Shows give rise to cautious optimism about African-Americans on TV TURNING IN TO THE BLACK EXPERIENCE

January 29, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Almost nothing is black and white when it comes to blacks and television. What looks to be a step forward often turns out to be two or more steps back.

Just as "The Cosby Show" was being hailed as one of the most progressive sitcoms ever, along came a study that found many white viewers used the upper-middle-class status of the Huxtable family as proof that black Americans no longer faced any barriers in the real world.

L In other words, the series helped them justify their racism.

And just as we were about to applaud network television for creating a realistic, working-class comedy about blacks after decades of eye-rolling stereotypes like "Good Times," Fox cancels "Roc." Now we are left with too many sitcoms that are more minstrel show than comedy.

But Black History Month starts this week, and with it come several noteworthy television productions that have some black actors and producers in Hollywood talking optimistically -- if not actually using the P-word: progress. Not coincidentally, several of the shows also have the potential to be winners in February, an important ratings sweeps month.

The programs responsible for the talk are diverse, but each deals in a significant way with black history and the black experience.

* There's a splendid Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation Feb. 5 on CBS of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Piano Lesson," starring Emmy-winning actress Alfre Woodard and actor Charles Dutton, who earned a Tony nomination for his performance in the Broadway production. It's built on the tension between a family's remembered past vs. its imagined future.

* "The Promised Land," a powerful five-hour documentary that chronicles the post-World War II migration of 5 million blacks from the South to the North, starts Feb. 12 on the Discovery cable channel.

* Also starting on Feb. 12 is a four-hour CBS miniseries, "Children of the Dust," which features Academy Award-winner Sidney Poitier, Regina Taylor, Michael Moriarity and Farrah Fawcett. It tells the story of a group of former slaves and their founding of a town in the Oklahoma Territory during the 1880s.

And it appears that network programmers are being more than (( simply politically correct during Black History Month.

* In March, Showtime will cablecast "Zooman," a film version of Charles Fuller's award-winning play about gangs and death as part of its Voices Against Violence campaign. Fuller, who wrote "A Soldier's Story," also did the screenplay for the Showtime film, which stars Dutton and Louis Gossett Jr.

* Even more promising, in April, cable channel TBS will present "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream," the chronicle of Aaron's remarkable journey from the Negro League to the National League, eclipsing Babe Ruth as the greatest home-run hitter ever. Denzel Washington is co-executive producer.

* The show creating perhaps the loudest buzz is "Under One Roof," a black family drama starring Joe Morton, James Earl Jones and Vanessa Bell Calloway. The story of a multigenerational, middle-class family living in a Seattle flat, it is one of the first black family dramas in the history of television. Though no premiere date has yet been set, CBS screened it for critics in California this month and it earned raves.

'Laudable motion'

Poitier calls these shows "laudable motion in the right direction."

Picking his words carefully when asked about the programs and his assessment of blacks on television, the 70-year-old Poitier says, "Well, I come from a time when it was an event just to see a black person on television. That's where I come from.

"So, I have consequently been around to see some changes. Which is not to say that we have arrived at a level playing field. But this is laudable."

Thomas Carter, the executive producer of "Under One Roof," says it's "still a fight" to get realistic portrayals of blacks on television. But he agrees that there is movement in the right direction. He cites his own experience as evidence.

"When I first came to Hollywood, I was an actor. I had graduated college, and I would go into offices to audition speaking just the way I am speaking now. And I would never get a job," Carter recounts. "I had to learn to 'street it up' a bit just to get work, because that's all that was available to black actors. And that's fine, because there are a lot of people who live that life."

But the reality, he says, is that most people of color face the same everyday problems as everyone else: They get up every day, go to work and have to raise their kids. "Now, we're finally going to get a chance to show that larger, every-day reality," says Carter, referring to the subject matter of "Under One Roof."

Poitier and Carter both point to money as the reason for any improvement in the television industry's depiction of blacks.

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