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'Martin' Ending, but Debate Continues

Television: The raucous comedy that stirred up a controversy over the image of African Americans on TV concludes its popular five-season show today.

May 01, 1997|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the best of shows. It was the worst of shows.

"Martin," the raucous and bawdy comedy starring comedian Martin Lawrence, leaves a mixed legacy as it serves up its final original episode tonight after five seasons on Fox.

With its premiere in 1992, "Martin" made an immediate and solid connection with young, urban, largely black audiences, and remained one of the most popular network shows among African Americans.

Co-starring Tisha Campbell, the show was television's most successful comedy centered on a young black couple. Both the series and Lawrence snared NAACP Image Awards for excellence, and his high-pitched trademark "WHASSUP!" was imitated in schoolyards around the country. "Martin" helped boost his film career ("Bad Boys," "Thin Line Between Love and Hate"), which he said he is leaving the show to pursue.

Even more importantly to many in the television business, Lawrence was the major creative force behind the series, shaping its direction and molding its comic characters to convey his views about the complexity of male-female relationships. Few African American stars have had that opportunity.

"It was very clear that Martin had this thing about being 'real,' and his perception of that was very specific," said writer Sharon Johnson, who worked on the comedy for the first season and has written for other shows, including UPN's "Goode Behavior." "He wanted to appeal to those who he felt were most like him."

But "Martin" was also continually haunted by a persistent cloud of intense anger and criticism from African American leaders, entertainers and others who denounced the humor and the characters as racially offensive and stereotypical.

Much of the controversy stemmed from some of the outrageous characters Lawrence played, including Sheneneh, the man-hungry next-door neighbor (for which he dressed in drag, with heavy makeup and an exaggerated rear end); Momma Payne, Martin's imposing mother; and Jerome, the street-slick friend with particularly bad dental hygiene.

The debate reached a crescendo last February when the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP and two other local groups branded "Martin" and several other black-oriented comedies an affront to African American professionals. The chapter also knocked the national NAACP, which handles the Image Awards, for having praised "Martin." The national NAACP chastised the chapter, and the protest quietly subsided.

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Even at the end of its run, "Martin" remains a delicate subject in many circles. Lawrence and other "Martin" producers declined through publicists to be interviewed, and NAACP officials and several prominent producers and directors also declined to talk about it.

The show's final season was clouded by its star experiencing a rash of personal difficulties, ranging from a divorce to run-ins with police to charges of sexual harassment by co-star Campbell. She left the show for several months but withdrew her accusations and returned for the final episodes.

Some critics of "Martin" said the show's main legacy is as a forerunner of the current crop of black-themed shows on the WB and UPN networks that they said harken to "Amos 'n' Andy."

"What we are witnessing now in terms of African Americans on TV is a return to the 'chitlin' circuit from a previous era, and 'Martin' was probably one of the main shows that accelerated that process from the front end," said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema and TV. "Sheneneh was definitely the point where the 'chitlin' circuit was in full effect."

But several others inside and outside the industry said those who are critical of "Martin" are missing the point, and that cultural sensitivity has contributed to the anti-"Martin" sentiment.

They added that the black creative industry has been unfairly burdened with always being concerned about the political appropriateness of images being projected in films and on TV.

Herman Gray, professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz, said: "Black representation in entertainment is still burdened by the abuses and misuse of the historical imagery. I don't know if our representational politics will ever rise above that. We're always stuck in a debate about positive and negative images. Black contemporary images and humor can never find its own expression because it has this historical burden."

Warrington Hudlin, who has produced several films, including "House Party" and "Boomerang," added: "In general, African American filmgoers respond to entertainment differently if they know whites are present, either literally or symbolically. 'Martin' provokes that kind of response. This sensitivity comes out of the notion of art as uplift, that art should be putting your best face forward. I don't think we should be so sensitive in that way. Funny is funny, and we should not worry about what other people think."

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