News Column

On cultural diversity, films and TV getting it right, finally

July 2, 2013

YellowBrix

2013: Year of the Cinematic Cultural Shift.

As Kevin Hart would say, let me explain. For years, we've been chasing the Huxtables, hoping diversity could make a comeback on screens big and small. We've had Spike Lee moments. We've had Tyler Perry, Shonda Rhimes and Kansas City's own Mara Brock Akil. We've seen amazing TV shows, movies and casts that reflected the diverse world we live in. But they've been too few and too far between.

Still, they all helped ignite the spark that is catching TV and film on fire in the best possible way. Just look at the July 1 lineup:

The sixth season of Akil's "The Game" premiered at 9 p.m. on BET. Following that was a new Akil production, "Being Mary Jane," a movie about a TV news anchor (Gabrielle Union) that will eventually be a series. And comedian Kevin Hart's latest concert movie, "Let Me Explain," opened in theaters at 10 p.m.

All of this on the heels of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanding by 276 members, with a record number of younger and diverse invitees, including Paula Patton, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Lopez, Danny Trejo and Kimberly Elise. It's a welcome change after the Los Angeles Times revealed last year that Oscar voters were nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male.

For so long, Hollywood has restricted people of color. We've been the sidekick, the thug, the comedic break, the token. No more. This isn't just a BET thing. Color is spreading to all channels: We have "House of Lies," "The Haves and the Have Nots," "Luther," "Grey's Anatomy." There's "Scandal," the first network drama with an African-American female lead in almost 40 years. And because of its success, we're seeing "Being Mary Jane."

This fall: a reboot of the detective series "Ironside" starring Blair Underwood, the "Vampire Diaries" spinoff "The Originals," Michael Ealy's futuristic cop drama "Almost Human" and more.

The box office reign of last summer's "Think Like a Man" and "Jumping the Broom" helped greenlight the sequel to "The Best Man," a 1999 rom-com about young, black professionals dealing with life and love post-college. Here's a sign of how groundbreaking that film was: The cast appeared at Sunday's BET Awards, and Nicki Minaj took a moment to give them a heartfelt thanks before her acceptance speech. "The Best Man Holiday" will hit theaters in November.

Also on the way (besides another "Madea"): the Sundance Festival darling "Fruitvale Station," "Twelve Years a Slave" (which is getting Oscar buzz), "The Butler" and "Black Nativity."

A combination of social media, critical acclaim, box office success and ratings has gotten us here.

Think about it. We saw what "Scandal" did with ratings and social media. We saw the tremendous box office success of "42." We saw "Temptation," "Peeples" and "The Call."

"When you look at these success stories, the one thing that is the same is that they all attract multicultural audiences," says film critic Shawn Edwards, an expert on black movies. "These are unique stories that happen to be about the black experience, but at the core, if the storytelling is fantastic then everyone can connect.

"You can get on a bus and no matter who is sitting in front of or behind you, no matter how old they are or what color they are, you can start up a conversation about 'Scandal.' "

That's the value in diverse storytelling. When you dare to create characters with depth and push beyond stereotypes, you transcend generations and color lines. But we have to keep pushing.

"Hopefully with the changes that are occurring, the industry will see and understand the importance of looking beyond the stereotypes and the conventional," says Robin Harrison of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau, "to exploring the diverse differences and commonalities of all people no matter what race, ethnicity, gender or nationality."

It's bigger than black and white. Where are the Asians, the Latinos, the American Indians, the biracial stories? The gay stories? The blended families? Admit it or not, television and film help us relate. "The Cosby Show" helped change the way America viewed blacks. So yes, it's important Hollywood reflect the world we live in. But what can we do besides support through box office and ratings?

Tweet. A slice of the resurgence of black film and TV is due to their social media presence. Let's face it. Social media has gotten so big that there's a Nielsen rating for it coming this fall.

"Blacks on Twitter and Facebook have created a powerful voice for themselves on social media," Shawn says. "Just look at the BET Awards on Sunday. There were almost 10 million tweets. They understand the power of their voice and their viewership in a way they hadn't before."

We all have that power. Together, we can turn off stereotypes and tune in to the human experience.

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Jenee Osterheldt is a columnist at The Kansas City Star. This column was edited for use after its original publication date. To reach her, call (816) 234-4380 or send an e-mail to josterheldt@kcstar.com. She is on Facebook at facebook.com/jeneeinkc and on Twitter at twitter.com/jeneeinkc.

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

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