned a chain of cleaning stores Ever since television first entered the American home, it has been an effective medium for mass communication because of its ability to capture and maintain attention (Anderson and Burns, 1991). The television has historically served as a channel of communication between different communities that normally would not interact. If these television shows were the main interaction between black and other communities, there is a great likelihood that stereotypes of African Americans were being fostered and confirmed. Producers of these programs defended them, saying they had with dignity and depth mixed in with the humor (Braxton, 1997) In response to that argument, it has been stated that the audience remembers the negative images more than the positive ones (The Media Equation) While a program like "Good Times" might possess a positive strong family, the audience is more likely to remember the negative humor that is portrayed by J.J.

Though there were black supporting characters on "Welcome Back, Kotter," "All in the Family," and "Baretta," blacks and other minorities were almost nonexistent on popular series such as "The Bob Newheart Show," "Charlie's Angels," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "One day at a Time," and "Kojack." The current scene is much more inclusive of blacks. The growth in the African American presence coincides with ~ large increase in the number of black stars, directors, writers and producers, particularly over the last three years (Braxton, 1997)

Fox Entertainment President Peter Roth says that the entertainment industry has a "long way to go, but there have been great breakthroughs." (Braxton, 1997, pg.3) Mr. Roth sites the landmark "Cosby Show" on NBC in the 1980's, which (1epicted a successful African American family in New York, and this became one the most popular shows in television history. Other shows that have received praise for their portrayals of blacks in recent years include "Roc," "Family Matters," "A Different World", and "The Fresh Prince of BelAir" Garth Ancier, programming chief at the WB network, said, "There were a plethora of shows back then that were just plain buffoonish. Then 'Cosby' turned around the sitcom genre, and all the shows now operate with basic morality. It ~s a very different situation " (Braxton, 1997, pg. 3) But beyond the numbers, how much progress has been really achieved?

Actor-producer-director Robert Townsend says that "there is progress, you can’t deny that. You see African Americans in roles that they just could not get 20 years ago." But Townsend and others contend that more does not necessarily mean better. It is ironic that Garth Ancier from the WB network says that "shows back then were plain buffoonish," which implies that present day black comedies are not. African American shows on the WB and the UPIT networks have provoked heavy criticism everyday for their poor portrayal of blacks. Rob Edwards, co-executive producer of "In the House," said the majority of comedies are too similar to 1970's-era shows. Many In the Industry, Including blacks, have blasted comedies such as "Martin," "Malcom & Eddie." "The Wayans Bros.," "The Jamie Fox Show " and "Homeboys In Outer Space." Many people In the African American community see these shows as being "minstrel" shows in which characters are mostly shown clowning around or insulting one another. Mr. Edwards said that these shows are "not a true picture of what we are." These programs are just a louder, hipper version of what those [1970's] shows used to be." (Braxton, 1997, pg.4) Many people of the African American community share actor-director Tim Reid's sentiments Mr. Reid said: "Instead of going in a positive direction on a creative level, we went in the opposite direction. We have shown the country the worst in ourse1ves, the worst that life could be There is broadness and buffoonery," following a pattern and mold set up previously by the industry’s creative powers. (Braxton,1997 pg. 4) Mr. Reid feels that the shows that portray negative images of African Americans are lust tragic. These black shows are tragic because they perpetuate the same problems of 20 years ago. One would think that 'Roots' would have corrected these problems, but that is not the case. Although blacks and other minorities have prominent roles in ensemble dramas such as "ER," "Chicago Hope," "Law & Order," and "NYPD Blue," there is not a single black performer who is the central focus of a one-hour dramatic series on network television-in the manner of Don Johnson, "Nash Bridges," or Chuck Norris, "Walker, Texas Ranger." One of the criticisms of shows like "Seinfeld" and "Friends," Is that blacks and other minorities are nonexistent which is very strange considering the fact that these shows are set in large multicultura1 metropolises.

There are many talented and positive African American actors and actresses who do not carry their own drama series. The reluctance of the broadcast networks to support these African American centered dramas and TV movies is linked to failure of recent black-themed dramas such as "Brewster Place,"(1990) "I'll Fly Away,"(199l) and "Under One Roof"(1996). Network executives and advertisers remain unconvinced that a black drama will attract a sizable, demographically desirable audience. (Braxton 1997) "Some people believe that despite the success of 'Roots,' an atmosphere of discrimination still exists inside network television, with programmers feeling that black performers are better suited to comedies than dramas" (Braxton,1997,pg. 6). Debora Langford, vice president of television for Quincy Jones-David Salzman Entertainment, said that "twenty years after 'Roots,’ it's cable that has decided that these [African American] stories were worth telling." which shows HBO's and Showtime's commitment to support African American stories.

Jeff Bewkes, chairman of HBO, makes movies not for one particular audience but rather movies with universal crossover appeal. In the past few years, HBO has developed numerous films about black Americans, including "The Tuskegee Airmen," "The Josephine-Baker Story," "Don King: Only In America," "Rebound: The Legend of Earl 'The Goat' Manigault," and "Miss Evers' Boys." All of these films are positive representations of African Americans and most of them have won numerous Emmy Awards.

The television miniseries 'Roots' was perhaps "not the turning point It should have been," concludes Dr. Jannette Dates, dean of the School of Communication at Howard University and senior editor of "Split Images: African Americans in the Mass Media." Dr. Dates said: "It [‘Roots'] was a meteor that flashed brightly in the sly but then burned out. The powers that be were not interested in continuing the series focus on the black experience. The narrow mindset didn’t shift. It was like the decision makers said, 'That was a special. We did our part for Negro history, and we're done with that.'"(Braxton, 1997, pg.4)

Today there are many African Americans enjoying success in front of and behind the camera. "In the House" producer Edwards says that we have to applaud the achievements of the wonderful black actors and actresses on shows like "ER" and "Homicide." Blacks definitely have a presence on television. The important issue is that the African American presence on television 15 that of positive images and messages. LeVar Burton, the main character of 'Roots', said recently that "until we get into ownership" the image of blacks on television will not change Burton said "it's critical that we make inroads into that area. That should be our next goal."



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