Lamar Giles
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Diversify vs. Diversity, Part I: TV

The Preamble

This will not be a popular post. Neither will the three that follow. I plan to write similar posts on films, books, and finally, proposed solutions to what I see as problems.

Those who read this and choose to negatively criticize (as opposed to constructively criticizing) my statements will do at least two things to make their case. They will attack my motives (he wants more people to come to his blog so he decides to be all controversial), or my logic (he’s stating unproven facts, here’s 5 points refuting his claims).

As a bonus, when I get to my third post on books, because it’s the publishing industry I choose to work in, the points of attack will be my personal bitterness, work ethic, and skill. In other words, my motivation for writing such things has to do with the fact that I’ve yet to get a book deal. The real reason that I don’t have a book deal is because I don’t work hard enough, and even if I did work hard, I just don’t have the skills to turn a profit for a publisher so instead of facing THOSE facts, I’ve fallen back on the old Blame-The-Man crutch.

And it’s fine if you think that. It’s a free country, which is why I can say what I’m about to say…

If there’s been an effort to step up diversity (and for the sake of this post I’m defining diversity as the fair representation and humane depiction of America’s many non-white racial groups) across the landscape of television, films, and books, it is a weak and superficial effort at best. Here’s how I see it…

The Diversify Approach

There are several ways to define diversify, and you can easily look them up for yourself. Here, I’ll focus on one definition that I feel is most appropriate:

(v) to add different types of manufactured products, crops, etc., especially to a business.

I find this fitting for a couple of reasons. One, it refers specifically to a business, and entertainment (tv, films, books, music and even sports) is most certainly that. Two, I like the “manufactured products” part. My interest in those two words is going to be more allegorical than etymological . My argument is the corporate approach to the representation of racial groups across various media has been a Diversify Approach as opposed to a Diversity Approach. As defined here, by me, those approaches are very different, and that’s a problem.

Here’s what I admit flat out: many racial groups ARE represented in a number of televisions show. You can easily turn on your television during Primetime and see a number races/ethnicities present and accounted for. I am not denying that.

At this point, someone with an opposing view might say, “Hey, what’s your problem? If you are admitting that races/ethnicities are accounted for, what more do you want? Isn’t that good enough?”

No. It’s not good enough. If you had a child who brought home a report card full of Fs, but then worked hard and made gradual improvements to pull those Fs up to Cs, you recognize that it’s a start, but Cs still shouldn’t be good enough. Cs mean you’re doing just enough to stay in the middle of the road, not failing, but not excelling either. In 2011 I say with all the conviction that I can muster that it is not good enough, not on the report card and certainly not on our TV screens.

That’s where the problem with the Diversify Approach comes in. It’s not about excelling, it’s about being good enough. It’s about adding a product to a business for no other reason than to hedge bets and cover bases. In the realm of entertainment, criticism of diversity issues have been loud and consistent. So, to quiet critics you can count on most new shows being cast with several characters of different races in the mix. But, based on character arcs when compared with their White counterparts, it’s not unreasonable to see the Diversified Roles as the “manufactured product” mentioned above, something to add to the businesses portfolio, but no necessarily the main line of business or even a very high priority.

The Diversity Approach

As mentioned above, I’m looking at Diversity as the fair representation and humane depiction of America’s many non-white racial groups across the landscape of television, films, and books. To be clear, I understand that this is an abstract aspiration. What is fair? Certainly not life itself, so how can I expect a money machine like the entertainment industry to shoot for such a lofty ideal?

Frankly, I don’t. It would be nice if we could ever define fair in quantifiable terms, then institute fairness into as many areas as possible. I’m not foolish, though. So, I’ll shoot for awareness. I’ll make my points, give my examples, and hope that if I, and others like me, continue to bring this up then more and more industry gatekeepers will become aware (or stop claiming false unawareness) and greenlight more projects that showcase faces, cultures, and lifestyles that represent the many faces of America and not just the faces that have been most dominant.

With that in mind, I present the Diversity Approach. This is the approach that is used when various characters of differing race exist as (rough) EQUALS within a shared fictional universe. Let me restate, this is the fair and humane part of my Diversity Approach definition. The non-white characters don’t exist to provide comic relief, add street cred, advance negative stereotypes, or be stepping stones that help the white characters reach their all important goals. This is not a new idea. Spike Lee was vocal about this when he coined the term “Super Duper Magical Negro” and author Steven Barnes writes often about the de-humanization of black males in films. (For the record, I agree with both of their observations, but I’m choosing to write in terms of general non-white representation because this blog post is too condensed to get into micro-specifics.)

