Two weeks ago, a seemingly typical television show farewell marked the
end of the line for a distinctly atypical character, Eriq La Salle's Dr.
Peter Benton on NBC's ER, and the turnout showed how colorblind America
has become. What lessons liberal Hollywood chooses to learn, however,
remains to be seen.
Over 30 million people tuned in to ER the other week to see the final
episode for La Salle, topping the previous original episode's audience
by nearly 8 million viewers. This is about on a par with viewership
spikes for goodbyes for other cast members, which is a testament to the
lure of a strong, multidimensional character, regardless of color of
LaSalle's Dr. Benton was a remarkably complex personality: bright,
ambitious, fiercely stubborn, and extremely talented. He also was
black, but that was hardly his defining trait. Though not completely
irrelevant, the color of his skin was mostly treated as
inconsequential. As a result, viewers of all colors were exposed to one
of the most fully developed portrayals on primetime television in recent
Why is it that Dr. Benton is such a rarity, a black man who defies
conventional stereotypes? For starters, black characters in recent
years have mainly appeared in black comedy blocks on the minor networks,
UPN and the WB. Save for a few notable exceptions, black cast members
portray personalities imbued with nothing more than longstanding
stereotypes, ranging from simply lazy to patently offensive.
People who collectively make up black America are smart, stupid,
hardworking, lazy, compassionate, callous, optimistic, pessimistic,
ethical, and immoral. In short, they are as diverse and individually
unique as members of any race. Yet the product pushed by Hollywood
mostly treads, and re-treads, familiar ground, where blacks are
gang-bangers, drug dealers, basketball players, or nosy loudmouths who
guffaw rather than laugh.
There is nothing inherently wrong, though, with TV shows or movies
with characters chock full of contemptible traits. The trouble lies in
the disturbing overreliance on such stereotypes. But given how leftist
the folks in Hollywood are, it's not surprising that we have the current
Liberalism is premised upon the notion of collective identity, that
membership in a particular race is a defining trait. It is through this
twisted logic that racial preferences were created, granting bonus
points to applicants for no other reason than color of skin. Actual
discrimination or hardship isn't even a factor. Under the rubric of
racial preferences, the son of Michael Jordan is at a "disadvantage"
compared to a white kid from the trailer park.
Leftist logic is also how you get such asinine statements as Bill
Clinton being our "first black President" because he plays saxophone,
eats greasy food, and likes to sleep around. Sure, some blacks may
share those attributes, but so do a lot of whites. In other words, race
determines nothing about a person except color of skin.
Despite protestations from liberals that conservative execs call the
shots in Hollywood, consider that almost every major Hollywood executive
is a Democratic contributor. But the likely root of the problem is that
writers and casting directors-again, almost all leftists-rigidly adhere
racial stereotypes in creating and filling roles. Very few black actors
are given roles that could easily be for their white counterparts, but
when it does happen, white audiences will turn out for high-quality
entertainment. Two recent examples in film are Morgan Freeman in
Shawshank Redemption and Will Smith in Enemy of the State. Both movies
were critical and commercial successes, illustrating the willingness of
white audiences to watch talented actors of all colors.
Even though Hollywood has yet to achieve colorblindness, there are
specific characters worthy of praise. On primetime television, two
David E. Kelley dramas feature black actors of the highest caliber: Chi
McBride as Principal Steven Harper on Fox's Boston Public and Steve
Harris' Eugene Young on ABC's The Practice. Both men are the moral
centers of their shows, and each exudes a powerful confidence which
cloaks intermittent self-doubting. Are they compelling because of their
darker skin? No, and that's precisely why they're terrific examples for
Hollywood to emulate.
The loss of Dr. Benton from the television landscape is significant,
but one that will hopefully be overcome by Hollywood looking beyond the
color of one's skin and measuring actors by what really matters:
talent. And as has been the case with quality films and TV shows
starring black actors, Hollywood will be rewarded with a big audience
and fat profits.