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Barack Obama's success in politics may have more impact than simply the historical footnote of "First Black President." Observing his rise from political hopeful to legitimate candidate to a real possibility for Commander-in-Chief has caused the media to focus on African-American culture more intently this summer than ever before. Two major entries are CNN's Black in America documentaries, which continue to air in repeats since their July debut, TV One's ongoing series, Black Men Revealed and its four-part series Murder in Black and White .

Beginning October 5, 2008, TV One will take a look at black history and try to bring some present day resolution. Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp's documentary series, Murder in Black and White, will investigate civil rights murders from the 1940s and 1950s. In conjunction with FBI investigations, it hopes to bring closure to the surviving family members.

"On February 27th of 2007, the FBI announced a new cold case initiative in conjunction with the U.S. Justice Department," said Beauchamp. "At that time, they were actually sifting through cases, reviewing cases that they feel strongly about bringing on a federal level. I guess it was about 120 cases that were presented to the FBI that they are currently reviewing in hopes of bringing these cases back in the court of law. I brought up this idea of having this TV show that could actually help them in their quest for justice." The FBI informed which cases would be the first subjects in Beauchamp's series. One case was the death of Willie Edwards, whom the Ku Klux Klan forced to jump off a bridge to his death. The judge dismissed the case, suggesting that forcing a man to jump 50 feet does not necessarily lead to death.

"They shared a list, a compiled list of cases that they were currently working on, and they gave me the first five cases that they felt were first priority because of the time of these murders, because the perpetrators are well on in age right now and possibly they're going to pass away soon. So there's a huge surge of not just interest. It's a justice-seeking atmosphere that has been developed within the Justice Department and FBI that is going after these old cold cases, reviewing them, and hope to bring prosecution and closure for the families." Reopening old cases is tough work. Interviewing suspects and re-enacting gruesome crimes weighs on the filmmaker. Healing decades of pain will take more than one series of telefilms.

"This is an extension of what I feel is going to be God's work," said Beauchamp. "I know that we won't be able to eliminate racism. I know that we probably won't be able to generate a lot of closure for the family members because this is a pain that's a transgenerational pain that we don't truly understand as a people. I think this is a start of that process of reconciliation. Before we have reconciliation, we have to have justice, and justice comes in different forms. Of course it's easier to throw these people in jail, and they die off, and you forget about them. You forget about the victims at that time as well. Most importantly for me is to make the names of these victims known and marvel in the sense that in years to come generations will know their story. That gives asense of closure to the families as well."

CNN's two-part documentary features Soledad O'Brien exploring the state of middle class black men and women today. O'Brien's work began a year and a half ago.

"Before Barack Obama's candidacy had any traction, we decided that we would in fact start reporting a documentary on black people in this country," said O'Brien. "It seemed that the time was right for a number of reasons. One of those reasons was the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. That led you to ask, 'Well, where are we now? How far have we come since that day where the dream potentially could have died?' From that standpoint alone was sort of where I came in."

After 18 months of following families and interviewing representative figures, Black in America's timing proved to be impeccable. "I think it turns out that the time has been right because the conversation in this country about race has taken off," O'Brien continued. "We are having conversations daily about people of color, black people in this country. So [Obama's candidacy] has certainly been good for us and fortunate for us. But what made those conditions right for those conversations also made the conditions right for us, two years ago, thinking about doing this documentary."

Black Men Revealed began its second season this summer, with new hosts, sports radio personalities Ryan and Doug Stewart. The show aims to let African-American males present their side of the story in issues where society dismissively gives them the blame. Joining the show in the year of Obama's candidacy, Ryan Stewart sees the impact in the example Obama is setting.

"Segregation still exists," said Stewart. "Racism still exists but Barack Obama being the Democratic presidential candidate has opened up a lot of doors and it's changed a lot of thought processes. I go around in Atlanta and I talk to schools three or four times a month, middle school, kids from nine to 14 years old. I thank God for the position that Barack is in right now because it's allowing me, when I tell y'all, 'Y'all can be whatever you want to be as a child,' you really can achieve it. There's still a lot that needs to be changed. There are still some perceptions that aren't true that are still out there, but definitely Barack has opened up the door for a lot of change."

Just in discussing her project with her crew, O'Brien discovered many small stories that added up to a complete picture of African-Americans' world today. She shared their stories, "Our I.T. guy, Kelvin, says, 'You know, I run I.T. for all CNN, but when I leave here after a late-night project, I cannot get a cab. Do you know how humiliating it is for me to turn to my subordinate and ask him to go flag a cab for me because I cannot get one?' The woman next to him says, 'And make sure you do the story of when I drop my kid off at school in New York City where I pay $40,000 a year to send that kid to private school, everyone assumes I'm the nanny. It's not possible I could be the mother of the child.' She said, 'The first ten times it happens, I suck it up, but I'm sick of that. I'm sick of everybody assuming that that can't be me.'

Some of the issues discussed on Black Men Revealed include the belief that black men spread AIDS to black women, stereotypes about black fathers and child support, and what exactly black men have inherited from their Roots.