I hope I’ve done an acceptable job in setting up the framework in which my next few posts on this subject will exist. Now, I’ll give some examples of both approaches in practice.

The Portfolio

Disclaimer: I have not seen every TV show in the world. Therefore, the shows I mention below should not be considered as any kind of scientific sample. I KNOW they don’t represent the whole of television. However, they are shows that I’m familiar with, therefore I can observe and comment based on first-hand impressions.

Grey’s Anatomy* (ABC)

Obviously, the show’s namesake is the Meredith Gray character, who is a white female. The show is an ensemble (meaning that every character has their own story arc and can be the focus of any given episode), but I would not expect any character to ever become MORE important, or even totally equal to, Meredith. I can’t say I’ve followed the show extensively since the first few seasons (my wife is a fan and I watched with her, she has since released me from that obligation) so maybe that’s an incorrect assumption. Even if it is, that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve always considered this show to be one of the most positive examples of diversity on television. A number of races are represented, and they are written as human beings (meaning they all have real goals, and realistic emotional and sexual relationships) instead of caricatures. Within my framework, this show is a shining example of the Diversity Approach.

*It’s important to note that the show’s creator and executive producer (for us folks in the real world, that means ‘boss’) is Shonda Rimes, an African-American female. I’ll speak more about her when I write my Solutions post.

Undercovers* (NBC)

Married couple Steven and Samantha Bloom run a catering company while assisting the CIA on covert operations. This was super producer JJ Abrams attempt at reversing the formula we’ve grown so accustomed to as Americans (God bless him). Here, two non white characters were the leads while white characters existed in support roles. Strictly speaking, this fell into the Diversify Approach because the White characters were really caricatures (or cliches, really). Grumpy Boss, Goofy Sidekick, and so on…

However, the series should be applauded as an effort to showcase uncharacteristic faces in dramatic roles that we RARELY see in America. It was cancelled after airing only 11 episodes, and rightfully so since it was dull beyond belief.

*Here’s the problem with the cancellation of Undercovers…it is my belief that the assumption will be that the show didn’t catch on because of the Non-White actors as leads. Not that the show had the SAME FATE AS MOST SHOWS. Most television shows DO NOT MAKE IT, even good ones. And, in the case of Undercovers, it just wasn’t good. It wouldn’t have been good if the leads were White. Sadly, losing the show is a blow to Diversity efforts. Because it will be marked in the Non-White Leads Don’t Work column instead of Non-White Actors Can’t Get Cast In The Good Roles column.

Glee (Fox)

When I saw the premier of Glee I couldn’t help but smile. From episode 1 I saw what this show was supposed to be, a showcase for the outcasts. If nothing else, this show would do what so many others fail at, or don’t even try. It would be a true representation of Diversity. Race, Sexuality, Social Status all depicted as varying and acceptable because America is varied, and those variances should be accepted. And, for the most part, I think it’s tried to live up to those expectations.

Except when it comes to African-Americans…

Confession, I’ve probably missed the last 4 to 5 episodes of Glee. So, please correct me if what I’m about to say is wrong, or if the evidence I present has changed.

Exhibit A: The lone African-American Male of the Glee Club (you might remember him as the Other Dancing Guy) is conspicuously absent at the start of season 2. Maybe he left by choice…I don’t know. But I immediately noticed that the Black Guy was gone. I don’t know if they even explained the character’s absence. It was like he never existed.

Exhibit B: At the time of my last viewing, EVERY MEMBER OF THE CLUB had had a significant relationship arc. They’d dated, found love, gotten their heart broken, pined for someone who didn’t notice them, etc. That is, every member except Mercedes (the African-American female with an Aretha Franklin voice). I’ve seen this character have 2 concerns during the life of the show…getting a solo (fair, it is a show about singing and the girl can sing) and having the cafeteria bring back tater tots (WTF?). This translates into caricature, unflattering stereotypes about overweight people, and pretty much a dehumanization of a single character on a show that’s supposed to be about acceptance and self-expression.

So, I have to say that, for the most part, Glee falls under the Diversity approach, but with one glaring Diversify example that I sincerely hope they correct.

The Vampire Diaries (CW)*

I’ve watched this show for a few reasons. The first being that it’s the fledgling network’s most watched show…I like to stay up on trends. The second being I love twisty stories of the supernatural, and when it comes to the writing on this show, they knock it out of the park. The third, it’s set in Virginia (though it’s really shot in Georgia) and it’s kind of neat to see what Hollywood does with my home state (mostly, they get it wrong…but whatever). That being said, I hate myself for liking those aspects of this show because when it comes to Diversity grading, this show deserves an ‘F’…and I mean a huge gasoline soaked ‘F’ drawn in the dirt so large that when you strike a match and set it on fire, it’s visible from space. But, in light of the framework, I’ll just say it subscribes to the Diversify Approach.

