`Black community' not of one voice

TV: Controversy over new Fox series heats up as director Spike Lee says it demeans blacks. But `The PJs' players rush to its defense.

January 18, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA -- The controversy over "The PJs," Eddie Murphy's animated sitcom about a black building superintendent in a public housing project, intensified here over the weekend with filmmaker Spike Lee weighing in and the producers defending their Fox television series.

The Tuesday night show, which drew a large audience last week for its premiere, has also drawn protests from several African-American groups in the Los Angeles area for what they call its reliance on stereotypes and "overwhelmingly negative" depictions of characters who live in public housing.

"I've seen two episodes of `The PJs,' and I kind of scratch my head, wondering why Eddie Murphy's doing this. It shows no love at all for black people," Lee said during a PBS press conference here yesterday promoting a six-hour documentary series on African-Americans in the arts, "I'll Make Me a World," scheduled to air on public television next month.

"It is really hateful toward black people, plain and simple," Lee continued. "I think it's very demeaning.

"I also felt the same way about `The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,'" Lee added, referring to a similarly controversial sitcom about a black valet to President Lincoln that was quickly canceled by UPN after dismal ratings and protests from black groups in cities such as Los Angeles and Baltimore.

"I just want to say to everyone that just because Spike Lee said it, it doesn't make it so," Shawn Michael Howard, one of the voice actors on "The PJs," said in response to Lee during a separate press conference, this one by Fox to promote "The PJs" during the weekend.

"Let's address it: What is the black community anyway?" asked Howard, who provides the voice of a crack cocaine addict living in the housing project.

"You know, because one guy or one group says that `The PJs' represents this or that, does it mean that it's so? It's not. It would be my opinion or Larry's [executive producer Larry Wilmore] that we all have varied opinions, and that's what makes it beautiful art," Howard said.

"If you've ever been to a project, you know you've got crackheads, you've got hot chicks, you've got old cronies," said Ja'net DuBois, who provides the voice for Mrs. Avery, an elderly tenant in the series. DuBois is perhaps best known as Willona from "Good Times," still seen in reruns.

"The thing is there are stereotypes and then there are things taken from real life," said Wilmore, a former producer on Fox's "In Living Color" series.

"It seems to me that, if something is taken from real life, sometimes it's called a stereotype because it's ethnic, you know? But if Hank Hill [an animated character on Fox's "King of the Hill" who is white] has a beer, is that a stereotype? Because he's white -- a white southern guy with a beer -- somehow it's not a stereotype. I don't know," he said.

"We're just trying to have some fun here, make some money," DuBois said.

Wilmore pointed out that the types of characters portrayed in "The PJs" have been done in other media, and wonders why his series is under fire.

"Richard Pryor did every one of these characters in all his routines -- every single one -- and he has always been applauded and cherished for it. The poverty aspect was done in `Good Times' and the `Sanford and Son' series way before us.

"You know, all the different types of characters have been done in movies and television, and what gets me is that, because we bring up an issue in comedy, it's always attacked. But it's never attacked when it's done dramatically -- never is. If Shawn played a crackhead on `NYPD Blue,' he'd get an Emmy.

"He would, you know. But on our show, it's like, `How dare you!' " Wilmore said.

Wilmore is wrong about a number of things including Richard Pryor. The comedian's battles with the network censors at NBC over his short-lived series are legendary. He was also relentlessly attacked in the mainstream press in the late 1970s.

Wilmore and his colleagues have the responsibility to know that history. After all, Fox has given them the power to play with images of race and class for an audience of 10 million or so viewers.

I would also hope for a better understanding from the actors and producers of the forms in which they are working. Defending the use of satire, for example, Howard said, "You know, one of the biggest films of the year is a parody. `Life Is Beautiful' is a parody of the Holocaust."

"Life Is Beautiful" uses humor, but, in no way, does it attempt to parody the Holocaust. And I'm going to stop there, before I get really mad.

Doug Herzog, the new Fox president who came over from "Comedy Central" last month, says he's a fan of "The PJs." The network has ordered 13 episodes for the rest of this year, and already picked it up for next season.

Murphy's motives might be a puzzlement, Spike. But no need to scratch your head wondering why Fox is doing it. It's the ratings.

And, as long as the ratings are good, it probably won't matter a whit to Fox whether or not the images are bad.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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