300 Protest at Studio Against TV Comedy Set in Slavery Era


The campaign against “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” a yet-to-debut TV comedy about a black butler in the Lincoln White House that several African American groups have attacked because of its references to slavery, escalated Wednesday with a protest in front of Paramount Studios and a call by a Los Angeles city councilman for the show not to air.

About 300 people, led by the Brotherhood Crusade and the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, marched in front of the Melrose Avenue studio where the series is filmed, brandishing signs with such comments as “Slavery is not funny.”

The protest--the second in a week--was characterized as “a mere warmup” by organizers for another demonstration planned at Paramount on Monday, when the show is scheduled to premiere. The series is to air on the UPN network, which Paramount co-owns.


“We will win this,” said Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade, as marchers blocked the entrance to the studio. The demonstration was peaceful, but Bakewell said next week’s protest would be more intense.

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas echoed the protesters’ objections in a motion passed unanimously Tuesday by the council. It directs the city Human Relations Commission and the Days of Dialogue on Race Relations Project to review the program and comment on its appropriateness.

Ridley-Thomas, who is African American and represents South Los Angeles, said after seeing an episode of the show that it could provoke racial discord within the city. He said it presented an “irresponsible” and “embarrassing” picture of a historical period that blacks still find painful.

“In a town that has the opportunity to distinguish itself in terms of diversity and enlightenment, a vulgar display that trivializes slavery is just irresponsible,” Ridley-Thomas said. “When things like this threaten good human relations, the council is obliged to address it.”

Responding to the opposition, UPN President Dean Valentine said the furor over the comedy had gotten out of hand.

“As far as this controversy escalating [is concerned], it’s merely an indication that political correctness has gone haywire when the most baseless kind of charges can be elevated against this show or any show or person and taken with this kind of seriousness,” he said. “It’s a scary harbinger for freedom of expression when a political body takes it upon itself to become involved in this issue.”

Added Valentine, “I would think that this guy has something better to do with his time than worrying about what UPN is putting on its fall schedule.”

“Desmond Pfeiffer” features Chi McBride in the title role as a black English nobleman who becomes a butler and advisor to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Pfeiffer is portrayed as the most intellectual and articulate person within the White House, while the white characters are depicted as buffoonish and sex-crazed.

Producers of the show have denied that it makes light of slavery. They say it is actually a satire of the Clinton administration. “There is nothing racially offensive about this show. There never was, and there never will be,” Valentine said.

Human Relations Commission officials said they plan to screen the pilot episode and hold a debate. A date for the screening has not been set.

It was unclear what, if anything, the council could do about the series, although individual members could condemn it, said Pete Echeverria, chief assistant city attorney.

Much of the furor is over an early version of the pilot, which had an opening scene set in England in which the bodies of two men were shown after they had been hanged. Their heads were covered, so it was impossible to tell whether they were black.

Although the scene was cut from the broadcast version before the formal protests were launched, critics still object to other references in the pilot, including one in which a white man orders Pfeiffer to get his legs off a kitchen table because “slavery isn’t over yet.”

UPN said Tuesday that it had decided to postpone the airing of the pilot episode and would telecast another installment Monday.