As we look at the challenges and opportunities that face black content creators of media, it is important to identify individuals and institutions that have played a pivotal role in not only shaping the media landscape as we know it today, but also those who stand poised to challenge the status quo moving forward. While some of the below case studies will focus on figures who have been widely praised for their contributions to diversity in mass media, others will focus on the how particular institutions have perhaps contributed to the barriers that plague minority content creators. Now while the below case studies are far from the only examples of significant contributors to the state of minority focused media, each helps reveal a different aspect of the intersectionality of race, ownership and representation in media.
Case Study 1: Black Entertainment Television
It is impossible to critique the role of African American media content creators within the greater American media landscape without spending time examining the growth and relevance of Black Entertainment Television (BET). Established in 1980 by former media lobbyist Robert Johnson, BET grew from a limited collection of preexisting African American centric sitcoms and shows to become the preeminent source of black content on television. Reaching over 90 million households both domestically and abroad, BET’s success places it in a unique position of not only operating as a media outlet but also as the most popular vehicle for framing the various aspects of the African American experience on television. It is because of the unique position that BET holds that it has found itself the subject of both praise and stringent criticism.
One key area of criticism for BET has been the nature and subsequent impact of it’s programming. A staple of any television network, programming on BET has shifted over the years to reflect the changing mission of BET as an enterprise. Established initially as a platform for showcasing African American content on a medium that was sorely lacking diversity, BET’s first programming fell into the categories of athletics, cinema, religion and later music. Through live telecasts of Historically Black college (HBCU) athletics, the rebroadcast of popular black films and the creation of critically acclaimed programs like Bobby Jones Gospel and Video Soul, BET’s earliest programming provided access to black centric television content that had never been seen before by the majority of American households.
It is with the growth of the commercial demands on BET that we see the focus of the network and it’s programming shift. In Beretta Smith- Shomade’s book Pimpin ain’t Easy: Sellin Black Entertainment Television, she highlights how as early as 1984, BET founder Robert Johnson began to shift the focus of BET from serving as a platform for black representation on television to making,” BET the predominant source for advertisers to reach black consumers.” Though seemingly a subtle adjustment in philosophy, Smith-Shomade argues that Johnson’s revised vision for the network resulted in BET viewing the African American audience as a commodity instead of a community in which BET had a vested social interest. As a result, while BET’s programing was initially praised for showcasing artists of different genres and revealing different aspects of the African American experience, over time its programming was broadcast with little to no consideration of it’s social merits. This theory was typified by the rise of sexually suggestive programs like BET UNCUT, and the steady decline of investigative programs like Teen Summit and BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley.
It is from the criticisms of BET’s programming that the larger challenges of the commodification of minority content or in this case, “blackness” emerges. As a brand BET looks to be the media reflection of the black community yet as a media outlet BET is forced to appeal to the largest advertising audience. This creates a situation where the African American experience can only be explored in a way that can be supported by popular sentiment. The fact that BET is still one of the few outlets to showcase African American centric content means that regardless of the depth, complexity or authenticity of the content it produces, it will maintain a great deal of influence.
Case study 2: Shelton “Spike” Lee
“I have been blessed with the opportunity to express the views of black people who otherwise do not have access to power and the media. I have to take advantage of that while I am still bankable” Spike Lee
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1957, Spike Lee came from an educated family where his mother was a school teacher and his father a musician. His grandmother (“Zimmie”) was a 1929 graduate of the historically black Spellman College in Atlanta. His grandmotherwas instrumental in numerous ways in Lee’s life, including, but not limited to, paying for young Shelton Lee to attend Morehouse College, and later helping to underwrite and produce several of his early films.
At a young age, his family moved from the Georgia to Brooklyn, New York. Lee is now considered to be one of the pre-eminent filmmakers of his generation, and his films often reflect Lee’s own interesting mix of Southern roots and Big City influences.
Educated at Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta College, both in Atlanta, Lee received his Master’s Degree in film from New York University’s Tisch’s School of Art. His master thesis’ film, “Joe’s Bed Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads,” won a student academy award, in 1983.
