Reggie Rock Bythewood adores his wife. He just doesn't find her name very amusing.
So when the writer-director and his wife, Gina, honeymooned in Africa in 1998 and met some African men who started laughing when they were introduced to Gina, Bythewood was caught off guard, as well as a bit upset.
It wasn't until later that he realized that they were not laughing specifically at his wife (full name: Gina Prince-Bythewood, writer-director of last year's "Love & Basketball"), but the association they made with her name.
"They were thinking about the character Gina from that show 'Martin,' " recalled Bythewood, referring to the Fox relationship comedy about an African American couple, starring Martin Lawrence and Tisha Campbell-Martin. The show, while popular, was also criticized by blacks and others for what they called buffoonish behavior by the characters.
"The only exposure most of those guys had to black America was through television shows like 'Martin' and 'The Wayans Bros.,' " said Bythewood. "That was the only Gina they had ever heard of. It was a bit unnerving. It was not great having them laugh at her name, and it really made me think about the power and reach of TV, and what effect its images can have."
The incident was one of the key inspirations behind Bythewood's new film "Dancing in September," which premieres tonight on HBO. The drama, set against the backdrop of network television, explores the romantic and cultural behind-the-scenes drama revolving around the development of a controversial black sitcom. The film stars Nicole Ari Parker (Showtime's "Soul Food" series), Isaiah Washington ("Romeo Must Die") and Vicellous Shannon ("The Hurricane").
"Dancing in September" marks Bythewood's directorial debut and has been a 5 1/2-year labor of love drawn from his experiences as a writer on the action-drama series "New York Undercover" and the sitcom "A Different World." In addition to his own experiences, Bythewood engaged in months of research, interviewing black and white TV writers and executives. (Bythewood also wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee's 1996 feature "Get on the Bus.")
Said Bythewood, "I really wanted to explore the way TV works, the whole politics of it when it comes to the black creative community and black shows." The film takes satirical swipes at black images, network executives, the NAACP Image Awards and several other targets. The title is industry jargon for a series that lands on a fall network schedule.
Another creative spark for Bythewood was an incident during his writing stint on "New York Undercover" when the detective character of one of the show's leads, Michael DeLorenzo, was killed in an explosion.
"We were told by the producers his character was killed because we needed to add white characters and attract a larger audience for the drama," Bythewood said, noting that the drama was among the most popular series with black audiences but was low-rated among mainstream viewers.
"Killing Michael off was just something that affected me emotionally," he recalled. "We just felt rejected. It's like our show wasn't good enough unless we had white characters."
Film Comes at Time of Diversity Issue
The HBO film arrives in the wake of ongoing controversies about the lack of cultural diversity on network television. NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume, who spearheaded a 1999 campaign against the four major networks protesting what he called the "all-white" landscape of prime time, announced last week that one of the networks might soon be targeted for a boycott due to slow progress in improving diversity in front of and behind the camera.
"I believe this film is relevant; it shows African Americans in a place where they're not whining," Bythewood said. "It's an honest portrayal of this Hollywood world. It asks Hollywood and viewers and society to look at themselves in the mirror. I hope it challenges Hollywood's thinking as far as giving fair representation to African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans."
He added with a chuckle, "If it doesn't do all that, I just hope it entertains."
The film has already had a unique history. Bythewood and his wife, who made her own directorial splash last year with her "Love & Basketball" feature and HBO's "Disappearing Acts," initially financed the project themselves. When money became tight, several within the creative community--actors Danny Glover, Robert Guillaume, Mara Brock Ali ("Girlfriends"), "Soul Food" executive producer Felicia D. Henderson and writer David Wyatt--invested funds and support, including letting him borrow sets and equipment.
After several months spent trying to locate a theatrical distributor were unsuccessful, he found a buyer in HBO. The cable network agreed to pick up the film, the first time HBO has acquired a work-in-progress. "Dancing in September" was also an official selection at the just-completed Sundance Film Festival.