In the new film Dancing in September, black TV executive George Washington tells the woman he loves, sitcom writer Tommy Crawford, "One day I just may be the first black president of a major network."
The start-up network he works at, WPX, is trying to gain a niche with minority audiences (not unlike real-life newcomer UPN). While the film explores the lovers' relationship, it also dissects the hopes and problems inherent in creating authentic black programming in an industry where ethnic stereotypes frequently shore up the bottom line.
The title of the film, which opens this weekend's Reel/Real Black: Denver Pan African Film Festival 2000, is the term used when a black-themed television show gets picked for the fall lineup. A television veteran himself, writer-director Reggie Rock Bythewood says he was motivated to portray the inner workings of the TV industry as truthfully as possible. He also wanted to explore a more universal theme: How to balance "the career you love with the woman or man you love. It's hard when you're working eighty hours a week."
Bythewood wrote the screenplay more than four years ago, but was unhappy with it and filed it away. When he picked it up again last year, his timing was right: The NAACP was loudly criticizing the television industry for its lack of black faces, and the networks eventually agreed to work harder to hire minority writers and producers. In January, CBS launched City of Angels, a drama set in a mostly black Los Angeles hospital. Though created by venerable TV producer Steven Bochco (L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues), the show is mired in the bottom half of the national ratings.
Retooling the script to feature a boycott from a civil-rights group, Bythewood figured his story would not be well-served by Hollywood studios and took it down the independent route. "The reality is, it's a lot easier to get bullshit made," he says. "Writers, we're all diverse. We all have different agendas. If your agenda is strictly to get paid, then the choices you make won't be to challenge the system. It will be to go along." But he knows that sometimes writers who challenge the system "get beat down" when their work languishes on their shelves, unproduced.
Bythewood financed September using some of his own money (earned rewriting mainstream projects, he says). Then his wife, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (whose film Love & Basketball opened last week) chipped in, and so did black television writers. Reuben Cannon, who produced Maya Angelou's Down on the Delta and Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, which Bythewood wrote, helped raise the rest of the money. "The movie would not have been made if not for that solidarity," Bythewood says.
The New York native got his start writing plays and founding a theater company called the Tribe that played up and down Manhattan, from Harlem to Greenwich Village. He never intended to write for television, but then he heard about a fellowship offered by Disney. He applied, was accepted and wound up in Hollywood. Eventually he went on to writing assignments with A Different World and the cop drama New York Undercover. He left the latter after three seasons, when the show's Puerto Rican lead, played by Michael DeLerenzo, was replaced by three white actors to make the show more mainstream.
"We watch TV to be entertained, but TV has real power," says Bythewood. "If it didn't, advertisers wouldn't spend millions of dollars to say Coke is the real thing, or Pepsi is the choice of a new generation." He points out, though, that networks insist TV has no power when it comes to portraying violence or failing to show images of diversity. "We have to recognize the hypocrisy and demand balance in TV."
It's difficult enough producing a quality black television show, let alone financing a feature film about one -- and don't even talk about getting that film somewhere audiences can see it. It's a subject Ashara Ekundayo can tell you all about. Two years ago, the executive director of the Pan African Arts Society staged a Denver film festival called Through My Sister's Eyes that focused on women. Though many of the films had been around for a long time, audiences told her they had never seen them. That gave her the idea of trying to organize a festival featuring work by filmmakers of African descent. There was a wealth of black titles being missed by the audience that most needed to see them.
"If you get to see yourself twenty feet across, subconsciously you'll emulate that," says Ekundayo. "If we never see ourselves twenty feet across, who are we trying to be?"
The answer: You make the opportunity.
Ekundayo traveled to the Urban World Film Festival in New York City and the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles to search for films. She called distributors, sifted through catalogues, accepted unsolicited entries. From one hundred films, Ekundayo and Hadi invited friends to view the entries and whittled the list down to some thirty films that will start screening on Thursday.