His first major market motion picture, “ She’s Gotta Have It”, was made with a modest budget of $175,0000 and grossed over $7,000,000.00 at the box office, catapulting Lee into prominence.
In the ensuing years, he has become a major film maker and producer, with over 35 films credited to his company “40 Acres and Mule”, a reference to the pledge made to freed slaves during Reconstruction that they would be given 40 acres and a mule as reparations for slavery.
Lee has also made a mark in the area of marketing and commercials, being crediting for helping to forever cement the desire for “Air Jordan” shoes among young consumers. Notable films include many biographies, including “Malcolm X”, and he is often credited with bringing a pure Afro-Centric approach to his films. Not one to shy away from political issues, Lee has weighed in on the gun-control debate, education disparity in public education and the lack of significant numbers of minorities in film making.
Lee does not hesitate to use his platform as a filmmaker to try to draw attention to disparities in the entertainment industry and in society at-large. His spotlight on the plight of blacks affected by Hurricane Katrina both at the time of the impact of the hurricane and then with a five year follow-up documentary, are poignant examples of Lee’s community activism and his use of film to give voice to the plight of these Americans. A colorful sports enthusiast as well, Lee is often as much a part of the Knicks basketball games as the players.
Lee values his ability to address wrongs when he sees them and, therefore, he has refused to sell his studio to more established entities, preferring instead to maintain his independence and keep his autonomy. He is often criticized for his outspoken comments, especially when draws attention to historical inaccuracies in films. An example of which was when Lee criticized Clint Eastwood’s failure to accurately portray the role played by Black Marines in his films depicting World War II events.
Lee’s path to the top was not easy and he continues to have to struggle to get funding for his films, even after the overall success that he has enjoyed. He often reflects that his first film was made with loans from family members and his own credit cards. The fact that it was a success helped to get the recognition needed to move to another level, but even today, funding for his films depends largely on his own resources and the financial resources of friends.
The lesson of Spike Lee is that while he has enjoyed some critical acclaim and box office success, he remains one of only a handful of black filmmakers to succeed in this industry. Lee’s choice to focus on black life is perhaps a clear demonstration that as a minority filmmaker, it remains difficult or impossible to cross-over into the mainstream. To succeed as well as survive, Lee has had to rely on an ethnocentric audience to support his film making. The challenge is whether this remains true in the Year 2013 and beyond.
Case Study 3: Tyler Perry
Is Tyler Perry a brilliant entrepreneur, filmmaker, writer, and producer or is he trading on stereotypical images of Blacks from the past which depict African Americans as ignorant buffoons, similar to the “Amos and Andy” characters of the Forties and Fifties? Filmmaker Spike Lee has expressly criticized Perry for his stereotypical typecasting of Blacks in his films. Yet, writer Jamilah Lemieux praises Perry for being a social commentator who lures audiences in with comedy to hear his various positions on religion, family and violence. Complicating any analysis of Perry on the issue of whether he is exploitative is Perry’s backstory of truly going from rags to riches. After all, how can critics complain from the ivory tower that he is exploiting blacks for riches when his personal story is so intertwined with Horatio Alger and thus has a fundamentally American rather than strictly African-American lyricism?
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1969, Perry describes his youth as one filled with both physical and sexual abuse. Overwhelmed at times by the circumstances in his immediate family and the trauma he suffered at the hands of his father, his only refuge in his early life was found in Church. His mother would take him several times a week to church and he credits his deep Christian beliefs as being his salvation. A high school dropout, Perry eventually earned his GED and began at the age of 16 his writing career. It was therapeutic for him at first, putting on paper what he could not voice in his home. These initial letters to himself became the backdrop for his first play.
Not an immediate hit and a financial disaster, his first theatrical outing was a flop. Produced by Perry, who used his life’s saving of $12,000, he quickly found himself living out of his car in Atlanta as he tried time and again to rewrite his first play and find his audience. He eventually worked with local churches to recruit choir members and actors for his play and found his first success. Building on an ever increasing urban audience, Perry poured his life experiences into numerous plays which provided him with a solid fan base.
