Hollywood doesn't get it

February 17, 1993

The producers of CBS' three-part mini-series "Queen," which is airing this week, obviously had one eye on Black History Month and the other on February's ratings sweep.

The result offers abundant evidence that Hollywood still doesn't get it.

Purportedly the brainchild of "Roots" author Alex Haley, "Queen" managed on Sunday to serve up every shopworn cliche of the plantation epic genre in a way that should have left its creator spinning in his grave. The series utterly fails to give viewers a realistic portrayal of what African-Americans went through in the early part of this country's history. On the contrary, it gazed back upon slavery with cheap sentimentality.

From the 16th century to the mid-1800s, some 10 million Africans were captured and transported to the Americas to be sold as slaves; a third of them died en route.

One scholar, George Francis Dow, despaired of finding words adequate to express what transpired aboard the slave ships: "The cruelty and horror of the 'middle passage' -- the voyage from the Guinea coast -- can never be told in all its gruesome details," he wrote. "It is enough to recall that the ships were always trailed by man-eating sharks."

Once arrived in the New World, the captives were subjected to a brutal system of exploitation. The legal and economic machinery of chattel slavery aimed at extracting the maximum amount of toil from human bodies at minimum cost.

Given this history and the suffering that slavery inflicted on its victims, many African-Americans will be offended by the revisionist portrayal of slavery in "Queen." Whatever resemblance the story may bear to Mr. Haley's family history, it cannot be said to be a fair representation of the era it portrays.

The purpose of Black History Month is not to invent a fanciful past to compensate for present injustices and hardships. Neither is it a form of therapy to build "self-esteem." It is quite simply a search for a historical record that accurately reflects the African-American experience in this country.

No human rights outrage has been less adequately documented than the commerce in human flesh. "Queen" gives us a costume drama that obscures rather than illuminates this shameful period in America's past.

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