Black History Month: It’s Time to Be Taken Seriously

Feb 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Sheree R. Curry

Special to TelevisionWeek

Quick-name five dramatic TV series with a predominantly African American cast and starring role that have aired at any time during the history of network television. A few sitcoms might come to mind first, and then the wheels really have to start turning. It’s probably hard to come up with one, let alone five, and you’re in the TV business. But yes, you can get credit for “Roots,” even though it was a miniseries.

Over the years there have been many groundbreaking dramatic TV shows prominently featuring African American leads, from NBC’s “I Spy” detective series with Bill Cosby to “Paris” with James Earl Jones as a criminology professor, and attorney show “Kevin Hill” starring Taye Diggs. But it’s hard to come up with a TV drama with an all-black cast, along the lines of Showtime’s “Soul Food,” that has ever appeared as a series on prime-time network television-even though sitcoms with all-black casts are prevalent and have been around since the 1950s.

But despite the historical dearth of long-lasting black-oriented television dramas, more African Americans are popping up behind and in front of the cameras of mainstream dramas in the 2000s than in earlier decades.

There have been a few black-only dramatic casts, but only a handful. That’s because “It is part of the comfort zone for mainstream America to have black people make them laugh,” said Venise Berry, an associate professor at the University of Iowa who teaches a course on African Americans and TV. “To have them have serious emotions, cry and feel anger [over a black story line] is not as comfortable, and I think producers don’t believe they can get the kind of crossover audience they need to sell that kind of show.”

Whether that means selling it to mainstream audiences, selling it to advertisers, selling it overseas or selling it in syndication, all of these are potential barriers to seeing a long-lived black drama on network TV. That rule seems to be just as true today as it was 30, 40 and 50 years ago.

Regardless of the decade, many dramas with significant African American roles have been yanked midseason or just after a season or two. That’s what happened to the one-season-long (1968-69) Western “The Outcasts,” which co-starred Otis Young as an independent, outspoken black man, and “The Lazarus Syndrome” (1979), starring Louis Gossett Jr. as a surgeon. More recently there was “LAX” (2004), co-starring Blair Underwood as a terminal manager at the Los Angeles airport.

Progress in the ’70s

In the 1970s, when blacks and whites in the U.S. began to mingle more socially, the networks released black-oriented, middle-class cop and detective series. The 1973-74 season brought two such shows: “Shaft,” based on the book and film of the same name, and “Tenafly,” about brainy African American private eye Harry Tenafly, a happily married, middle-class family man who quit the police force to take a better-paying position at a big L.A. detective agency.

A woman came onto the scene in 1974 with “Get Christie Love,” starring Teresa Graves as a sexy undercover cop who would pose as a prostitute or a thief to help corner the bad guy. But America, used to black women in the roles of mammy, nurse and secretary, didn’t seem to take well to a voluptuous, sassy black female lead.

“When I was coming along there were certain categories we occupied,” said actress-writer-producer and Emmy winner Ruby Dee. “We had the good girls, the bad girls, the maids, the mammies, and then we had the more exotic images.”

Ms. Dee played a nurse on the soap opera “Guiding Light” in the early 1950s and a doctor’s wife in “Peyton Place” (1964-69), the first prime-time soap opera, which also starred Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow.

“‘Peyton Place’ was a solid hit for a long time, and then at some point it was decided to bring in a black family to boost ratings,” said Ms. Dee, who was featured in ABC’s 2005 TV movie “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” “Nobody who sells things can afford to ignore any sector.”

Television executives began to recognize the significance of the black audience as African American voices grew louder during the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, network executives allowed more roles for blacks in dramas, albeit minor ones. But some had a lasting effect. Diahann Carroll pulled off an Emmy nomination as best actress in a single performance in a 1962 episode of “Naked City,” a crime drama that focused on the lives of New York detectives. A year later Diana Sands received an Emmy nomination in the same category for an episode of “East Side/West Side.”

Unfortunately, over the next decade only one other black woman took on a leading role in a dramatic series. That was Denise Nicholas, who played a school counselor on “Room 222” from 1969-74.

“Room 222” was an extraordinary high school-based drama that mirrored the social change of the times. It starred Lloyd Haynes as a compassionate African American teacher doling out lessons in black history that weaved into the real-life problems of the integrated student body. Story lines covered drug addiction, student rights, environmental crises and racial attitudes.