"The show is called Black Men Revealed," said Stewart. "We're letting the world into the black man's mind. We had several different black men from all genres of everything. I'm talking doctors, lawyers, pastors of mega-churches, several comedians, educated folks. We did a show with Pipkin talking about street life. So there were several different views and several different aspects that were talked about throughout the course of the show."

CNN's documentary also deals with major issues like workplace differences between races, educational differences from white students and HIV/AIDS within the black community. For O'Brien, it is the subtle stories of her coworkers that speak to the big differences that most viewers may not recognize.

"We have conversations [in the documentary] that people do not have," she said. "Some black people have them, but have not been had in a mainstream way, and they're important conversations because these are conversations that relate to America's shared history, somewhat sometimes ugly history, black and white, that dates back to slavery. A lot of people don't want to talk about it."

Educating the public is a noble goal, however singling out African-Americans could cause problems of its own. It could skew viewpoints in the opposite direction, or simply seem patronizing to a broad culture's issues.

"I don't think just by virtue of the fact that you're black and middle class, you deserve to be suddenly the star of a documentary," O'Brien clarified. "But there are interesting issues that involve black people in this country, that actually involve the middle class very heavily, and those stories never get told."

Stewart felt there is enough negative buzz out there that it would take more than a few shows to undo it. "We think that black men take a bad rap a lot," said Stewart. "There's a negative stigma when it comes to black men not wanting to work, black men not being educated. It's like every time you open newspaper or you're watching the evening news, it's a knock on black men. The panel we had assembled for that [Roots: What We Inherited] show were educated men. We had a comedian, a doctor and it just talked about how in our upbringing, my brother and I as well as some of the other panelists, we don't see or live up to the kind of stigmas that are portrayed in the media sometimes. That was a good show for us to kind of tell the truth and show a different side of what a lot of people really don't see or think or understand about black men."

These shows are also aimed at all audiences, so they are not just preaching to the choir. "We want everybody to watch it and we are preaching to every choir," said O'Brien. "I think good journalism is about telling stories that are compelling about human beings and that you don't necessarily have to completely identify with that person to understand good journalism, good reporting. Obviously you look at the stories of Hurricane Katrina and your heart broke for people there, even if you've never been to New Orleans. The stories of the tsunami, people we were interviewing, a lot of them didn't speak English. You could not identify with them necessarily, but the stories were amazing. So good stories will attract, I hope, everybody."

MTV has taken a proactive step towards reforming stereotypes of young black culture. Their reality show, From G's to Gents has hip hop etiquette author Fonzworth Bentley teaching men social etiquette. Executive Producer Jamie Foxx saw this as a way to reach younger culture.

"It's not just enough to be that role model in a bubbled world," said Foxx. "You have to really go out there and let people experience you. When you get a chance to do a show like this, to actually interact with these folks and explain to them that you don't have to lose everything about where you come from because that's not what we're trying to do, but there are certain things you have to do in order to adapt, in order to make that money, in order to make a great life for yourself."

Foxx sees MTV as the pioneer in media diversity. "I think things are looking a little more diverse," he said. "Don't you think? I think that comes from what MTV did. MTV was the main reason that we are so diverse because MTV opened up the doors to hip-hop. I will never forget being in my crib in Sherman Oaks. There were some white kids and as I was sitting there, I hear N.W.A. blaring and L.L. Cool J blaring form the other household. Once MTV opened their doors up to hip-hop and opened up to the different cultures, things started to happen."

Even the G's to Gents crew thought about the significance of Obama's campaign on their show. Host Bentley named the Democratic candidate as his ultimate gent. "If you don't see the show, if you didn't get it, if all else fails, do whatever Obama does," said Bentley.

For ESPN, Spike Lee has directed a documentary on Kobe Bryant called Game Day With Kobe. Of course, we could not resist asking a key African-American filmmaker and outspoken political commentator what he thought an Obama election would do for society.

"He'll take the oath January 20th," Lee predicted. "When that happens, it will change everything. It will change the whole dynamic. I think that is going to be one of the most historic moments in American history, world history and you'll have to measure time by before Obama and after Obama. It's an exciting time to be alive now and I think that with him coming into this position is going to affect art, sports, everything. Everything is going to be affected by this seismic change of the universe."

O'Brien does not see quite so drastic a change coming right away. "I don't think everything changes on January 20th, no matter who is elected President of the United States," she said.

"Nor can a single show or series capture the entire issue. "The issue of colorism in the black community is not, oh, a two-minute story," said O'Brien. "It is a complicated piece. Frankly, when I started, I thought, 'Wow, four hours is a long time for a documentary.' I now think, 'I wish I'd pushed for ten.' I wish I pushed for ten because there are things you don't have time to do. There are so many stories we could do."

Black in America
airs on CNN. Black Men Revealed airs Sundays at 10 and Murder in Black and White airs beginning October 5 at 10, both on TV One. From G's to Gents airs Tuesdays at 10 on MTV. ESPN's Game Day With Kobe on a date TBA in 2009

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 91 - September 2018
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