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TV marks Black History Month, but is that such a good thing?

African Americans are spotlighted in television specials and documentaries in February, but what about the rest of the year?

February 16, 2012|By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Shukree Hassan Tilghman's relationship with Black History Month is complicated.

On the one hand, Tilghman is grateful that PBS is airing his first documentary, "More Than a Month," along with a number of other such projects during Black History Month. On the other hand, in the film, he wanders New York's Times Square wearing a sandwich board sign reading, "End Black History Month."

"Yes, the irony is not lost on me," Tilghman, 29, said with a smile prior to a screening of his project in Pasadena.

The documentary, which premieres Thursday, spotlights a long-simmering debate within black creative circles about the value of the annual February observance, particularly at a time when the president of the United States is a black man. While many historians and filmmakers are delighted that African American history is in the spotlight, others call such programming a double-edged sword that ghettoizes black stories into the shortest month of the year and discourages further attention on them in the remaining months.

Sam Pollard, who directed "Slavery by Another Name," which was broadcast earlier this week on PBS, has mixed feelings about the month. His film centered on former slaves who were forced back into hard labor, often through the prison system, in the post-Civil War South. (The film is slated to be repeated during the month.)

"My reaction when I heard the film was being broadcast in February was, 'Uh, oh, here we go with another show being pushed into Black History Month,'" said Pollard, an African American. "African American history is a value to this country and to American history, and it all should not be pushed into one month."

TV comprises a key part of the observance of Black History Month. PBS, which airs African American projects year round, is showcasing seven prominent black-themed projects tied to the month.

Meanwhile, HBO is featuring "The Loving Story," about an interracial couple in Virginia whose "illegal" marriage in 1957 sparked a U.S. Supreme Court case, and Showtime has "Phunny Business: A Black Comedy," about the rise and fall of a comedy club that developed up-and-coming black comedians. (BET also has special programming tied to the month, including the BET Honors saluting notable African Americans.)

But the once-a-year focus by some networks points out a troubling industry imbalance, argues Debra L. Lee, chairwoman and chief executive of BET Networks: "Black History Month does force other networks to pay attention to black issues, but I would rather see them do it all year around. It gives them an out in programming for an underserved audience. Black people are disappearing from broadcast networks."

Tilghman was originally inspired to make his film as a result of a 2005 interview of Morgan Freeman. On CBS' "60 Minutes," the actor attacked the idea of Black History Month as "ridiculous."

"You're going to relegate my history to a month?" he said to Mike Wallace. "I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history."

Picking up on that thread, Tilghman examined how Black History Month is taught in most schools and found that the focus is usually limited to four figures: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass. Often black historical figures are given short shrift the rest of the year.

"It's like black people don't matter outside of February," said Tilghman, who finds the month is being used increasingly for commercial purposes, not educational ones.

But just because there is skepticism, even cynicism, about the observance being employed to sell merchandise, Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, said that's no reason to cancel it.

"This doesn't mean we should throw out the baby with the bath water," he said. "It doesn't mean Black History Month is a bad thing."

The observance actually began as Negro History Week in 1926, due largely to the efforts of Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves who later became a Harvard-educated scholar. Woodson chose the second week of February because it contains the birthdays of Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. It wasn't until 1976 that the week was expanded and renamed Black History Month.

Nancy Buirski, director and producer of "The Loving Story," said her movie isn't just a black story.

"It's an American story that could play any time of the year. We live in a blended world. Race is there all the time," she said. "But Black History Month is like a holiday. Race is such an important issue it's impossible to ghettoize it on television."

greg.braxton@latimes.com

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