Did ya get your race card?
I didn't get my race card.
Hell no, I didn't get my race card.
Homeboy, when ya get your race card?
White boy, what is a race card?
- from the theme song for the FX reality show, Black.White., Lyrics by Ice Cube
A black family and a white family trade lives. Hispanic high school students protest inequities in the Los Angeles public education system. A thief grapples with racial tensions in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Although prime-time television may seem an unlikely venue for frank explorations of race, scenarios like these - in which ethnic differences influence story lines or inform character descriptions - increasingly are being played out onscreen.
Contrary to notions of TV as escapist fare, an informed and highly charged discussion of ethnicity, identity, and race this season has taken root in entertainment television. It will intensify in coming weeks with the debut of new series and made-for-TV movies from producers and directors like Ice Cube and Edward James Olmos, featuring such stars as Andre Braugher, Yancy Arias and Malik Yoba.
While prime-time police and crime dramas - NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street or Law & Order, to name two - for years have dealt wisely with matters of race, shows that offer further serious treatment of race and its ramifications are popping up throughout the medium. From cable to network and public TV, in drama, comedy, reality, animation, documentary and variety shows, television is beginning to grapple with one of the nation's thorniest issues.
And many of the programs driving this trend have aired or are scheduled to air outside the parameters of Black History Month, long television's repository for political correctness.
TV as a mirror
Viewers can, of course, tune out the discussion with the push of a button; nonetheless, for the foreseeable future, this onscreen conversation about race seems likely to continue.
"The extraordinary thing about television, I truly believe, is that across its vast landscape it really does accurately reflect who we are as a culture at any given moment," said Emmy Award-winning filmmaker R.J. Cutler, who, with rapper Ice Cube, is co-producing a reality-documentary series in which a black family and a white family trade homes and routines. Called Black.White., the show has its premiere March 8 on the FX cable channel.
"What you are seeing now - after Katrina - is a nation and a culture that are concerned about the issue of race, that are concerned about the vast class divisions that we have in this society. And it's not surprising at this moment in our history that explorations of racial issues would be bubbling up from the television landscape."
From HBO's Walkout, a film about a series of Hispanic student uprisings in East Los Angeles, to FX's Thief, a drama about a ring of New Orleans jewelry thieves, next month's lineup of new shows promises both re-examinations of racial history and dramatic renderings of characters coming together despite racial differences.
And many shows this season are notable for presenting ethnically diverse, multi-dimensional characters who possess a sophisticated understanding of cultural identity.
Cable channel FX's Black.White. offers viewers glimpses of how skin color can affect even the most mundane aspects of life. The show follows for six weeks the members of two middle-class families as they have their appearances altered with makeup and then try to exchange lives.
In one scene, the African-American father - disguised as a white man - visits a segregated country club for the first time. He describes with wonder how a pro-shop salesman used a shoehorn to help him try on a pair of golf shoes. It was the first time, he said, that any salesperson ever has helped him that way.
In 'each other's skin'
"If you look at hip-hop, movies, the Internet - of all of them - TV is the one that can play the ultimate role in bringing people together ... in helping them see what life is like inside each other's skin. That's why I'm involved in doing this on television," said Ice Cube.
"My goal is to provoke discussion - to get people to think about race and talk about it around the water cooler. That's the only way we make progress - by coming together and talking things out. And nothing can make that happen like television. It can make it happen for a serious discussion on race just like it can for watching the Super Bowl. And that's why I think you see more producers and performers moving into TV."
One of hip-hop's best-selling artists and the producer of hit feature film franchises Friday and Barbershop, Ice Cube wrote and performed Black.White.'s in-your-face theme song. Titled "Race Card," his rap sets the tone for a hard-eyed exploration of race relations with its insistent refrain: "Did ya get your race card?"
And he is only the latest non-white artist to bring his insights and edge to prime time this season.
In October, Everybody Hates Chris, a comedy created and produced by Chris Rock, made its debut on UPN to strong ratings and widespread critical acclaim. While Rock long has appeared late at night on premium cable HBO, this was his first venture into network television. With jokes about his father's scrupulous frugality and his mother's insistent oversight of his education, Rock single-handedly reminded any who may have forgotten NBC's The Cosby Show (1984-'92) that sitcoms about African-American life don't have to be silly.