Let me explain. First, the protagonist is the lovelorn Elena, stuck between 2 sexy vampires. All three are White (note: someone already pointed out that Nina Dobrev, the lead actress is of Bulgarian descent. True. So let me expound on what I mean by White…she looks White. If that’s not good enough, the US Census defines the White check box as being of European, Middle Eastern, or North African descent. Bulgaria is in Europe, moving on) . This is perfectly fine. I NEVER said any show SHOULD have Non White leads, it would just be cool if more did. Where the show goes heavy into the Diversify Approach is the depiction of All Non White characters. I believe there is only one Non White regular, the Bonnie character played by actress Kat Graham. A couple of things about this character…strictly speaking, Spike Lee might say she falls into the Super Duper Magical Negro category because she’s an all-powerful witch on the series. I’m willing to give her a pass on that part because almost everyone on the show has a supernatural ability. HOWEVER, her motivations (such as a WILLINGNESS TO DIE so the Elena character lives, doesn’t make a lot of sense, which sort of puts her back in the SDMN category). So, I’ll concede and call draw on her. However, EVERY TIME I’ve seen an African-American male with a speaking role or any kind of interaction with the main cast on the show, he’s DIED HORRIBLY. EVERY. TIME. The same can be said about the lone Asian Female I recall from the show’s 2 season run.

Counterpoint: It’s a show about murderous supernatural creatures. A lot of people die.

Counter-Counterpoint: This could be excused if the perpetual victims had representation on the survivorss side of things. As it stands, when you see someone from another race pop up on this show, don’t count on them becoming a new regular.

*As a whole, the CW is terrible when it comes to diversity in their 8-10 EST primetime schedule. If you take away America’s Next Top Model, which we shouldn’t count because it’s not a scripted show, I’m willing to bet that Non-White characters/actors are outnumbered by their White counterparts by margins as high as 5-1 (if not higher). HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE IN 2011? Particularly with a network that is targeted towards the young?

To Be Continued…

There’s something to start a discussion. Think about what I’ve written, and gauge your own reaction. Have you ever noticed any of this? If you have, did it bother you? Do you think I’m off base? Please respond. I’d love to hear different views on the matter.

When I broach this subject again, I plan to talk about the film industry. There are some very telling things there, too.

Until then, later gang. And Happy Mother’s Day to all who meet the criteria.


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Indie Spotlight: COVENANT

Back again, folks. I’ve been super busy with promotion for my eBooks and new writing, but I realized I’ve neglected the blog for too long. So, in my constant effort to find a sustainable angle that lets me get info out to you all in a timely manner, I’ve decided to feature some of the great books I stumble upon as I go deeper into the Indie Publishing Rabbit Hole.

First up, COVENANT by Brandon Massey. Available in the following formats: Paperback | Kindle | Nook

DISCLAIMER: If you know me, then you realize Brandon’s work isn’t something I just discovered. I’m a long-time fan, and he’s a friend. He is also an Indie Author, so COVENANT does fit the criteria here.

DESCRIPTION: On a golden summer morning, fifteen-year-old Anthony Thorne is on a fishing boat with his father, rods cast into the lake, when the crack of a rifle shatters the silence. His father slumps forward, blood leaking from his chest. Horrified, Anthony spins in the direction of the gunfire, and sees a shadowy figure race away from the shore and vanish in the cover of the trees–a vision that will haunt him for years to come . . .

Anthony pulls his dad into his arms, but he is beyond help. He dies in Anthony’s embrace, Anthony’s scream of anguish echoing across the still waters.

Fifteen years later, a happily married Marine veteran and author of a bestselling series of crime novels, Anthony has achieved a measure of success. But the past still haunts him-—in spite of his eyewitness testimony, his father’s murder was declared a hunting accident, and no one was ever brought to justice.

On the anniversary of his father’s death, a mysterious message arrives from an unknown sender that promises to lead Anthony to the truth. But is Anthony’s helper the angel he’d been waiting for–or a devil in disguise?

Determined to find answers, Anthony and his wife soon find themselves hunted by a team of assassins dispatched by a powerful organization with frightening technological resources. The killers pursuing them are as fanatical in their beliefs as they are well-equipped–loyal followers of a charismatic leader who might be the most dangerous man in America . . .

