New shows unveiled amid charges TV stereotypes blacks Prime Time Races

July 24, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- There's a streetwise, undercover cop hip-hopping his way through the New York drug scene. There's a crime-fighting, paraplegic superhero called "M.A.N.T.I.S."

There's a middle-class video store owner trying to raise three sons after the death of his wife. There's a young man who dresses like a woman to fool a social worker so that he can keep his brothers and sisters from being put up for adoption after their parents die.

These are some of the new African-American characters of the coming prime-time network TV season. It's not a complete list -- it's more of sneak peek at the new black characters on Fox and ABC, the networks that have had the greatest number of black characters in recent years and have already showcased their fall lineups for critics here.

The Fox lineup of African-American characters is of particular interest. The network has become a focus of controversy over its depiction of blacks since the cancellation in May of "Roc" and "South Central," two of television's most socially conscious series.

Charles Dutton, the star of "Roc," says Fox went out of its way to kill his show because of its social conscience. Dutton further alleges that the networks will only allow blacks to play broad, cartoonish characters in simple-minded sitcoms that air early in the evening. He calls these "monkey" roles.

Dutton is not alone in such criticism. Two years ago, Bill Cosby went public with his analysis of black sitcom characters on network TV -- all networks. He likened them to demeaning types found in 19th-century minstrel shows.

Is it going to be better next season for black characters on television? Will it be worse or about the same?

The answer is that it's not that easy when it comes to race and television. Attempting such superficial, better-or-worse analyses would only add confusion.

Making sense of TV portrayals, and countering their potential to type negatively entire ethnic groups, must start with an understanding -- that one person's notion of a negative stereotype can be another person's idea of a well-rounded and progressive characterization.

Dutton's criticism is playing a key role in the reception here of new fall shows featuring African-American characters. His words have put the depiction of blacks on TV back on the A-list of issues, with network executives and stars being forced to respond to the charges. The complexity of the issue is seen in some of those responses.

"There's been a resistance [by the TV industry] to any minority show in this country for 40 years. That is just a matter of educational background. There has never been a dramatic series with a black lead that has been renewed," says Dick Wolf, executive producer of "New York Undercover," a new drama series featuring two detectives -- one black and one Hispanic -- on Fox this fall. Wolf also produces "Law & Order" on NBC.

"So, to go after this network [Fox] for canceling shows, as opposed to the other three networks, was laughable. It's to their credit that they have been willing to take a risk that nobody else on commercial television has been willing to take," Wolf adds.

Some positive, some negative

"New York Undercover" is a good example of a series that some are going to see as positive, and some as negative.

On the negative side, it keeps blacks within the confines of an urban milieu that features drugs, guns, leather jackets, jive talk and rap music. The black detective, played by Malik Yoba (of "Cool Running" fame), could just as easily be a criminal. In a retro sense, he's nothing more than a hip-hop version of Philip Michael Thomas' Detective Tubbs in "Miami Vice" and a dozen other black TV cops.

Yet, there is a strong story line in the pilot about the detective agonizing over whether he should allow his ex-wife to send his son to a private school. The detective is afraid his son might be socialized away from his ethnic roots. Being a father is treated as something important in the pilot. That's not something a lot of black cop characters have had the chance to explore.

How does Yoba feel about the series?

"I feel really proud to be part of it," he says.

Wolf says "New York Undercover" addresses two of Dutton's charges. One, it's a drama with a black co-star. Two, it's on at 9 p.m., a time Dutton says blacks are Jim Crow'ed out of by the networks.

So much for charges of "ghetto-ization," Wolf says.

On the other hand, the series will air at 9 Thursday nights, after "Martin" and "Living Single," which are shows starring African-American characters. So, maybe, you have another kind of ghetto-ization. By night.

"M.A.N.T.I.S." -- a sci-fi, action-adventure series on Fox -- has the same potential as "New York Undercover" for conflicting interpretations.

One of the most disturbing patterns in black male characters on TV has been a tendency toward the diminutive or the giant -- Gary Coleman or Mr. T. The result is to portray black men as freaks or, at least, somehow abnormal.

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