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Groups Call for Changes in Portrayal of Blacks on TV

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Proclaiming that “enough is enough,” three local African American groups led by the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP on Friday launched an attack against television comedies that portray blacks in a buffoonish manner.

Billie J. Green, president of the NAACP chapter, and leaders from the Brotherhood Crusade and Mothers in Action targeted eight series that air on Fox and the fledgling WB and UPN networks, charging that they contain negative stereotypes that are an affront to African American professionals.

“I know comedy is comedy, but there’s a fine line when people are laughing with you and people are laughing at you,” Green said. “Right now, people are laughing at us. What’s on these shows is just horrible. Parents do not want their kids watching these shows. It is not a fair representation of black America. What we’re seeing is like ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ and Stepin Fetchit. In fact, ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ was a better show than what we’re seeing now.”

Unlike with “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” a show that was the target of protests by the NAACP and others until it left the air in the 1960s, the new action does not seek to get the shows canceled, only altered to include more positive images. All of the shows feature predominantly black casts and many have African American writers and producers on staff.

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The shows under fire are Fox’s “Martin,” WB’s “The Wayans Bros.” and “The Jamie Foxx Show,” and UPN’s “Homeboys in Outer Space,” “Goode Behavior,” “Sparks,” “In the House” and “Malcolm and Eddie.”

Executives at Fox, UPN and WB declined official comment. But some of the producers and stars said they were perplexed and angered by the attack, saying that no effort had been made to contact them to discuss the grievances.

Miguel A. Nunez Jr., one of the stars of “Sparks,” which is set at a black law firm, said: “If the NAACP had a problem with our show, why the heck didn’t they come to us? We could make those changes. Yes, we have some broad characters on the show, we agree about that. But we are lawyers, we’re not in a gang and we’re not committing crime.”

The coalition leaders said they plan to meet with executives at the three TV networks within the next few weeks to call for a “cleanup” of the shows, including more input from black writers and producers and the establishment of a monitoring system that would take a hands-on approach to the portrayals of African Americans.

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“We’re not asking for these shows to be taken off the air,” said Green. “We don’t want anyone to be put out of work. But Hollywood should be accountable and responsible for what they put on TV.”

In initiating the action, which has been planned for months and was approved by the board of directors, the NAACP chapter is taking a stance contrary to that of the national NAACP, which has honored “Martin” and its star, Martin Lawrence, at its Image Awards several times. The latest edition of the awards takes place tonight in Pasadena, and “Martin” is again nominated for best comedy series.

Green said: “My branch does not feel that ‘Martin’ should be nominated for an Image Award.”

Officials at the national NAACP could not be reached for comment.

The NAACP branch is also not seeking the participation of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been critical about the quality and quantity of black roles in Hollywood films and television programs. In 1994 he threatened the networks with viewer boycotts and demonstrations if they did not increase the visibility of African Americans and improve minority images.

But the boycotts never materialized. Some activists and community leaders have expressed disappointment that Jackson did not follow up on his call to action.

“We need someone who is going to be here, who is going to follow through,” Green said.

Jackson could not be reached for comment.

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The NAACP coalition also hits hard at the two young networks, WB and UPN, which have made black comedies a cornerstone of their programming as they seek to establish themselves by offering an alternative to the fare on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Green gave praise to some black-themed shows such as “Moesha,” “The Parent ‘Hood,” “Sister, Sister,” “Cosby” and “Living Single.” But she and others are offended by what they called the “groping and rolling and bucking of the eyes” on the criticized shows. She called “The Wayans Bros.” the worst offender.

“They speak incorrect English. There’s all this complaining about black kids speaking Ebonics--well, they’re getting it from television.”

Kenneth Collins, vice president of the Brotherhood Crusade, said: “We receive a significant number of complaints about the kinds of images on television. People are sick of the profane language. Parents are saying, ‘We’re sick of looking at these types of shows. They’re humiliating.’ ”

But some people connected with the shows noted that they have been honored by African American organizations.

Cast members of UPN’s “Sparks” were invited to be hosts of the upcoming Black History Festival Parade in Pasadena, with the organizers praising the series for having exemplary role models.

And UPN in November was honored with a “Positive Side Award” from the Los Angeles-based Recycling Black Dollars organization.

All of the comedies on WB and UPN receive low ratings overall, but many, such as “Moesha,” “The Jamie Foxx Show” and “The Wayans Bros.,” are popular with teenagers and children.

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Bentley Kyle Evans, executive producer of “The Jamie Foxx Show” and co-creator of the comedy with Foxx, said he was angered by the groups’ charges.

“I am deeply offended by their allegations,” Evans said. “We don’t feel that any of our characters are negative images. If they say he bucks and rolls his eyes, I would say, ‘So does Bill Cosby. So does Al Bundy. So does Kramer on ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

“The Jamie Foxx Show,” which is the most popular show on WB, features Foxx as an aspiring entertainer who takes a job at a hotel owned by his aunt and uncle.

Evans said, “ ‘The Cosby Show’ was a wonderful show, in which a black family was portrayed in a very positive manner. . . . But this is a different show. Every African American family on TV can’t be the Cosbys. There are different types of comedy and different types of culture. Making charges against us is really treating us unfairly.”

The show’s co-executive producer, Bennie R. Richburg Jr., said: “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but we’re proud of what we do. There is nothing wrong with what we’re doing.”

Shawn and Marlon Wayans, stars of “The Wayans Bros.,” recently defended their show to The Times, saying it contained positive images despite the emphasis on slapstick humor and black slang.

Nunez said, “If the groups and the producers just sit down and talk about this . . . we guarantee it will be better.”


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