Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, John Coltrane, Alice Walker. . . . There are many gifted and inspirational African American figures who are clearly deserving of praise and recognition.
But Wednesday night's episode of "The Parent 'Hood" asks viewers to consider the worthiness of a group of black pioneers whose contributions are far less obvious: the early African American film actors.
To Robert Townsend, the star and co-creator of the WB sitcom, the talents and contributions of black performers such as Butterfly McQueen, Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best have been unjustly overshadowed by criticisms that they helped perpetuate negative racial stereotypes during an era when there were few if any dignified acting roles for African Americans.
"The problem with Hollywood was balance," observes Townsend. "Those [early black] performers were brilliant. But because it wasn't balanced out with other images of African Americans, they got a raw deal.
"It's like Jimmie Walker gets a bad rap," he continues, referring to the comedian who starred in the 1970s sitcom "Good Times." "Jimmie Walker was very, very funny. But people are like, 'Oh, my god, what he did hurt black people.' Jimmie was being as funny as possible but, because we didn't have Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes, everybody was like, 'Why does he have to be so stupid?' Jimmie was just going for it like Jim Carrey goes for it."
The new installment of 'The Parent 'Hood" finds Robert and Jerri Peterson (Townsend and Suzzanne Douglas) aghast when their 8-year-old son, Nicholas (Curtis Williams Jr.), decides to portray the hardly heroic character of Buckwheat for his school's Black History Month presentation.
Nicholas is undeterred when his family urges him to select a more gallant and respected figure such as Martin Luther King Jr., Colin Powell or Duke Ellington. The innocent youngster remains unswayed even when his father tries to explain why the character from the long-running "Our Gang" film series (which began in the 1920s and was sold to television in 1951 for release as "The Little Rascals") may be viewed as unflattering to African Americans.
"He talked silly and acted funny," says Robert.
"What's wrong with that?" responds a perplexed Nicholas, who is having a ball dressing the part of the bedraggled Buckwheat, who was played by child actor William Thomas Jr. during the 1930s.
Townsend admits that he too used to be critical of those early black actors who agreed to play sometimes unflattering roles.
"When you see people in movies or on television, you think they have all the power in the world," he explains. "I was like, 'Why did he pick that type of role? I would have picked the Jimmy Stewart part.' But once I got into show business, I understood that they didn't have the power."
Some early black actors were paid well for their work. The popular Stepin Fetchit reportedly made $2 million during the 1930s. But he did so playing comic roles that often portrayed him as lazy or cowardly. Butterfly McQueen, who was best known for her portrayal of the squeaky-voiced young slave in the 1939 classic "Gone With the Wind," temporarily retired from making films in 1947 after tiring of playing sobbing maids. At the age of 64, in 1975, she received her bachelor's degree in political science from New York's City College.
Townsend first came to prominence in 1987 with his independently made film "Hollywood Shuffle." The movie received praise for its comic portrayal of a black actor trying to break through in an entertainment industry still rife with racial stereotypes and limitations.
But Townsend is encouraged by the strides African American actors have made in television and film in recent years.
"With the success of actors like Sam Jackson, Denzel, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, there's much more of a variety [of roles for African Americans]," Townsend says. "Last year there were 14 situation comedies [featuring African Americans]. In terms of [television] drama, there was one ['Under One Roof'] and people didn't really support it. There's still a need for dramatic shows with African Americans.
"But then there are African Americans that are featured prominently in shows like 'ER' [Eriq La Salle] and 'Chicago Hope' [Vondie Curtis-Hall]. I always want more, but we're making progress. So it feels good."
* "The Parent 'Hood" airs Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. on WB (KTLA-TV Channel 5).