When he decided to put one of his plays to film, he was fortunate to enter into collaboration with the production company Lion’s Gate. Perry financed half of the movie and the company provided the other half, but Perry retained all of his ownership rights and copyrights. The movie, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”, cost $ 5.5 million to produce and grossed over $50.6 million dollars domestically, enabling Perry to brand his product of religious comedy satire and the rest is history.
Perry has produced, directed and starred in numerous number one ranked movies. He has written and produced theatrical plays which on average are seen by over 35,000 people a showing. He is also a critically acclaimed author. He has several television shows currently in syndication and he has recently entered into a partnership with Oprah Winfrey and her “OWN” Network, producing the show the “Haves and the Have Not’s” among other projects.
Yet despite the overall success of the Perry brand, the stigma remains that he is capitalizing on the worse in the Black Community with his portrayal of Black Women as either weak or as the crash, trash talking, and gun toting “Madea” character. He further seems to base his work on portraying Black Men as unfaithful cheating husbands/boyfriends. His defenders however, say that this is a cursory examination of his work and that his real message is one of survival and faith. That you cannot show the redemption without showing the struggle and Perry is a master of the happy ending.
Case Study 4: Tom Joyner
Born November 23, 1949, Tom Joyner has become a respected voice of news, entertainment and philanthropy in the African American Community. Hosting the popular, “Tom Joyner Morning Show” heard by over a million viewers nationwide, Joyner successfully converted various disc jockey jobs into a media empire.
A graduate of HBCU Tuskegee Institute in, now Tuskegee University in 1978, in Tuskegee, Alabama, Tom Joyner originally wanted a career as a musician. After graduation, he and another famous Tuskegee graduate and now popular song writer/musician, Lionel Richie were in a band together. When the band did not immediately reach popularity, Joyner shifted his career path and accepted a series of jobs as a DJ, a skill set he had perfected while a college student. Working in various cities, Joyner eventually landed in Chicago, where he was offered a job. Almost simultaneously with the Chicago job offer he received a job offer in Dallas. Facing the dilemma of having job offers, in both Chicago and Dallas, Joyner a resourceful and forward thinker accepted both positions. Opting to fly between both cities daily to do both a morning show and an evening show, the public dubbed him the “Fly Jock” for his flying schedule and his association with Southwest Airlines. Joyner logged over a million air miles doing both shows daily, and his popularity soon skyrocketed. Centering his radio broadcasts on basic Rhythm and Blues music from the early 1960’s to the 1990’s, with a mix of contemporary sounds during the height of the “Rap Revolution”, Joyner quickly became known for his cutting edge comedy and commentary, which focused on news items, current events, and hot topics that directly affected the African American Community.
Since Joyner is perceived as a politically aware and concerned commentator on his broadcasts, it was inevitable that he would become one of the voices most often relied upon by Black Americans for daily news and views, as well as entertainment. Never shy about discussing controversial issues that affect the African American Community, he is credited with being one of the first to support the election of Barack Obama early in his presidential campaign, which gave the young Senator Obama a major boost in his first primary election bid. Joyner’s highly public commentaries on the tragic killing of Trayon Martin and his call for independent investigations into various police abuse cases, further cemented his position as a serious, trusted broadcast journalist, as well as, an entertainment mogul.
Joyner is the grandson of one of first black physician’s in America, Oscar “Doc” Joyner, who went from being a railroad porter to completing medical school in 1909. Tom Joyner continues a rich heritage of community minded activists and educated family members.
Given his family history and own social activism, it is no wonder that philanthropy has become a driving force behind much of his work. Joyner is an avid fund raiser for historically black colleges, giving away hundreds of scholarships to students each year, and making individual HBCU’s a pivotal part of his broadcasts each month. Joyner and his Foundation and supporters raise thousands of dollars for the Historically Black Colleges and Universities each month, while his radio broadcasts and public appearances continue to focus on the importance of maintaining black colleges to ensure that minorities (who often come from economically depressed environments) have a fair and equal opportunity to obtain a college education.
