The Waste of Talent in Hollywood
by Dr. Rosanne Welch
I’ve been watching some old made for television movies from back in the days when that didn’t sound so derogatory — early made for television movies were things like Playhouse 90 where the work of up and coming New York playwrights and other quality material was being beamed into American homes — it was only over the years when TV movies turned into ‘victimized chick of the week’ or ‘disease of the week’ type sagas.
So watching some of these early dramas has made me notice a few things… such as the quality of the writing, the way stories spoke UP to the intelligence of the viewer (in an era when fewer folks had college degrees) — and the waste of talent that takes place in Hollywood. I guess I thought it was a more modern event, this not giving actors of color a greater chance to use their gifts for our entertainment. In my childhood television viewing — From Baretta to Starsky and Hutch to The Streets of San Francisco — it did not escape me that the white guys (and they were always guys) got to be the cops and the people of color seemed always to be the crooks, pimps and prostitutes that the nice white cops were investigating.
I didn’t know why that was true when I was a kid but slowly, very slowly, this pattern moved — like moving that mountain Martin Luther King, Jr. was always talking about. As I grew up, moved across country and began to work in the business I watched all the Irish police captains become African American police captains. I was even a writer’s assistant on one of the shows where that first happened — 21 Jump Street. Sad to say it was not an act of political activism, but more an act of desperation. The actor playing the captain the first season got into trouble and the producers chose to kill off his character and replace him — but in what sounds like the set up to a bad joke — all the best Irish actors were already busy playing police captains on other programs. So the suggestion came — I never found out exactly which department made the suggestion but it was to find a good African American actor to play our new police captain.
That turned out to be Steven Williams, who I was told until then had always played a thug. I’ve since seen him as a thug in reruns of earlier shows so I know he wasn’t making a joke. But suddenly, during and after 21 Jump Street’s run — all the hippest new shows were casting African American men as their police captains — and in today’s tv landscape we have Captain Victoria Gates, an African American FEMALE police captain on Castle (played by Penny Johnson).
Other actors have railed against the stereotypes to varying degrees of success. One of my favorite success stories comes from C.C.H. Pounder, who I first encountered on The Shield. In interviews Pounder discusses all the victim roles she was being offered until once she asked the LA LAW producers to make her a judge — and they did (after researching whether there were any African American female judges in LA — which there were). She learned asking was helpful so when she was chatting with Clark Johnson, who had recently directed her in a film, and he said he’d love to work with her again soon but sadly the current project — which happened to be the pilot for The Shield — had no part in it for her — she asked to read it. Turned out the original pilot about a corrupt, bigoted cop had his antagonist be an upright, African American male cop on the squad. Pounder asked why the antagonist couldn’t be an African American female cop, as that would be the utmost annoying to such a bigot — the director passed the idea to the writer, Shawn Ryan, and voila! Pounder had talked her way into a fascinating three dimensional character that she ran with for several seasons.
Yet it turns out to have been ever thus — without that kind of proactive management — and luck — actors of color still play the majority if the ‘bad’ guys. Sure some actor/writers have made fun of this problem in their own films (such as Hollywood Shuffle, written/directed and starring Robert Townsend) and some have tried to prove actors of color should be doing Shakespeare as well. Heck, that idea goes as far back as the Orson Welles version of Macbeth done with an all African-American cast back headed by Jack Carter and Edna Thomas in 1936 and funded by the Depression era program the Works Project Administration. In adapting the play the then 20 year old Welles made the play’s setting a fictional Caribbean island (instead of Scotland), and switched the scary Scottish witchcraft into Haitian vodou.
That was in 1936 and yet it’s still a big deal when a show with a cast largely full of people of color is considered a big deal — a new idea! Really? Why does it take U.S. audiences so long to be willing to commercially support new talent? You know there’s a problem when you type “African-American representation in Hollywood” and the first hit is a Wikipedia entry with that title.
All this traces back to my viewing television films from the late 50s and early 60s and finding the work of Ivan Dixon in films like Black Monday from 1961. He performed alongside a heck of a cast: Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Robert Redford and Ed Asner — in a story about the first black student desegregating a formerly all white school post Brown v. Board of Ed — from a script written by Reginald Rose, who wrote 12 Angry Men. Wow. Of course, in my childhood, I wouldn’t have seen that film — I wouldn’t ‘meet’ Ivan Dixon until reruns of Hogan’s Heroes came about so I met him first as Sgt. Kinchloe, a respectable character but not one who was ever given much of his own storyline since the show revolved around the white military officer played by Bob Crane. What WAS cool about his character was that Kinchloe could translate missives from the French resistance fighters — I always wondered why that was a skill the writers gave his character since it was so tied together in my mind with the elegance of Jacqueline Kennedy.
I later had the pleasure of seeing Dixon in the filmed version of A Raisin in the Sun when I taught that book to students in a high school American Drama class in my first job post college. The 1959 film, starring Sidney Poitier, had come out before I was born so this was my first exposure to it — and I deeply enjoyed sharing that story and that cast with students who themselves had never been exposed to such talents. Happily, I learned from getting to work with Mr. Dixon’s daughter some years later in my life, that he moved out of acting and into directing, so he was able to enjoy being a creative — just one from behind the camera rather than in front.
What can we do as creators — and consumers — of filmed media ( whether it appears on television, on movie screens or on computer screens) to expand the opportunities for actors and viewers? We have to do that cliche thing — think outside of the box. Stop writing cliche characters — and stop paying money to see them on screens. My favorite story about that was in an episode I once wrote where the white actress was supposed to play a lawyer and the black one was set to be a maid. I commented around the writers table that I wish we didn’t have to be repeating that same trope in our work — and someone else amazingly agreed with me. We changed the roles for the actresses and — wham — we had a fresh new angle for the episode. That doesn’t make me any kind of hero — it just means I saw an opportunity for change and I suggested it — the folks who were above me on the credit role still had to say yes — and by doing so they had to think outside of the box as well — and then, of course, the audience had to watch the episode and some even wrote letters thanking us for the chance to see a black female lawyer in action. So it can be done — but it needs the support of both creators and consumers. How ‘bout we start now! Perhaps we can realize the dream Orson Welles had in mind nearly 80 years ago…
If you have any comments or ideas to share, let me know via the comments,
email at Mindfull@3rdpass.media or via Twitter @MindfullMedia and we’ll develop your ideas as we go.
— This Article was written by — Dr. Rosanne Welch
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