Black Exploitation Television. Barely Entertaining Television. Black Embarrassment Television.
Whatever you want to call it, BET’s been under fire these days. The protests about Hot Ghetto Mess grew so loud, that the news of the upcoming show and the petition against it got airtime on MSNBC, CNN, CBS, and the BBC. There was a pretty interesting article in the Washington Post about Jam Donaldson, the creator of the Hot Ghetto Mess website.
Donaldson herself is a polarizing figure, but she’s obviously given deep thought to her goals with Hot Ghetto Mess. In part, the Washington Post article reveals that the genesis for Hot Ghetto Mess, the emotions behind that slogan, “we got to do better,” came from interacting with poor people with “the victim mentality” during her work as a legal aid attorney. She gives an interesting quote from the end of the article: “Someone sent me an e-mail [and] said he loved the site and said he was from the KKK,” she says. “I don’t really care about that. Black people know what I’m saying is true. Everyone knows it’s true. We have to get beyond that. We’re stifling our growth as long as we’re obsessed with what white people think.” Besides, she adds: “We all need a voice to challenge ourselves. Sometimes you have to be shocking.”
That website IS quite shocking. Besides the photos we’ve all already seen – the hood prom photos, the ludicrous hair show styles, Britney Spears free-falling through her meltdown, there are some heartbreaking pictures in the Just Sad category, of children being posed with guns, bottles of alcohol and blunts, while their half-naked mothers strike their best King Magazine poses. The website also offers a Not Ghetto section as a counterpoint — however it’s worth noting that the section hasn’t been updated since December 2006.
In my view, saying Hot Ghetto Mess is going to help people to change their behavior is like saying that Rotten.com will prevent people from performing stupid stunts and hurting themselves. Or saying that watching Cops will help to keep people out of jail. Or Maximum Exposure helped to steer people clear of extreme sports. It’s a disingenuous theory. At worst, Hot Ghetto Mess serves to reinforce existing stereotypes. At best, it’s a confused, mixed message that isn’t going to effectively deliver any kind of message to its “intended audience.” (I’m still unclear on who exactly is supposed to learn from the website or the program).
Before the show made it to broadcast, the protests were flying around thick and furious. I got multiple e mails asking me why I hadn’t chimed in, asking me to sign the petitions made by many of the sites I admire and respect — big shout out to What About Our Daughters who flew the flag high for stopping the buffoonery. But here’s why I didn’t sign anything.
I rarely sign petitions, and if I do sign, it has to be something I feel strongly about, and am informed about. For example, the last petition I signed was to free the Jena 6. (Now that’s an issue worth reading about. Let’s hear more about THAT story, mainstream media).
I also held the impression that petitions didn’t actually change anything. But the Jena 6 had their sentences reduced, and Hot Ghetto Mess changed its name to the grammatically challenged We Got To Do Better as the drumbeats of protest grew louder. So maybe petitions CAN make some kind of change, when enough people pay attention. I definitely think the media attention played a part in the careful editing of the show. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before I jumped on the BET-go-to-hell bandwagon, I wanted to reserve my opinion until I actually saw the first episode. While I was mulling over what I had to say about Hot Ghetto Mess, it occurred to me that I haven’t actually WATCHED BET in months. Maybe even years. Probably since I graduated from college, because back in those days I’d be home all afternoon and could easily leave AJ and Free on as background buzz, just to catch the latest videos.
I grew up watching Video Soul and Teen Summit. Caribbean Rhythms was on our TV every weekend (I really, really miss that show), and my brothers definitely used to watch Comicview back in the day when it was actually worth watching. But as BET began to change — Miss Cita was a turning point, in my opinion. Uncut was another — I stopped watching it. Completely. So I decided, if I’m gonna diss Hot Ghetto Mess, I need to put it in context. Let me at least see what the kids are watching nowadays.
I came home from work this week and put on 106th and Park. And lo and behold, who should be on it but CharlieMurphy, plugging his new show. It was like a sign. Terrence and Rocsi were asking CharlieMurphy what the show was all about. He gave a very careful answer. “The show is based on the website Hot Ghetto Mess (I found it hilarious how he turned his mouth a little away from the mic as he said the name of the site. Terrence and a few background audience members even giggled a little). And uh, you know, everybody thought initially that what we was gonna be doing is just showing clips and making fun of people in the clips. But that’s not what we’re doing. What we’re doing is showing clips, and then there’s dialogue about what you just finished looking at. And they brought me on to host because I’ll do it in a funny way, as opposed to trying to beat somebody over the head with it. I’m not here to preach, or be a politician. Just hey – one brother helping another, you know what I’m sayin’?” Cue applause.
Charlie added that he sees it as a show that will help and entertain people, and when Rocsi surprises him with a personal question, “what can you personally do better,” he starts rambling about having patience, and that leads to an awkward chat about air travel drama. (perhaps interviews aren’t 106th and Park’s strong suit. And full disclosure — I’ve interviewed Charlie Murphy for my job before. He doesn’t give great interview. And please don’t call me a hater, I’ve had awesome interviews with several other comedians, including Bruce Bruce who was very friendly and charming, and just this week, the hilarious Judah Friedlander. I think Bob Saget was the best comedian I’ve interviewed so far).