My Take: Massey cranks up the thrills with a fast paced combination of chases, gunplay, and mega conspiracy that is sure to please fans of the Harlan Coben style novel. Thorne is a natural action hero who I’d like to see more of in the future. I don’t know if there are plans to make him a series character, but I’d certainly enjoy another outing with Thorne.

If you like thrillers and reasonable prices, do yourself a favor and check out Covenant.

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Is a perfect Ten good enough for Hollywood?

I just finished From Cape Town with Love by Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, the third book in their incredible Tennyson Hardwick series, and my review at the end of this post can also be found on the book’s Amazon page where it’s currently enjoying a 5-star rating (fyi~ that means its really good, y’all, so buy it). But, there’s something else I want to discuss here. Particularly, another Amazon reviewer’s mysticism over Actor Blair Underwood’s involvement with the novel.

I’ve been a huge fan of all three principles involved in this book for years (incidentally, Underwood is a local celebrity where I grew up…he’s from Petersburg, VA, neighbor and sports rival to my own home town of Hopewell, VA), so I’ve made a point to follow the history and development of this series. I’ll give a brief recap of Tennyson’s evolution (this is strictly as I understand it, if I get any part of this wrong, someone please feel free to correct me), then discuss why such a team-up is important.

From what I’ve pieced together, Underwood, Due, and Barnes all played a hand in creating the current version of Tennyson Hardwick, meaning everyone had input, but when it came to actually putting pen to paper, Due and Barnes did the heavy lifting (though Underwood was never out of the loop). The first novel in the series, Casanegra, debuted in 2007, with the second, In the Night of the Heat, coming a year later.

Tennyson (or “Ten”…a couple of reasons for this nickname which I won’t get into here) is a former male “escort”, sometime actor, and all-time trouble magnet. He lives in L. A. navigating the Hollywood landscape that we all love to gossip about while caring for his elderly father, and avoiding a black belt in martial arts though he’s more than skilled enough to acquire one. The first novel has him investigating the murder of a female rapper/former lover, in the second it’s the death of an NFL player who’d been accused of killing his wife, and the third has him involved in a high-profile kidnapping case. Weighty stuff for an oft-unemployed black actor, right?

But, each book is amazingly well-written, with layering that makes the odd mix of skills and events described above not only plausible, but tragic. Tennyson goes on an almost yearly tour of Hell, not much different than a Jack Bauer, or a Buffy Summers, or a Bruce Wayne. I make these pop culture references for a specific reason. I’m sure that someone reading my brief description of Tennyson Hardwick above might’ve thought, “Wow, how far-fetched is that?”

More so than a super agent who’s pulled a gun on the president, a teenaged girl with super-strength and collection of wooden stakes, or a billionaire who dresses up like a bat and fights the Joker?

Okay, there’s a lot of wild characters in pop culture, what’s your point, Lamar?

My point is this: it’s been no secret from the beginning of the series that Underwood, Due, and Barnes have had visions of Tennyson on the big screen (maybe the small screen…some screen, somewhere). Underwood IS Tennyson, his public face and publicist. As an accomplished black actor he brings visibility to the series that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Unlike books that garner studio interest before even being released, the extremely strong concept of the Tennyson Hardwick series HAS to go on the campaign trail. There have to be correlations drawn, like those word problems on the SAT:

IF Blair Underwood has been successful in TV and Film, AND Blair Underwood is Tennyson Hardwick, THEN Tennyson Hardwick *MIGHT be successful in TV and Film.

*I use ‘might’ because I’d love to see Ten on the big screen. The problem is when it comes to media images–the characters you see in movies, TV, commercials, and in magazines–we still live in a world that is highly exclusionary of People of Color. This is nothing new. Steven Barnes, one of Tennyson’s creators, comments on this very issue often. And, if anyone takes the time to notice (and most people don’t want to), you don’t really have to dig that deep to see it for yourself. In recent films, at that.

So, Mr. Reviewer who was put off by Blair Underwood’s involvement, please understand that it’s necessary.  It’s an attempt to get whoever makes the decisions in movie land to see the absurdity of how things are done. In a place where government agents can save the world in a mere 24 hours on 8 separate occasions, a girl can kill vampires and still make it to class on time, and a rich guy can fly a custom made Bat-plane off his property with no one noticing, a handsome black man who solves crimes SHOULD NOT be the most unrealistic pitch of the day.

