TELEVISION : 'M.A.N.T.I.S.' Racial Flap Sign of a Double Standard?

Television's first live-action black super-hero tries lifting off tonight, weighted with controversy and ethnic baggage. Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No, it's trouble.

After airing on Fox last January as a TV movie, "M.A.N.T.I.S." now returns as a weekly series with new producers, facing heavy critical spritzing in some circles for changing its tone and exterminating four of the pilot's supporting characters.

Black characters.

Should Fox, obviously knowing the color of money, be faulted for appearing to lighten the complexion of "M.A.N.T.I.S." to attract more whites--a motivation it denies--even though no one protested when it earlier fattened up on black comedies as a strategy to reach more African Americans? Appealing to blacks through skin color is honorable business, yet employing the same strategy for whites is anti-black bigotry? Isn't this a double standard?

So far no one has publicly applied the terrible R-word to the new racial makeup of "M.A.N.T.I.S.," but no one really has to, for the racism charge is implicit in the criticism.

Fox insists that its "M.A.N.T.I.S." changes were made for creative reasons, a rationale "not acceptable to us," says Eddie Wong, head of the Rainbow Coalition's new watchdog group, the Commission on Fairness in the Media. There's "something more behind it," argues Gina Torres, a black actress whose character was eliminated.

More about all of that following an excerpt from this evening's newer, paler and somewhat better "M.A.N.T.I.S.":

Deep into the night, some armed hooligans mill on the docks, obviously up to no good. Suddenly, a figure in a bug costume appears, zapping one of them with a green ray. When another thug charges, the bug creature hurls him through a window. When a car tries to run him down, the bug effortlessly hurdles it. When another bad guy stalks him, the human bug pounces on him from the second story of a warehouse. When the rest of the gang tries to escape in a chopper, the bug pursues them with blinding speed.

Only to be gunned down.

Well, nobody's perfect.

Who or what is this clunky metallic insect thing lying motionless on the ground? "M.A.N.T.I.S." uses a flashback to explain that the downed super-hero is really brilliant biophysicist Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly) of fictional Port Columbia, a paraplegic African American who creates a futuristic power harness, or exoskeleton, whose headgear somehow enables him to walk again. In the process, he also discovers that the same technology--a Mechanically Augmented Neuro-Transmitter Interactive System (M.A.N.T.I.S.)--gives him temporary super-powers.

So he invents a do-gooder alter ego: the creepy, crawly, crime-fighting Mantis, who gives new meaning to entomology. With an arsenal that includes a flying submarine car, Mantis appears unstoppable.

Meanwhile, someone is infecting Port Columbia with a deadly virus, and Lt. Leora Maxwell (Galyn Gorg)--too beautiful not to be slated for future romance with Hawkins--is on the case for the cops. Hawkins and his partner, John Stonebrake (Roger Rees), join Maxwell, and later the two scientists acquire a resourceful go-fer in street-smart biker-courier Taylor Savidge (Christopher Gartin). Only Stonebrake and Savidge (plus Hawkins himself, of course) know that Hawkins is Mantis.

With a plot tiny enough to be extracted with tweezers and a champion who is un-super by super-hero standards, "M.A.N.T.I.S." has to get by pretty much on style. At the very least, though, the series opener is much less a laughable farce than the pilot (which showed blacks bonding and working cooperatively, but largely as ethnic stereotypes). And in Lumbly--as a rare black protagonist in a drama series--it has an actor with leading-man looks and the skill to impart both authority and sensitivity, even though he's a bit stony at times.

Atmospherically, moreover, the night-shrouded premiere projects intriguingly mysterious dark hues.

Yet not dark enough to satisfy everyone.

Of the new cast members joining Lumbly, Gorg is black, Rees and Gartin are white. If you're counting, that's a net loss of three blacks, a gain of two whites from pilot to series.

Nonetheless, new co-executive producer Bryce Zabel insists there's been no plan to "whiten the show up." But even if there were such an agenda, what would be the beef, given the silence of ethnic police when Fox earlier "blackened" a large chunk of its prime-time schedule--percentage-wise much greater than the nation's black population--for the purpose of carving out a specific ethnic niche in the ratings?

Black discontent over "M.A.N.T.I.S.," in fact, extends to other components of Fox's prime-time schedule, a fascinating irony given that Fox, more than any other network in the early '90s, has been committed to airing so-called black programs in prime time. Of course, raw numbers don't necessarily equate to quality. Yet that aside, at one point last season, nearly a third of Fox's series were black-oriented, even though African Americans comprise only 12.4% of the U.S. population, according to the Bureau of Census. Where were the ethnic police then?

And in the 1994-95 season, four of the network's 17 prime-time series--nearly 24%--either star or co-star black actors.

Although it added two hours of black-protagonist series for this season ("M.A.N.T.I.S" and the cop show "New York Undercover"), Fox was still pilloried by Jesse Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus for canceling two hours of low-rated black comedies ("Roc," "In Living Color," "The Sinbad Show" and "South Central") at the end of last season.

As if the mere act of canceling series with predominantly black casts automatically aligned a network with white-hooded night riders. And even though two of those series, "In Living Color" and "South Central," were themselves harshly criticized by some blacks on ethnic grounds.

Where will this absurdity end?

As for "M.A.N.T.I.S.," meanwhile, rarely has material so scrawny and trivial provoked such a loud collision of social and economic interests.

It turns out that Mantis is merely stunned by the bullet that fells him in the premiere's opening segment. He's been saved by his impenetrable exoskeleton. And speaking of absurdity, the hour's highest camp comes in the last scene, when Mantis begins to humbly walk away after taking bold action to save a life in the hospital.

"Wait!" an admiring nurse calls out. "Who are you?"

Turning slowly toward her in his funny suit, he replies dramatically, "Call me . . . Mantis."

But don't call him Praying Mantis. That could upset the religion lobby.

* "M.A.N.T.I.S." premieres at 8 tonight on Fox (Channels 11 and 6).

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