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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Fade to White: Will Hollywood Ever Learn?

July 14, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

Give 'em hell, Kweisi Mfume. Tell those TV network masterminds they can't put 26 new entertainment programs on the air without a single minority in a leading role. Explain to them this is 1999, not 1959. Let them know minority viewers have been known to buy products advertised in commercials. That'll get their attention.

Mfume, president of the NAACP, gave the TV executives a talking-to Monday at his organization's New York convention. He let them know what he thinks of their fall schedule, where the only color we'll be able to see is on NBC's peacock.

Television in Sweden isn't so white.

I am glad the NAACP got involved, because I can already imagine the TV programs that were in the works for next season:

Mondays, 8 p.m.: "America's Funniest White Videos." A weekly look at some really funny Caucasians.

Tuesdays at 10: "NYPD White." A drama about some really tough, really pale cops.

Wednesdays, 7:30: "Whitey, the Vampire Slayer." A comedy about Buffy's cousin.

Thursdays, 9 p.m.: "Boise, 83720." A sexy series set at a high school in Idaho.

Fridays at 8: "That '60s Show." A situation-comedy about Detroit kids who play Motown songs on their accordions.

Saturdays at 4:30: "White World of Sports." Live coverage of boxing from Scotland.

Sundays, 9 to 11: "Touched by an Anglo." A guardian angel brings joy to needy white people.

*

I once wrote a screenplay in which the main character was an African American. So was his wife. So was his family. So was his best friend. So was his mentor. One of the few white characters in the story was the hero's German rival, a small role.

A white producer met me in his office, with his feet propped up on a desk.

"I wonder if we could get Schwarzenegger," he said.

Since I presumed that there was no gifted young African American thespian named Joe Schwarzenegger or Mary Schwarzenegger I hadn't yet heard of, I guessed what he meant.

"Why in the world would Arnold Schwarzenegger want to play such a small part?" I asked.

"Mike, Mike, Mike," he said. "If we can get Arnold Schwarzenegger, it won't be a small part."

He did everything but wink.

I thanked him for his time. A year or two later--that's correct, a year or two--I sat in a meeting with a white director who had made some very fine films. He asked me if I could rewrite the script so that the hero and rival were equals.

Sure, I could, I said sarcastically. Then maybe later I could do a script about the white guy who drove Rosa Parks' bus.

So much time, so little progress. I remember friends advising me to take the project to black studio executives. "What black studio executives?" I asked.

How I hoped things would change. A producer several years ago invited me to work on a film about Jackie Robinson, the baseball pioneer. I picked up Jackie's widow, Rachel Robinson, one day and drove her to a Century City meeting.

We walked into a room occupied by 10 or 12 individuals, all white. Mrs. Robinson fielded questions about Jackie's life and the kind of obstacles he overcame. She said she wasn't sure the people assembled in this room could do Jackie justice.

A woman in her 20s said, "Oh, I know exactly what you mean. My grandparents were in the Holocaust."

Rachel pinched the bridge of her nose, like a person developing a headache.

The movie never got made.

Television has a similar problem. It is difficult to get nonwhite projects approved by decision makers, because it's so difficult finding nonwhite decision makers.

*

Kweisi Mfume, in his condemnation of TV's 1999 fall schedule, called it a "virtual whitewash" and said that having 26 new programs with no minority in a starring role is a clear example of an industry mentality that is "either clueless, careless or both."

The TV executives heard Mfume's comments, crossed their hearts and promised to do better.

Believe it when you see it.

There are African American, Latino, Asian and Native American audiences and actors, waiting for something to watch, waiting for someplace to work. They don't mind shows about white people. They grew up watching shows about white people. They just would like a few shows that aren't about white people.

Time to get television's vision checked.

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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