And now, my review of From Cape Town with Love:

Hardwick. Tennyson Hardwick…the under worked actor turned bodyguard turned P.I. steps into the world of international intrigue in this third installment of the fan favorite series. And he does not disappoint. When the adopted South African daughter of Oscar-winning actress Sofia Maitlin is kidnapped on Tennyson’s watch, he’ll raze the earth to bring the child home. But, there is more going on than meets the eye. To say much more would spoil some wonderful surprises, but I will posit that there is something here to suit all tastes. Wonderful martial arts and gun play, romance, sex, fast cars, beautiful women, and more fun twists and turns than a water slide. Do yourself a favor, accompany Tennyson on his latest mission…just be sure to keep you head down, and do as he says because no one does this better than him. (5 stars)

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Order your paperback today!!

I’m having a bout of insomnia for reasons unknown this morning. So, with no one to talk to at 5:26 AM EST, I turned to that 24-hour depot of wonders known as the internet. One of the top stories over at CNN.Com involves the banning of ethnic studies courses in Arizona schools, highlighted by a lively debate between Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne, and famed sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. And let me tell you, the expressions on their faces let me know right away that this was going to be a fun time…

In a nutshell, Arizona’s governor has just signed a bill banning courses that “promote resentment” of other racial groups. Per CNN’s report, “The new law forbids elementary or secondary schools to teach classes that are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” and advocate “the overthrow of the United States government” or “resentment toward a race or class of people.”

Obviously, any course that advocates “the overthrow of the United States government” should be banned, since we, you know, live in the United States. However, I gotta tell you, I’m skeptical that such a course ever really existed. I don’t live in Arizona, and I never attended an Arizona school, but I do find it hard to believe that any class promoting a government coup would have required 2 years of advocacy on the part of Mr. Horne to get it stopped. This sounds more like a tagline…that single sentence on movie posters that makes the feature sound super exciting (even if it’s Furry Vengeance).  In other words it’s the line that makes something sound better (or in this case, worse) than it really is.

Then there’s that part about “resentment towards a race or class of people”. Sure, if you’re taking a surface view, there shouldn’t be resentment towards a whole race or class of people. Harboring such feelings–using generalizations to judge individuals–is, essentially, profiling. And it’s wrong. But, I don’t think that’s the real issue here since Arizona just passed legislation that will likely fuel resentment towards a very specific race/class within its own state borders.

I think Mr. Horne’s comments to Anderson Cooper and Professor Dyson are a bit more telling. In several instances he mentioned that the Mexican-American studies program taught (Mexican-American) students that they were oppressed, which is wrong. Since America is the land of opportunity, they shouldn’t be taught that they are an oppressed people because, gosh-darnit, it’s just not true. This from the prominent politician who happens to be running for Attorney General.

Here’s the question I have to pose: Why is it people who most often claim that there’s no oppression/racism/discrimination are the ones least likely to have been affected by such social ills?

I don’t know a thing about Tom Horne other than what I’ve seen in the news and read on his campaign website, but what I can say with certainty is this: he’s not Mexican-American. Nor is he a school-age child/teenager. Which tells me that, despite being Arizona’s superintendent of instruction, he’s far-removed from what it’s like to be a minority youth in modern day America.

When I attended High School, there were no “Ethnic Studies” options. We took classes called Social Studies and History, and in both I remember thinking, “Wow, with the exception of the obligatory chapters on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman, doesn’t seem like people who look like me had much to do with American History or Society.” It would’ve been cool to see a curriculum that tried to shine a little light on the accomplishments of those less touted, since the majority of public education traditionally skews a certain way. And, if such an option had been available, then systematically banned for fear of anarchy, any resentment I had wouldn’t be squashed, but amplified.

Is America one of the greatest countries in the world? Absolutely. Are there opportunities here that don’t exist in anywhere else? Certainly are. Is there an ugly history of discrimination and racism here? Sure, it was only 2 generations ago when my grandfather wasn’t allowed in certain restaurants. Does tailoring school curriculum to focus on ‘safe’ topics make things better for everyone? That’s what Mr. Horne would have you to believe. But, does he really not understand that taking the option away only makes people seek it more? When you’re told to ignore the man behind the curtain, the curtain becomes your whole world.

Congratulations, Mr. Horne. You’ve successfully abated resentment towards a particular class or race of people, at least in the short term. For now, those who have been incorrectly labeled as oppressed can focus their resentment on you and your state government colleagues. And, if that feared government coup begins to spark, the rest of us will have fair warning because the opening battle will likely be at your doorstep.

And I’m sure you’ll be on CNN saying, “Told ya so…”

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