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BLACKS IN THE MEDIA: WHAT NEXT?

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Times Staff Writer

They began the day in their seats, listening to a young Yale professor tell them how they have been institutionally excluded, both as subjects and as participants, from 20th-Century American mass entertainment. They ended the day on their feet, applauding an 88-year-old actress who told them they had nothing to fear from their enemy, that they should “meet it, greet it and defeat it.”

In between, they heard from bankers, actors, producers, directors, studio and television executives and a lone exhibitor--all black, all successful, all anxious to help their colleagues find the key to black success in white-controlled Hollywood.

The topic at Saturday’s daylong seminar at the American Film Institute was “Contemporary Black Perspectives in American Media,” and more than 100 blacks--representing every phase of film and television production--had signed up, with great expectations.

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The problem, they were told over and over, is that there is no key. No code to be broken. No single piece of advice that would kick open the door. Hollywood is racist, all right, but more to the point, it is monetarist. Ultimately, it is not the color of skin that dictates creative decisions, it’s the color of money.

The reality, according to Saturday’s various industry-wise panelists, is that white Hollywood has no idea why certain blacks or black themes work commercially, and that because selecting new talent and new shows is largely a matter of intuition, fewer non-whites are given a chance. When they are, it is almost always through comedy.

“Whites are uncomfortable with minority points of view,” said Ronald Taylor, a vice president for dramatic development at Warner Bros. “They are more comfortable when you approach the subjects with humor.”

Saturday’s seminar, organized by San Diego State University film and telecommunications professor Carroll Parrott Blue, covered everything from the financing of motion picture and television product to alternative markets, and though every discussion was laced with reminders of the inherent racism in the industry, the tone was decidedly upbeat and optimistic.

As heartening as the successes of Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy are to NBC-TV and Paramount Pictures, they are even more heartening to other blacks. They have cleared the hurdles and disproved theories that white America won’t pay for non-white dramatic entertainment.

Perhaps even more encouraging, at least to the independents, is the current success of Spike Lee’s black feature “She’s Gotta Have It.” The movie cost $175,000 to make and has grossed nearly $10 million.

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The theme word at Saturday’s conference was “networking.” It sounds like an ‘80s term for black activism, but in the context of film and television, it implies more. As 88-year-old actress Frances Williams said, it is incumbent on those who succeed to attempt to make it easier for others to follow.

“Every time you’re in a situation, when you leave it, it must be better for the next person,” said Williams, who was forced to study drama in Russia in the 1920s because she was refused admission to drama schools in America.

The problem for many blacks in power is that they are bound by the same laws of product and profit as white executives. The seminar’s most heated discussion was over the inability of the independents to place their films and documentaries on the cable-access Black Entertainment Television (BET).

Robert Johnson, who founded BET, defended the station’s entertainment, sports and music-oriented format by saying its limited audience (BET is available to only 12.5 million homes) precludes the cost of original programming.

Angry film makers in the audience shouted that even in cases where their costs were covered by outside sponsors, they had been turned down by BET. Johnson did not answer those issues directly, but left the impression that BET cannot afford to air black issues programs for an audience that is essentially tuning in for entertainment.

Many of the panelists suggested that the time has passed for blacks to concentrate on being assimilated by white Hollywood. In an industry where film stock is manufactured for the best exposure of white skin, color blindness is a remote ideal.

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The audience was told that through networking, they need to create their own distribution system.

“We have to control the images,” said Robert Townsend, a stand-up comic and actor who just wrote and directed the movie “Hollywood Shuffle.” “To control the images, we have to control the product.”

The alternative markets--the video and cable outlets that minorities eyed hopefully a few years ago--have become adjuncts of white Hollywood, the panelists said. Programmers for cable and pay-television entities tap the same suppliers as the networks and the studios.

“It is hard to penetrate that cartel,” said BET’s Robert Johnson. “We have to get our own distribution system.”

The history of blacks in films is no better than that of blacks making films. As Yale’s James Snead said in his keynote speech, blacks have either been systematically excluded--or included for their value as symbols--since the medium was born.

From the overt racism of “Birth of a Nation” through the black exploitation films of the ‘60s to today’s slick rock videos, Snead said Hollywood has viewed blacks as outsiders--sometimes useful, more often expendable.

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Blacks now working in film face some of the same stereotyping. One person in the audience, a writer for television series, said he had to begin paying attention to sports because his white colleagues routinely used basketball and football as conversation starters with him.

Still, the major problem for blacks is trying to create material for media that are programmed for a white majority. When he was trying to get a project about Grambling College football coach Eddie Robinson off the ground, former NBC-TV executive Hamilton Cloud said he had to frame it as a story about the first white student at a black college.

“Eddie Robinson is an American hero,” Cloud said. “You would think you could get that (on the air), especially with Harry Belafonte, who we had then (to play Robinson).”

Cloud said the network would have never made the movie about Robinson, so the creative team reset the story with the white student as the focus, with life on a black campus being revealed through his eyes. “Grambling’s White Tiger” it was called.

It was still the story of Eddie Robinson. It just didn’t seem like it.

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