Tom Joyner’s life is an example of conversion. He converted a single radio disc jockey position from a traditional job into a national and international platform for discussion and proactive change in the black community. Each day, millions of listeners depend on him to broadcast accurate news and to highlight issues of importance in their community. He is an author of several books, has hosted his own television show and he continues to expand his reach with Internet and web programming. The true impact of Tom Joyner and his media empire is still evolving and he has become a very relevant and powerful influence in defining media’s role in America.
Case Study 5: Issa Rae
“People are tired of mainstream media’s limited and confined portrayal of people of color” Issa Rae
Director, writer, producer and actress, Issa Rae has quickly become one of the most prominent creators of popular digital content on the Internet. A graduate of Stanford University and the New York Film Academy, Issa Rae is trained in various film and theatre disciplines. The creator of several independent digital projects, Issa Rae rose to prominence in late 2011 with the creation of the critically acclaimed digital comedy series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. An independently produced, and funded project, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl follows the protagonist J (Played by Issa Rae) as she navigates daily interactions with friends and coworkers and the plethora of “socially awkward” situations that accompany said interactions. Debuting on Rae’s personal youtube channel on February 3, 2011, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl series has continued exclusively online for over two seasons and garnered over 15 million unique video views worldwide.
More than simply a one off example of well-executed creative digital content, the success Issa Rae’s work is significant in that it highlights the role that digital content can play in showcasing diverse cultural perspectives that are often overlooked by mainstream media narratives. A series that is centrally focused around a black female protagonist, the very premise of Awkward Black Girl stands in direct contrast to the majority of programming both on television and in film. While major African American characters are not a new occurrence in mainstream media productions, as Ed Guerrero explains in his book Framing Blackness, black characters often are positioned as supplementary devices that reveal the intricacies of the white lead character. Though many of the themes in Rae’s work can be described as universal, (Love, social anxiety, etc.) the fact that her work does not avoid the additional cultural realities of her character’s race, allows for a multifaceted presentation of the black experience that is often missing in traditional media objects.
Another key facet to Rae’s work is the manner in which it successfully surpasses the economic barriers that have traditionally influenced the production and direction of minority focused media. As highlighted in Stephanie Larson’s book Media and Minorities, many traditional media outlets avoid producing minority content due to the perception that the content will fail to perform financially with large audiences. Despite the fact that advances in digital production tools and the advent of the Internet have resulted in a decrease in production costs and an increase media quality, these factors alone do not negate the fact that traditional media outlets still shy away from minority focused media. So when asked about the overwhelming response that Awkward Black Girl received in crowdsourcing over $50 thousand dollars in funding for the second season through Kickstarter.com, Rae responded that:
This campaign has demonstrated to me that: 1) people are tired of mainstream media’s limited and confined portrayal of people of color; 2) they are very much willing to unite behind a project they believe in to change that limited portrayal; and 3) people ARE willing to support and watch web series as a legitimate form of entertainment. Change that limited portrayal; and 3) people ARE willing to support and watch web series as a legitimate form of entertainment.
Though the financial success of Issa Raye’s work may not be indicative of what all minority content creators can expect online, it provides a prime example for how content creators challenge longstanding barriers associated to production and finances.
It is in the wake of Awkward Black Girl’s success that Issa Rae has also highlighted opportunities that the digital network provides in relation to ownership of media content. Maintaining an independent model of content development, Issa Raye founded Issa Rae Productions in 2011. Responsible for the development of several successful web series, Issa Rae Productions is a platform for content and artists who would have potentially gone unseen. The fact that Issa Rae is not only the featured creative talent but also the owner of this platform is significant in that despite African Americans seeing marginally increased presence in media, media ownership remains rare. Again, while Issa Rae may not be the new standard in digital media in terms of ownership, she may prove to be pivotal in shifting the way a new generation challenges the existing media norms.
