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`Mess' is turning into one for BET

The new series about socially inappropriate behavior has revived criticism of how the network depicts blacks.

July 13, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Sunday had been targeted as a red-letter day for BET executives. That's the day they'd set aside to unveil an ambitious slate of series showcasing the cable network's move into more diverse programming aimed at a wide range of black viewers to a Beverly Hills gathering of national TV writers.

Those plans are still set. But on the eve of that presentation, BET is also grappling with an uproar over an upcoming series that has reawakened charges against the network of perpetuating negative African American images.

State Farm Insurance and Home Depot have pulled ads from "Hot Ghetto Mess," a series inspired by the website of the same name that features pictures and videos featuring outrageous and socially incorrect behavior, mostly by blacks. Among the images on the photo-heavy site are overweight, tattooed people in revealing outfits, a dog with cornrows, babies drinking out of beer bottles and a pregnant teen wearing a prom dress with a hole cut out for her protruding stomach.

Borrowing the website's mantra, "We got to do better," the show, scheduled to premiere July 25, is designed as a humorous but stinging critique of repellent behavior and appearance. BET says few outside the network have seen the show. But based largely on the website and its hot-button title, the series "Hot Ghetto Mess" has already sparked a furor among bloggers and others who feel it will glamorize racial stereotypes.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
'Hot Ghetto Mess': An article in Friday's Calendar section about controversy surrounding the new BET series "Hot Ghetto Mess" said that the website What About Our Daughters was calling for a boycott of the series. Creators of the website said they were campaigning against the series but had never called for a boycott.

BET President Reginald Hudlin insists that "Hot Ghetto Mess" is being prejudged -- and wrongly so. When the public finally does get a look at the show, they'll wonder what the controversy was all about, he said. "There's this presumption that BET has ill intent.... Nothing could be further from the truth."

And while some advertisers have already pulled out, the creators of the What About Our Daughters website, dedicated to combating "destructive portrayals of African American women in popular culture," are urging others to boycott the series.

State Farm Insurance spokesman Fraser Engerman said company executives had screened the show, and "because of the nature of the programming, we felt it was an inappropriate place for our advertising to appear. We just feel that the nature of the show is inappropriate," though he declined to specify what State Farm officials found objectionable. Engerman said that the company was reacting to the content, not the protest, and that State Farm would continue to support other BET shows.

But Hudlin said that no one from State Farm has seen the series, which is still being tweaked by the network. He compared the series to "The Daily Show," the film "Dr. Strangelove" and other projects that use socially conscious humor to make a serious statement -- that ridiculous and irresponsible behavior by anyone, not just blacks, should be denounced.

The furor over "Hot Ghetto Mess" once again puts BET in the spotlight over its depiction of black people.

The network for years has been the target of criticism from blacks and others who claim BET has given too much attention to raunchy music videos featuring scantily clad women and brash rappers bragging about their bling and sexual appetites.

It's precisely those images that Hudlin, a filmmaker ("House Party," "Boomerang"), was hired to revamp when he was brought in two years ago after the resignation of BET founder Robert Johnson. Since then, the network's focus has been on developing shows that present different and more upscale aspects of black life, such as the new reality series "Baldwin Hills," about the lifestyles of the teen set in that affluent neighborhood, and the upcoming "Sunday Best," an "American Idol"-style search for "the next great gospel singer."

Still, Hudlin said that despite those new shows, BET continues to be haunted by its past: "My frustration is on the relentless focus on the negative. We show the whole range of the black experience. Don't define us by one show that you don't like."

Jam Donaldson, the creator of the website and an executive producer of the show, was particularly exasperated by the outcry against "Hot Ghetto Mess."

"Yes, the origin of the show is the website, but the show is very different," she said. "These folks are just expecting a bunch of videos of ignorant black people. That's not what it's about at all. We do show clips, but we put into context, saying, 'This is not who black people are.' "

The tone of the website is far more audacious than the premiere episode, a copy of which was screened this week by The Times. The premiere episode revolves around a fairly benign mix of crude slapstick footage in the vein of "America's Funniest Home Videos" and blooper shows, man-on-the-street interviews and commentary by host Charlie Murphy, a former cast member of "Chappelle's Show." Some of the sequences feature white participants.

Murphy said the protest could be traced to "hypersensitivity and an undercurrent of phoniness" about racial humor in the wake of shock jock Don Imus' firing, Michael Richards' anti-black comedy club rant, and concern over rappers' use of the N-word.

"Where are these people," he added, "when it comes to shows like 'Flavor of Love' or 'Maury,' when the 25th man is being tested as a baby's daddy?"

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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