Boxed In

Black History Month provides a forum for TV programming, but it confines expression and allows networks to ignore similar productions the rest of the year.

February 18, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Black History Month and television seem like a perfect pair. Television is the principal storyteller of American life, and there are so many stories of the African-American experience that have been untold for too long -- at least in the mainstream American media.

That's the way I generally thought about the black-themed, special programming that has been appearing on TV every February for the last 20 years or so, until a conversation I had in a hotel lobby in Los Angeles last year on the eve of Black History Month.

I was congratulating Clark Johnson, known to most Baltimore viewers as Detective Meldrick Lewis of Homicide: Life on the Street, on the HBO movie Boycott that Johnson had directed. The film about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King was Johnson's first as a director, and it was impressive. HBO was showcasing its upcoming February debut for critics.

"Thanks," Johnson said. "But initially I didn't want to do this movie. I didn't want my first movie to be one of those Black History Month stories that's just sort of, `Oh, oh, pity me.' It's easy to have your work marginalized by that one month."

Maybe I'm just listening more closely, but since that conversation, I have heard more and more African-American programmers, performers and academics questioning the assumption that the current relationship between Black History Month and television is automatically a good thing. No one is condemning it or calling for an end to it, but the questioning seems to be getting louder.

Some of the questions sound as if they might hold the seeds of a new and improved relationship between television and African-American history. But, first, the history of that relationship and some sense of how far we have or have not come in a quarter of a century needs to be understood.

Like Johnson, Angela Bassett, who stars in The Rosa Parks Story airing Feb. 24 on CBS, said it gave her pause when she found out that the film about the woman often called "The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement" was scheduled to air in February.

"There was talk [about the issue] when we heard when Rosa might air. ... But, as you say, Johnson went on to make a good film [with Boycott]. He didn't marginalize himself, his creativity and his vision. As long as [the programming is] out there in the marketplace, I think that ultimately it's a positive thing," she said in a teleconference last week.

"It's really a dilemma. And this is an issue not just for television, but for a lot of institutions. I had this same conversation with someone who programs for a museum there [in Baltimore]," said Emerson Coleman, vice president for programming for the Hearst-Argyle group that owns 28 television stations across the country, including WBAL-TV (Channel 11) in Baltimore.

"Having Black History Month does create an environment that compels you to explore, examine and be enlightened by people, events and issues that otherwise, unfortunately, would be ignored. And that is critical," Coleman said in a telephone interview last week from his office in New York.

"But, on the other side, we have to be sure that it doesn't create some kind of artificial boundaries and borders. We have to be careful, because we clearly have to expand beyond the boundaries of the traditional Black History Month. ... You don't want to see everything that has to do with black history just handled only in this one month."

The harshest criticism of television and Black History Month has often come from academics.

"I would feel better if we could raise consciousness to the point that during Black History Month, we could sort of put aside the insanity of the dramas, soap operas and comedies and try to take on the reality of our condition and situation," said Dr. Lawrence P. Jackson, of Howard University, a Ralph Ellison biographer who is featured in an outstanding American Masters profile of Ellison airing tomorrow night on PBS.

Jackson, author of Ralph Ellison: The Emergence of Genius, 1913-1953, feels the medium could be better used in telling African-American history by showing more independently produced documentaries in February and throughout the year. "What you run up against, I guess, in that on Black History Month, we can have a couple of documentaries on the major networks, and that's about it. ... I'm not that involved with television, but I have to say I'm aware of so little that really puts to use the power of the medium," he said in a telephone interview last week.

Coleman has been deeply involved in television and Black History Month for the 25 years or so that he has been working in the industry in various programming roles. Not only has he seen the relationship between television and Black History Month evolve since 1976 when it began, but he's also been one of the executives forcing it to evolve -- inch by hard-fought inch.

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