Case study 6: Amos and Andy
Media has often been used as a creative outlet for societal reflection. From the simplistic composure of the first black and white frames, to the complex cinematic stylings of television, radio and film, each form of media possesses the capacity for a vast array of cultural expressions, perspectives and criticisms. Yet within the American historical context, each major medium has struggled in presenting the multidimensional nature of minority communities. There is perhaps no greater reflection of this conflict than the repeated portrayal of African Americans as Sambo characters in American media. Though currently viewed as a vile and regressive characterization of African Americans, there was an extended period of time where the Sambo archetype defined the parameters for black expression in media. This time was typified by the controversial yet highly popular show Amos N’ Andy.
Debuting in 1928, Amos N’ Andy was a weekly “comedy” radio show which followed the exploits of two black protagonists, Amos Jones and Andy “Hogg” Brown. Created and performed by white voice actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, the program followed Amos and Andy as they attempted different schemes in their Harlem neighborhood. Pulling from a variety of minstrel show plots and characterizations, the Amos N’ Andy show would grow in popularity as it shifted from radio to film and eventually to television.
Now before one can constructively evaluate the Sambo’s place in Amos N’ Andy and its greater impact of the expression of black content through media, one must first consider Sambo’s origins and full set of traits. The Sambo image grew from several cultural sources and slowly redefined itself over time. According to author Joseph Boskin in his novel Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester, “the roots of the word ‘Sambo’ were both African and Hispanic.” In the African context, the word proved to be common among several West African tribes. African use of the word “Sambo” would vary between more positive definitions such as the name given to the second son born to a family, or one in power, to more negative labels like the shameful or disgraced. It is in the Hispanic Etymology of the word “Sambo” though that Boskin places particular importance. Boskin points out that in several Hispanic cultures the word “Sambo” is seemingly synonymous with the word “Zambo”. Not only is this term used as a racial designation referring to Africans and mulattos, it also possesses what is understood as a culturally comical quality. In Hispanic culture, the word “Zambo” is deemed humorous because it refers to both monkeys and knock-kneed individuals. The socially judgmental aspects of the word “Zambo” lead Boskin to assert that the English slave traders and later American slave owners were at least partly influenced by outside forces when developing the racial notions that would lead to the creation of the American Sambo Stereotype.
A key aspect that must be considered when evaluating the media significance of Sambo characterzations in the Amos N’ Andy show is its ability to establish lasting perceptions of African Americans with its audience. A staple of American media in various forms for over 40 years, Amos N’ Andy represented one of the only mainstream media productions where “black” characters were prominent. As arguably the most prevalent depiction of African Americans in media, Amos N’ Andy became a device for solidifying cultural perceptions. The fact that initial listeners of the radio version of the show did not know that the voices of the Amos and Andy characters were performed by white actors only enhanced the belief that the fictional characters were authentic representations of black culture. Utilizing what author William Barlow describes as “racial ventriloquicy” Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll’s used the auditory nature of radio to avoid the inherent criticism that accompanied traditional minstrel performances. The popularity of this approach would prove to be so successful that even once actual black actors moved into positions of prominence in radio, they found themselves shackled to the roles of Amos and Andy.
While radio was the primary medium for Amos and Andy over the years, their brief stint in film also provides an interesting insight to the role that racist thought shaped the framing of minority content. Based on the two main characters of the popular Amos ‘N’ Andy radio show, the movie Check and Double Check follows Amos and Andy as they attempt to get their cab company up and running in Newy york. Donning blackface, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll starred as Amos and Andy in the motion picture. Now while blackface was certainly not a new feature to American film in the 1930s, by moving the characters of Amos and Andy from radio to the big screen, the illusion of racial ventriloquicy was destroyed. Members of the American audience who had come to view Amos and Andy as authentic representations of black culture were confronted with all too familiar farce. For the first time in American film, the question arose of whether blackface could coexist with legitimate black cultural expression? In trying to address this question, both Gosden and Correll responded that, “there was a difference between hackneyed caricature and semi-realism.