What's 'racially offensive' is in the eye of the beholder

December 14, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Read more, folks. It'll inform ya.

For instance, I didn't know before reading the latest copy of Emerge magazine that Sidney Poitier's roles in the films "To Sir With Love" and "Lilies of the Field" were racially degrading.

But if Emerge is quoting singer/actor Harry Belafonte correctly, I've been harboring a delusion all these years. "To Sir With Love" and "Lilies of the Field" are two of my favorite films. But to Belafonte, the Poitier roles in those films were "racially offensive."

Goes to show you how "racially offensive" matters are strictly in the eyes of the beholder. I mean, there might be folks who'd say that Belafonte's warbling that damn banana boat song is racially offensive. This debate has raged among black Americans for years. It will continue. There will be no resolution, because every black person who claims something is "racially offensive" believes in his or her heart that he or she speaks for the entire race.

The source of the debate is that ever-nagging problem of the "image" of black folks. There are still some of us stricken with abject terror that somewhere there may be white folks harboring bad thoughts about us. So to protect our "image," we become thought police, scrutinizing every book, news article, newscast, television show and movie that might show us in a bad light.

Sometimes we do more than scrutinize. We whine. We nit-pick. In the process, we make ourselves look as bad as those negative images we protest. You may scoff and sneer at my conclusion, but these examples, I think, prove my point.

In the 1970s, there were blacks who protested the character of "J.J." on the television show "Good Times." He was a fool, some blacks charged. It seemed to me that a bona fide fool was just what a comedy show needed.

In the 1980s, there were even blacks who objected to "The Cosby Show" because it showed an affluent black family. The Evanses of "Good Times" were too poor and the Huxtables too rich. You can't please everybody, I suppose, especially those American Negroes obsessed with that image thing.

After Cosby came Martin Lawrence's "Martin" and "Family Matters," with Jaleel White playing the archnerd Steve Urkel. Lawrence and White have been criticized in the black media for perpetuating the image of buffoonery. Buffoonery is a no-no among the Image and Thought Police. Lawrence is the executive producer of his show. I suspect we need more buffoons like him. And White is the most underrated comedy actor around today. He's in a class with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but don't expect to hear him lauded as such -- at least not from his own people.

Curiously enough, the one black character who was indeed a buffoon -- George Jefferson of "The Jeffersons" -- received the least criticism. In fact, the Hollywood chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- one of the main precincts of Afro-America's Thought Police -- saw fit to give Sherman Helmsley, who portrayed Jefferson, an "Image Award."

But when it comes to Hollywood, who does have a good image? Negative images, it seems, are Hollywood's bread and butter. It strikes me that others may have a gripe as well.

Asians and Hispanics, who have little or no image when it comes to Hollywood. Ditto for Native Americans. It was only within the past five to 10 years that those nitwits who run the Hollywood studios had the common decency to cast Native Americans in Native American roles.

Young white women have been victimized by -- and please excuse the language -- the spate of "deranged white bitch" movies that started with "Play Misty For Me" -- in which some loony white gal with a shank stalks Clint Eastwood -- and $H continued with "Fatal Attraction" and "Single White Female." Young white women should be bulldozing Hollywood studios even as you read this.

White people in general. Can white people really be as stupid as they've been portrayed in horror movies?

I suspect Italian-Americans might want to have a little chat with those Hollywood types who have made the phrase "organized crime" synonymous with Italian.

Consider this food for thought for that wing of the African-American community still disposed to be Thought Police. The Thought Police also should consider taking black people to task for not supporting those film and television dramas that present positive images of blacks. NBC's "Homicide" -- with Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto and Clark Johnson turning in superb performances weekly -- comes immediately to mind.

But I doubt if even the Thought Police watch it.

Pub Date: 12/14/96

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