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Color Decoding: Black Men on Television

‘Survivor’ and ‘Big Brother’ allowed unguarded portrayals of modern black men

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What a difference a season makes. Before this past summer, the biggest question regarding race on TV was whether CBS’ low-rated hospital drama City of Angels was failing because Americans didn’t want to watch a primarily black cast or because it was just an erratic drama. The icy stoicism that paralyzes the performance of Angels‘ Blair Underwood is merely the serious version of what Gregory Hines does as Will’s boss on Will & Grace and what Steve Harvey does as a schoolteacher on The Steve Harvey Show. Hines and Harvey play up the jiving coolness of their authority-figure characters to emphasize the novelty of black men in positions of power on television. Bill Cosby, at the height of his popularity on The Cosby Show, often seemed withdrawn and grumpy, as if he too often experienced adulation from many of his white fans as a form of condescension — which, in many cases, it probably was.

But this summer, with the pervasive prime-time appearances of two nonactors — Gervase Peterson on Survivor and William Collins, a.k.a. ”Will Mega” on Big Brother — we witnessed black men whose complexities and conflicted behavior would never be permitted on a conventional drama or sitcom. At a time when no scripted show, for example, would ever allow a black character to be depicted as lazy (or ”shiftless,” in more traditional racist nomenclature), Gervase’s fellow survivors felt free to castigate him for not doing enough work in the most bitterly frank terms.

The G-man told The Early Show host Bryant Gumbel that he’d ”planned to do as little work as possible, be friends with everybody, coast through, and win.” Gervase cultivated as much of a laid-back persona as one can while subsisting on rice, as well as weathering the seething anger and lush green envy of one’s fellow castaways. By contrast, William Collins, confined to the Motel 6 From Hell with Julie Chen as its chattering chambermaid, made it clear he was one brother the Big producers were not going to manipulate before he was done doing some manipulating of his own. His very first day in the BB house, Collins voiced his most pressing, media-savvy concern: ”Me bein’ long-winded, how am I gonna get some airtime?”

Surrounded by roommates intent on inoffensiveness, Collins proclaimed, ”We’re here to confront our fears.” He wanted to talk about race relations and religious faith, and when the Brother-ites expressed discomfort with such topics, Collins both explained the reason for his insistence — ”The only things I have are my principles, my raison d’être” — and dismissed their reticence for the social squeamishness it was: ”You’re all a bunch of softies.”

News broke toward the end of Collins’ BB stay that, under the name Hiram Ashantee, he was a member of the New Black Panther Party, whose leader, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, has made vitriolic remarks about Jews and whites. It’s too bad that many of Collins’ subsequently broadcast remarks to his housemates (who remained unaware of his political affiliation) were not scrutinized for their content but merely for that affiliation.