The color of money

Of course there are blacks on TV. You just have to pay to see them.

Published August 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As you've probably heard, the 1999 fall TV season promises to be a snowy white one. Under fire from the NAACP, and with just three weeks left until the launch of their new schedules, the Big Four networks are now scrambling to add black faces to some previously all-white ensemble casts. But that doesn't change the most pertinent stat: There are no new shows on ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox built around African-American stars. In the view of the networks, white audiences won't watch "black" shows in large enough numbers to justify the risk.

The cable channels, though, inhabit an entirely different programming universe, where whites are not only happy to watch black shows, they even pay for the privilege. Showtime is running "Linc's," a sitcom about black professionals in Washington, D.C.; later this month, it's debuting the made-for-TV movie "Strange Justice," about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill saga. Four kids' shows on Nickelodeon -- "Cousin Skeeter," "The Journey of Allan Strange," "All That" and "Kenan and Kel" -- have more African-American stars in them than the Big Four networks' prime-time lineups combined. HBO has "The Chris Rock Show" and has just premiered the original movie "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" -- a glossy biopic about the emotionally fragile '50s movie and nightclub star who became the first black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress (for the 1954 musical "Carmen Jones"), but who finally fell apart under the pressure of being a standard-bearer for blacks in a racist society. Halle Berry (who also produced the movie) is stunning in the title role, but what lingers isn't her full-throttle recreation of Dandridge's sizzle and sadness; it's the irony that, in the 45 years since Dandridge's nomination, there have been just five more black best actress nominees -- and no winners.

When you look at the relative abundance of African-American faces on cable, it becomes obvious that the broadcast networks' race problem isn't really a race problem at all but, rather, a class problem: Let them eat cable. The networks can't believe that there are enough disposable-income-laden black viewers out there to deliver big ratings for series about black people; already, most black sitcoms have been shunted off to downscale UPN and WB, where they exist in segregated programming blocks. High-quality shows with black lead characters are in danger of becoming TV luxury items, available only to viewers who can afford them.

"Strange Justice," a raw docudrama based on Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson's National Book Award finalist, almost didn't make it to TV at all; it was rejected by both Rupert Murdoch's Fox and Ted Turner's TNT before being given a home by Showtime, which has gained a reputation for running movies orphaned by their original networks or distributors (like Anjelica Huston's "Bastard Out of Carolina," also commissioned and rejected by TNT, and Adrian Lyne's banned "Lolita").

But what must have made Murdoch and Turner so nervous had nothing to do with race. "Strange Justice" tears the scab off one of the deepest wounds of George Bush's presidency, recreating a week in 1991 that polarized Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, men and women and blacks and whites, and set the stage for the nationally divisive O.J. Simpson trial and Clinton impeachment circus to come.

Screenwriter Jacob Epstein's scathing, gloves-off depiction of vicious partisan politics and Ernest Dickerson's pressure-cooker direction are as provocative and alive as Mayer and Abramson's book (subtitled "The Selling of Clarence Thomas") was dryly reportorial. The movie is undeniably pro-Anita Hill. But it manages to find some sympathy for Thomas, portraying him as a man who had no idea how much his privacy would be invaded when he was drafted by Bush to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall and sent to the front line of the right's war on Roe vs. Wade and affirmative action. Interweaving actual TV footage of Thomas's contentious confirmation hearings with depictions of the back-room intrigue by which the conservatives finally prevailed, "Strange Justice" takes dead aim at hypocrites and fools of every political and ideological stripe. "Bulworth" and "Wag the Dog" are lightweights compared to this.

It's easy to imagine Murdoch's and Turner's jaws dropping when they saw Dickerson and Epstein's surreal, highly stylized take on the confirmation hearings. For example, before Thomas (played by square-jawed Spike Lee regular Delroy Lindo) takes the Senate floor, we see him praying in a bathroom with his born-again wife, Virginia, and his conservative sponsor, Sen. John Danforth; then the three stride in slow motion down the hallway while "Onward Christian Soldiers" swells on the soundtrack. (Weird as this scene is, it's documented in the book -- Danforth played "Onward Christian Soldiers" on a boombox in the bathroom during their prayer circle.)

Later, during the hearings, Dickerson and Epstein transform Thomas and Hill into the martyrs their respective supporters believe them to be. Answering Hill's explicit accusations that he sexually harassed her while he was her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas sits before the Judiciary Committee bathed in a stark white spotlight that glints off his glasses and reduces the senators to faceless silhouettes. His arms resting on the table in front of him, shirtsleeves rolled up and palms facing upward, Thomas seems poised to receive a lethal injection. When Thomas finally loses his cool and condemns the proceedings as a "high-tech lynching," Dickerson has Lindo strip off his shirt and deliver the speech bare-chested, with his tie knotted around his neck like a noose.

And while we remember attorney Hill (Regina Taylor, from "I'll Fly Away") sitting calmly before the committee in her prim turquoise dress, her dignified demeanor never cracking even when reciting the skankier details of Thomas's alleged harassment, Dickerson has her standing up to toy with a can of soda, dropping her voice low to imitate Thomas asking, "Who put this pubic hair on my Coke?." Then she breaks into eerie cackles. Who's the witch in this witch hunt?

Yeah, "Strange Justice" is surreal. But that's the point -- the actual events were surreal. A president indebted to the far right nominates an anti-affirmative-action black to the Supreme Court, then sits back and watches liberals squirm; a creepy Washington spinmeister (Kenneth Duberstein, played in the movie by Mandy Patinkin) is employed to drive the nomination through, by whatever means necessary; Thomas's taste in porno movies -- Long Dong Silver -- is paraded before a national TV audience; esteemed male senators overheat their imaginations painting Hill in florid soap opera terms as a crazy woman scorned. The book's carefully unruffled prose made these events seem humdrum, even as you couldn't believe what you were reading. But in its sometimes outlandish, in-your-face way, the movie forces us to stop and say, "Wait a minute -- this is crazy!"

Except for their fanciful testimony scenes, Taylor and Lindo play it pretty straight as Hill and Thomas. Both give splendidly nuanced performances that suggest how pained both of these proud, self-made successes were to be airing their dirty laundry in public. The movie makes it clear that both Hill and Thomas were people with beliefs who were used by people with agendas.

If "Strange Justice" fails to convey the depth of the rift the hearings opened up across the country between men and women and, particularly, between black women and white women, it still vividly reminds us how ugly politics can be, especially when civilians get caught in the crossfire. Take the movie's footage (please) of Republican committee members Alan Simpson and Orrin Hatch exercising their rancid misogyny, while Democrats Joseph Biden and Edward Kennedy remain too ignobly worried about saving their own political asses to defend Hill. If your blood boiled watching the hearings in 1991, it'll boil all over again watching "Strange Justice."

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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George W. Bush Hbo Paul Shirley Rupert Murdoch Supreme Court