“The sympathetic characters portrayed by Mr. Haynes and Ms. Nicholas represented a positive statement about middle-class success,” said J. Fred MacDonald, author of “Blacks and White TV” and director of one of the largest historical film archives. “They were laboring now so that black youngsters could follow them to the American Dream.”

And that is an image that stayed with a young Blair Underwood, who watched the show in his adolescent years.

“The teacher on ‘[Room] 222’ was intelligent and articulate,” said Mr. Underwood, who co-stars in “Madea’s Family Reunion,” due in theaters later this month. “Intelligent men. Those are the characters that attracted me to acting.” And those are the characters that he strives to portray.

At the age of 21 Mr. Underwood landed the roll of lawyer Jonathan Rollins in the hit NBC series “L.A. Law.” No doubt that character inspired other teens as well as opened mainstream America’s eyes to the concept of African American lawyers.

“I was on the elevator one time and someone-this white man-said to me, ‘Are there really lawyers like the character you play?'” recalled Mr. Underwood, who then began to tell the man about some notable historical African American lawyers. “That was probably one of the silver linings from the exposure of the O.J. Simpson trial. They got to see Johnnie Cochran-who was practicing law long before ‘L.A. Law’ came out-and they knew that lawyers like Jonathan Rollins did exist.”

Behind the Camera

Another sign of progress can be seen in the television industry’s use of African Americans behind the camera. For example, Mr. Underwood doesn’t recall any black writers working on “L.A. Law” during its 1986-94 run, but when he had the lead role of Dr. Ben Turner on “City of Angels,” which aired in 2000, that medical drama, co-created by an African American, Paris Barclay, did have several black writers. In fact, about half the writers were African American, Mr. Barclay, an Emmy Award-winning director of “NYPD Blue,” told the press at the time.

“You don’t usually see numerous African American writers on network television,” Mr. Underwood said. “You saw it on specifically black-oriented sitcoms, but on dramas it was rare. For CBS it was rare. But Steven Bochco insisted upon [having black writers].”

“City of Angels” was network TV’s first truly African American medical drama. Of the nine full-time cast members, seven were black. Vivica A. Fox portrayed Mr. Underwood’s character’s boss and former love interest. But despite its racial makeup, the show avoided addressing race issues directly and remained focused on the life-and-death issues facing the medical team at an urban hospital.

“Producers are beginning to look deeper into the well for story prospects that mirror our interconnectedness
on this globe,” Ms. Dee said. “Race as a subject is going to be like a kindergarten concern. We don’t have any more time for it. We have to get to the business of the stories that affect us all as one species on this planet.”

Mr. Bochco had high hopes that the formula for “City of Angels” would prove that white America would watch a dramatic series with a majority black cast. He once told a reporter, “”How do you get people to watch a really terrific black drama? You don’t make it about the experience of being black. You make it a really compelling drama, whether it’s about cops, doctors or lawyers.”

But “City of Angels” couldn’t pull the numbers to survive beyond 22 episodes.

Among the signs of progress behind the camera are shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” co-produced and created by Shonda Rhimes, an African American woman, and the work of Kevin Hooks, a former star of “The White Shadow” who was busy in 2005 directing episodes of “Lost,” “24” and “Alias.” But there are still some hurdles to be overcome.

“I believe that progress feels like two steps forward and one step back,” said LeVar Burton, who burst onto the acting scene with his 1977 role as Kunta Kinte in “Roots” and leapt several hundred years into the future to play Geordi La Forge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He also directed more than four dozen episodes of four later “Star Trek” series, and holds the record for the most “Star Trek” episodes directed by a “Star Trek” actor. “When I look at progress I don’t look at it through a narrow lens. Hollywood is only a microcosm of what is going on in the real world,” he said.

Mr. Burton, who is in his 24th year of producing PBS’s “Reading Rainbow,” is currently directing and producing the pilot for a one-hour science-fiction TV series called “The Nine,” in which he will also star.

“More women and more minorities are able to make a living at their chosen profession now than 30 years ago,” he said. “I am lucky I am able to do what it is I do and what I do best, but I am under no illusions that we are in a perfect universe.”