Mark Harris names the best TV series you aren't watching, and explains why

By Mark Harris
November 08, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
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Why African-American actors aren’t getting the respect they deserve

Something exciting is happening on TV right now — something even more exciting than watching celebrities cheat their way through ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. (Considering how much they had to help one another with their answers, one can only imagine how dumbed-down next season’s inevitable Sports Star and Supermodel editions of the game show will be.)

I’m talking about HBO’s six-part drama ”The Corner,” an unflinching portrayal of an African-American family’s struggle with drugs in a scorched row of Baltimore crack houses. HBO shrewdly launched this series to fill the Sunday-night void left by the end of the second season of ”The Sopranos,” and without exaggerating, ”The Corner” is to the miniseries what ”The Sopranos” has been to the hour-long drama — head and shoulders above everything else in the genre this season.

Critics, including EW’s Ken Tucker, have been expansive in their praise of ”The Corner”’s unsentimental, fierce, alternately funny and wrenching look at life on a drug block, but the show and its dazzling cast seem not to be generating much else in the way of hype. Why not? Well, the next sentence, unfortunately, begins, ”If these actors were white…”

If, indeed. When the inequity of opportunities for black actors in Hollywood is discussed in the media, the focus tends to be on their difficulty in getting diverse, challenging roles in a variety of projects. But when they do, the imbalance persists in the publicity they receive from newspapers, magazines, and infotainment shows.

Take the case of Khandi Alexander, the actress who plays the cocaine-ravaged mother of a young dealer in ”The Corner.” Even if you don’t think you know Alexander, you probably do — for years, she was Phil Hartman’s sharp-tongued nemesis on the sitcom ”NewsRadio,” and also had a recurring role as Dr. Benton’s weary sister on ”ER” (kudos to the casting director who spotted both Alexander and Ving Rhames, who played her husband, early on).

Right now, without a lot of fanfare, profiles or interviews, Alexander is giving the performance of a lifetime on ”The Corner” — she’s funny and sorrowful, majestic and pathetic in one of the best roles for an actress this year. And she’s not the whole story. Matching her step for step are T.K. Carter and Sean Nelson as, respectively, her husband and son.

In fact, audiences don’t have to look very far beyond ”The Corner” to realize that right now, Hollywood has access to an explosion of African-American dramatic acting talent. Check out Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps (who’s carving out a stronger career than any number of WB-primped white actors his age) in ”Love and Basketball,” or stage- and screen-ready Taye Diggs in last year’s ”The Best Man,” or Ice Cube, astonishing in ”Three Kings,” or Bokeem Woodbine (”The Sopranos”’ memorable Massive Genius) or vivid, underutilized actresses like Regina King, Nia Long, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Debbi Morgan, Tyra Ferrell, Alfre Woodard…

The list could go on. And to be fair, Hollywood’s color barrier seems to be lifting a little. Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Rock, and Jamie Foxx will all be carrying major summer movies this season, and talent as varied as Ving Rhames, Djimon Hounsou, Thandie Newton, Forest Whitaker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, Vanessa L. Williams, and Dave Chappelle will be on view as well. But almost all of their roles will be in comedies or action films. To all but a few black actors and (especially) actresses, drama, whether big screen or small, is off-limits no matter how talented they are. (Exhibit A: Why isn’t Angela Bassett carrying three movies a year?)

That’s a problem that Hollywood and the networks are going to have to start solving — and they’re going to have to do it without whining about economics and demographics (which means no more treating every black hit as a surprise, an anomaly, or a ”niche-marketing success”). The audience is abundant, and the talent pool overflowing. Now, all these actors need are some good jobs, and the spotlight that goes with them.

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