Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Musings from a Black Woman

That's So Racist

In a recent edition of The Hollywood Reporter, the weekly industry trade magazine did a special feature on Raven-Symone' called "Anatomy of a Hit." It was a lovely puff piece, chronicling Raven's rise to fame, from her first appearance as 3-year-old Olivia on The Cosby Show, to her brand name status as an actor and producer on her eponymous Disney television series, That's So Raven, not to mention her music career, and her own extensive Raven product line.

So what's that problem? Well, THR's Denise Abbott reports, "the role that made Raven a star almost didn't come to be." Why not? According to Disney Channel worldwide president of entertainment Gary Marsh, "Raven came in to read for the sidekick role--the confident, rambunctious, take-no-prisoners" (read "sassy") "best friend," which she played in the pilot. Apparently after the pilot was tested, Marsh decided that, "Raven needed to be the star. So [they] rewrote the lead character, transposing the energy and comedic sensibility of the sidekick to the lead." This switcheroo raises two questions for me. One, what kind of lame lead character did these people have written down before Raven came to read for them? Two, if the people at Disney had highly recognizable and obviously experienced child actor Raven-Symone right in front of them, why was she reading for the role of the sidekick? Unless Disney was courting an Olsen twin, or praying Hilary Duff would come back them, Raven should have clearly been reading for the lead role.

This is the same situation that popped into my head when I was watching Teachers, that hot mess NBC decided to throw on as a midseason replacement earlier this spring. First of all, the show was terrible. Awful. Bad. Second, the most recognizable person on the show was Kenny/Buddd, aka Deon Richmond, conincidentally also from The Cosby Show. The next familiar face was Sarah Shahi, best known as Carmen from The L Word. And who was the star of this piece of crap? None other than Justin Bartha. (Who?) He was in Failure to Launch? National Treasure? Gigli? No, not Ben Affleck. He played the functionally retarded guy. Yep. That's him. That's the generic young white guy NBC chose to bless this steaming bowl of poo with his vanilla presence and mediocre delivery. God forbid the show was centered a young black man or a female teacher of questionable ethnicity. That just wouldn't play in Nebraska.

Initially, I did have the same questions about Psych, which stars James Roday (Who?) whose biggest credits are The Dukes of Hazzard and Miss Match, while Dule' Hill, fresh off an amazing seven-year run on The West Wing, gets to play his sidekick. Like Dule' couldn't carry his own show. Well, I made it through the first episode of Psych, and it was pretty good. So I'll let that one slide. For now.

This leads me to part of the Raven-Symone' article that irritated the crap of me. Further into Anatomy of a Hit, THR's Kimberly Nordyke asks the aforemention Gary Marsh, "How does the show perform on Disney Channels internationally?" He responds, "At first, there was some trepidation about how a show with an African-American lead would translate, but it's proven in many territories to be the top-rated show (on the channel)." Let me translate that for you. What Marsh really means is, "We thought people overseas were as racist as we are. But I guess those foreigners do care about black people. Who knew?" Marsh goes on to say, "We do try to tell universally appealing and relatable stories that kids and teens can connect with--whether white, black, Chinese, Indian. The show is working remarkably well around the world." Well, Gary, if your focus is really on telling "universally appealing and relatable stories," why don't you have more shows on your network than appeal and relate to black, Chinese or Indian people? It's tough enough to find more than two black people on the screen at a time on the Disney Channel. But I'd be hard pressed to find one person of Chinese or Indian descent ever featured on the network in a lead role. In Marsh's mind, and in the minds of many people who run the television industry, having non-white leads in your show is always cause for "trepidation." Yet, I doubt Marsh had any worries about pushing The Suite Life of Zack and Cody in China, even though little blond-haired boys aren't exactly the norm in the People's Republic.

This is not the first time I have heard this explanation for keeping black people and other non-white people, and women in general out of lead roles on American television shows and in American movies. The argument goes something like, "Since such-and-such show failed, no one will watch a show with a predominantly black/Latino/Asian/female cast." Since the cancellation of All-American Girl in 1994, I have yet to see a show about Asian people anywhere on my tv. The consensus being, "that Asian show that was on 12 years ago failed. It's because it was too Asian." Maybe if Henry Cho could ever get a sitcom, with the help of his Blue Collar Tour friends, we could see another funny Asian person on network tv. Though I doubt it.

Could you imagine that logic being purported any time a new show with an all-white cast (and their token black friend) failed? "I guess NBC pulled Four Kings off the air 'cause no one wants to see a group of young white guys on network tv. Head Cases, Kitchen Confidential, Just Legal, and Arrested Development got cancelled, too. Let's never put a show on with white men on the air ever again."

When I rule the world, I plan to change all of that. How, you might ask? I'm still figuring that out. When I come up with a solution, I'll let you know.


blue epiphany said...

I'm a big fan of Psych and am about to reveal my geekiness, but...James Roday's birth name is, according to Wikipedia, James David Rodriguez. He's "a Latino actor of Mexican ancestry". He chose an Anglicized stage name because he didn't want to be typecast. I'm not sure that that makes it any better, though - sure, the lead is played by a Latino, but by a Latino who deliberately chose a stage name to conceal his Latino-ness.

Bianca Reagan said...

blue, geekiness is a-okay. That makes the "Lights, Camera ... Homicidio" episode even more intriguing.

Peter said...

Great episode.

As for Dule Hill, from his turn as psychic Gus from "Meat Is Murder, But Murder Is Also Murder," I don't think he could be the psychic of the pair. There's intentional awkwardness, but still. He's much more of a partner as of S2 than a sidekick though, as well as the cops being much more competent so it isn't always just Shawn solving everything.

Gus is the straight man to Shawn, and it'd be a much different show with Gus as the lead. Dule Hill probably could be the lead on a show, but it wouldn't be Psych. I don't see him pulling off the manic Shawn as well as Roday does. Ah, Ovaltine Jenkins, how you tickle me.

The Unit has a number of minority characters, where a black guys is the team leader, with a white second in command. It's sort of an ensemble, but would Dennis Haysbert's character be considered the lead? He also played the president on 24 also.

As for That's So Raven, isn't it by the same company that made Pirates of the Carribbean? The lead was technically Orlando Bloom, with the more charismatic Johnny Depp playing Jack Sparrow. The lead isn't always less bland than other characters, partly because it's Orlando Bloom. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo come to mind as well. And in that case, the relatively more experienced and known Harrison Ford was playing second fiddle to Mark Hamill. You could be right, but I don't think it's necessarily spelled out that way.

As for international, you're probably right. But I thought it was known that some countries have some pretty racist attitudes. Japan comes to mind.

Bianca Reagan said...

Ovaltine Jenkins, ha! I don't watch The Unit, but I like Mr. Haysbert's Allstate commercials.

Some countries, including our own, do have racist attitudes. But we don't need to placate and validate those attitudes by promoting the superiority of white people through our exported media. That is wrong. It reminds me of the controversy surrounding Memoirs of a Geisha. That was a lot of crazy on all sides.