Black man's image gets different look on cable

June 20, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

The last paragraph of Gregory Kane's column was incomplete in some editions yesterday. It should have read:

Another young man said that cable channels -- particularly Ted Turner's TNT -- are begging for scripts with black dramatic themes. That's not surprising. Cable holds the answer to the media's pathetic portrayal of fathers in general and black fathers in particular.

The Sun regrets the error.

THINGS started off badly for me at the fifth annual male involvement conference - held at University of Maryland, Baltimore County this Thursday. First I arrived too late to hear the keynote speaker, author Geoffrey Canada. Then I went to the workshop.


"Media Images of Families and Fathers," it was called. I figured it would turn into a media-as-whipping-boy session, but heck, the media are as good a whipping boy as any.

Michael Easterling, WJZ's program and public affairs manager, and I were co-panelists. The moderator was Keith Snipes, public relations guy for the state Department of Human Resources. Easterling and I sat in the empty room at the time the workshop was scheduled to begin and figured that few, if any, people would show. We were to find that we have no future as prognosticators.

The room soon filled. Snipes started the session by asking whether our children are affected by the media's images of fathers. Easterling reviewed the history of how fathers are portrayed on television - some strong and firm, others (Easterling mentioned Homer Simpson) ineffective fools.

I observed that any media image of fathers is offset by men who interact with children in the real world. Children, God love the little dears, seem to crave attention from men. Any man who volunteers to go into a school or a day care center and interact with the little tykes will soon find he's a surrogate father, even if only for a brief period.

Soon the discussion focused on what the media can do to present better images of fathers. Easterling reminded those assembled that the bottom line for the media is dollars: ratings for the broadcast media, circulation and advertising bucks for the print media. Any improvement in father images will not come if ratings, circulation or advertising will be adversely affected.

We were going along swimmingly. One young man charged that network television deliberately promoted "buffoonish" images of black men. When Charles Dutton tried to address serious issues on his television show "Roc," the young man charged, he was yanked from the air.

The guy took a sharp left turn. Or it may have been a right turn. At any rate, it was a turn in another direction.

"I know one guy who said he wouldn't read your column again," the young man said to me. "I still read it, but you don't have your finger on the pulse of the black masses."

This, of course, was not news. I'd heard it before. My reply was that one of the constant themes of my columns is that there are many pulses in the black community, not just one. Several questioners later, another man charged that I said things about black folks a white columnist would be fired for and asked if I was a sellout.

Snipes saw that the question was leading away from the purpose of the workshop and, indeed, the entire conference and squelched further discussion on it. But let's get something clear here and now. The name on this column is Gregory Kane. The views in it are mine. When Sun editors change the name of this column to "Black Community," the views will reflect that.

But I had to admit the young man was right about "Roc." I mentioned more than once during the workshop that the nitwits in Hollywood who are responsible for network prime-time shows do not take the lives of black folks seriously. That is why we see few black dramas on network television.

Easterling mentioned that John Amos, who played James Evans in the sitcom "Good Times," was given the boot by CBS when he demanded more depth for his character and wanted to portray a father who had more control over his son J.J., played by Jimmie Walker.

"The kid walked around the house with his hat on his head," Easterling recalled. "How many black fathers do you know who would tolerate a child walking around the house with a hat on?"

Amos' best performance on "Good Times," I observed, was the one in which he was reunited with his long-lost father. That episode was more drama than comedy, showed Amos' superb ability as an actor, and probably sealed his fate.

"He violated the rule," I said. "Dutton violated the rule: no black dramas on network television."

Keep in mind, that's network television. If you want to see blacks in good, original dramatic productions, you have to go to cable. Apparently, the folks who run Showtime and HBO don't have the same terror of portraying black folks seriously that network moguls have. Thus we get movies like "Blind Faith" on Showtime and "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned" and "First Time Felon" on HBO.

Another young man said that cable channels - particularly Ted Turner's TNT - are begging for scripts with black dramatic themes. That's not surprising. Cable holds the answer to the media's pathetic portrayal of fathers in general and black fathers in particular.

Pub Date: 6/20/98

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