Lessons Liberal Hollywood Needs to Learn

Posted: Dec 31, 2001 12:00 AM
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 skin. 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 years. 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 mess. 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.