Back to Rocsi, Terrence, and CharlieMurphy. What can we expect from the show, CharlieMurphy? “You can expect number one, to laugh. Because I’m there, so you gotta laugh. But, you’re gonna also learn something. The show is basically holding a mirror up to America, you know what I’m saying? It’s not just talking about black people, it’s talking about everybody. Everybody that fits within... [awkward Mr. Roboto hand gestures as way of explanation] you know, the parameters — is gonna be addressed. And it’s gonna be addressed by me, and it’s gonna be my humor, and we gonna have some fun, trust me. Yeah.” Cue applause. Oh, moments like that are why I need to learn how to create my own YouTube clips. “But we’re gonna learn something!” he adds again. “We’re gonna learn something, that’s the main thing!” Later he tells people to send in clips through BET.com. “If it fits the perameters, trust me, we gonna blast on ’em! We gonna blast on ’em! Don’t get blasted on by CharlieMurphy, because… we got to do better.” Alrighty then.
With a sinking feeling, I decided to watch the show last night.
CharlieMurphy comes strutting out onto a set straight out of Monsterpiece Theater and immediately fixes the camera with the crazy eye. The first video clip was for Reh Dogg’s Why Must I Cry, which any loyal Crunk & Disorderly or FourFour reader is well familiar with. I must admit, I cracked up laughing at the second clip, which was a terrible version of the national anthem. The third clip was one of those God-awful Mz. Peaches videos, which piss me off simply because there are SO many people and little kids participating in them. Parody or not, I’m just not a Mz. Peaches fan. Ugh.
Midway through there’s a segment break to lead to a series of embarrassing commercials. The screen reads “And now for a word from our sponsers.” Sponsers? We got to do better, indeed. Start by getting a proofreader and some decent writers for the segments.
The “Street Walking” segments were recycled and sad. One question — what does NAACP stand for? — floored almost everyone who was asked. One dude replies, “NWACP? NAACP? I never actually really put it out there like that.” They throw up some photographs of historic African Americans, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks… but there’s no context as to who they are. The photos come directly after a “Street Walking” segment where people admit they don’t know how many African Americans are on the Supreme Court. So here’s an opportunity to provide the answer and give a little edutainment, gone to waste. Another question — when did slavery end? — stumps the crowd. Way too many people start out guessing years that begin with “19.” Then, there’s a very jarring edit to Bid ‘Em In, a song performed by poet and playwright Oscar Brown and brilliantly animated by Neal Sopata. It’s easily the most stirring and interesting thing on the show so far. Then they cut to a commercial for Hell Date. SMH.
The show concluded with CharlieMurphy in a smoking jacket — again with the alarmingly intense Debo glare into the camera. Why you so mad, CharlieMurphy? He starts musing about ways in which he can better himself. “I should be watching a whole lot less TV and reading a whole lot more books,” he says, pounding on an antique-looking book. I half-expected them to cut to another controversial viral video with a mixed message — Read A Book by Bomani D’Mite Jones. But they’ll probably save that one for another week. CharlieMurphy pretends to read as the end credits roll, and he’s pretending to read a sex scene. Way to completely undercut the attempt at a positive message you gave at the end there, dude. Somewhere, Dave Chappelle is burying his head in his hands.
So what lessons were there to be learned from Hot Ghetto Mess — excuse me, We Got To Do Better? Here’s all I was able to glean.
1. It’s cool to laugh at people who aren’t as smart as you, or who aren’t from the same socio-economic background as you. It’s cool to be classist, and to stratify black society into “us” and “them.” Even if you’re from the “parameters” that Charlie Murphy spoke so eloquently about. It’s cool. Laugh till it hurts.
2. BET’s other programs such as Hell Date and the upcoming Remy Ma show are probably going to be more embarrassing and destructive than We Got to Do Better. Don’t get me started on Who’s Your Caddy. Methinks that BET sees its regular viewers as ignorant.
3. This show was supposed to entertain and enlighten, right? It did neither. It was a haphazard rehash of VH1’s Web Junk 2.0, except less funny by half.
So BET, here’s my two cents on how YOU can do better. Stop throwing stones inside of your glass house. Don’t shove trash down our throats during the day and try to criticize it when the night comes. Ideally, this channel could be a powerful platform for intelligent discourse, or it could at the very least provide a balance between education and entertainment, if it cut back on reinforcing negative stereotypes and made an effort at nourishing the minds of the public it’s simultaneously exploiting. We’re hungry for programs that spark the kind of thought and discussion our community needs to have, but this isn’t the way forward.
BET, if you want to escape from under the scrutiny of the public eye, think of the wide variety of black people who are looking to your channel for entertainment. Many of your viewers are people with education and intelligence and dignity. Cut back on the trashy videos, oversexed reality shows, and endless Jamie Foxx show repeats, go back to the programming table and try again.
So, bellas and fellas, did you watch the show last night? What did you think?