In "Dancing in September," Tomasina "Tommy" Crawford (Parker), a beautiful and ambitious black sitcom writer, develops a comedy for WPX, a fledgling black network modeled after the WB and UPN. She begins working with the network's only black executive, George Washington (Washington), and the two fall in love. The comedy becomes an instant hit, but problems arise when Crawford is forced to alter her vision by injecting racial stereotypes and cartoonish dialogue into the show. Aggravating the situation is the troubled past of the show's novice young star (Shannon).
The story struck a chord with its stars.
Parker said she loved playing a writer who finds her vision and her values compromised. "People have asked me what it's like to play a character that sells out. But Tommy never intends to sell out. She just gets caught up in the Hollywood game, when you get large and can buy more than one suit, start taking cars seriously. I also love how the movie explores what contribution TV is making toward society."
Shannon added, "There are a lot of African Americans trying to do quality work on TV, and they can't because of the powers that be. Plus, these networks put on all these black shows when they're first starting out. Then when it's off and running, they take all the black shows off and put in shows with white casts."
Bythewood's film is arriving under its own bit of controversy. The film is premiering just a few months after the release of "Bamboozled," Spike Lee's satirical take on network television. That film concerned the rise and fall of a black variety show in which the black stars perform in blackface.
There are similarities between the two films. Both of the TV shows depicted in the films star performers who have no previous acting experience and are picked up off the streets by the shows' creators. Both series have meteoric rises, followed by fast falls. The stars of both series eagerly sign on, then become increasingly disenchanted over stereotypes insisted upon by network executives. Both films end in violence.
Rumors have circulated that Bythewood took his project early on to Lee, and that the two had some kind of disagreement. Lee then made "Bamboozled," which had similar themes.
Said Lee: " 'The Answer,' which I made in 1980 in film school, is basically the same story. Has any one ever heard of [film satires] 'Putney Swope' or 'Hollywood Shuffle'? Reggie is a very gifted filmmaker, and his film is his vision. 'Bamboozled' is mine. The story about an African American working in the film or television industries is not just unique to Reggie or myself. And furthermore, more films need to be made about the film and television world."
When asked about the speculation, Bythewood said, "I have no comment on Spike or 'Bamboozled.' And I didn't see 'Bamboozled.' I feel blessed to have done my own movie. I don't want it to turn into a negative thing. I've heard people say these are totally different films. I'm not worried about it. Other people tell the story that they have to tell."
HBO Offered Bythewood a Wider Audience
HBO has no qualms about the comparisons or the similarities between the two films. And even though Bythewood was attempting to get a theatrical release for "Dancing in September," he was convinced that he would eventually reach a wider audience on HBO.
Said Colin Callender, president of HBO Original Films, "The theatrical marketplace is getting increasingly difficult to get a certain sort of movie distributed--serious drama and, particularly, serious black drama. This movie will signal a broadening for HBO Films, where we look for singularly distinctive voices."
Bythewood is now taking a break from show business as he and his wife prepare to have a baby. "I'm really excited about developing one or two ideas. I've been so wrapped up with 'Dancing in September' I haven't had a month off. I just hope people like the movie."
* "Dancing in September" can be seen tonight at 9 on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17).