A month later, cartoonist Aaron McGruder brought an animated version of his popular and controversial Boondocks strip to the Cartoon Network cable channel. On Jan. 15, the artist depicted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. using the N-word and sparked debates over the use of the highly charged term that raged in venues from classrooms to ABC's Nightline. Agree or disagree with McGruder's tactics, there is no denying that his TV series provoked in-depth discussions about race.
In December, Showtime launched one of the year's most socially relevant series, Sleeper Cell. Starring Michael Ealy as Darwyn Al-Hakim, the drama depicts an African-American, Muslim FBI agent who infiltrates an al-Qaida cell operating in Los Angeles.
"We wrote the part of Darwyn for an African-American character for a number of reasons - including the growing number of conversions to Islam among African-Americans," co-creator and executive producer Ethan Reiff said. "Race is part of this discussion, and, so, it had to be part of this series as well." The 32-year-old, blue-eyed, African-American actor delivers a rich, highly textured performance.
Led by HBO, cable television, which can turn a profit while attracting only a niche audience, historically has provided the media's most consistent forum for an adult discussion of race. The cable network in the early 1990s aired concerts and talk shows featuring performers such as Chris Rock, followed by edgy programs like the prison drama Oz (1997-2002), and the miniseries The Corner (2000), which told the story of an African-American family in Baltimore trying to escape the deadly cycle of drug addiction.
"HBO opened the door," said Jannette Dates, dean of the Howard University School of Communications and author of Split Image: African Americans in Mass Media.
"It did it by showing that high-quality programming effectively marketed to diverse audiences could explore issues of race and find both commercial and artistic success."
Recently, basic cable channels such as FX and Comedy Central - which, unlike HBO, rely on advertising rather than subscriptions - also have begun presenting programming that explores racial issues and have found a viable audience for it.
But since Hurricane Katrina, a broader group of TV executives and Hollywood producers have become convinced that a large audience exists for shows that refuse to gloss over racial differences.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Thief, a new FX drama premiering Tuesday night, is its portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans. The urban setting is so richly drawn that the city itself - and all its problems - becomes a character in the series. From images of storm-devastated neighborhoods to graffiti messages ("looters will be shot") spray-painted on crumbling walls, the inequities of class and race are inescapable.
Racial tension infuses the show in other ways as well. At work, Braugher's gang of thieves is, by the end of the pilot, composed entirely of persons of color; at home, he struggles to forge a relationship with his new, white stepdaughter.
"Katrina is now one of the focal points for the ongoing debate about race, and here we have a show that makes it part of its very fabric," said John Landgraf, the president of FX.
"As Katrina reminded us, race is the central issue of American life, and television needs to reflect that."
Other factors - including the box-office success of Academy-Award nominee Crash - have also influenced television portrayals of racial and ethnic issues, according to those in Hollywood. The movie, directed by Paul Haggis, who also wrote Million Dollar Baby, thus far has earned $53 million. "The success of Crash is definitely part of the discussion," said Cutler, noting Hollywood's penchant for imitating success.
Interest in scripts dealing with race is palpable these days in Hollywood, said Rafael Alvarez, a former Sun reporter and writer for NBC's Homicide and HBO's The Wire, as well as FX's new show, Thief.
"Television isn't the cathode tube in the living room; it's the mirror in the living room. And when America deals with subjects, TV then deals with them," said Alvarez, who is at work in Los Angeles as a writer-producer on a new serialized crime drama about four Irish brothers, The Black Donnellys. Created by Haggis, it is expected to make its debut next fall on NBC.
"So, when we started dealing with race in our neighborhoods and in our coffee shops after Katrina, then TV started dealing with it. And that's what's going on out here now."
To Ice Cube, another factor in TV portrayals of race is the drive to attract younger audiences. A generation of young adults, he points out, has been sensitized to issues of race through hip-hop music.
"Some people might laugh at this, but those people just don't know how much hip-hop music brings youth together," the 36-year-old artist said.
"It started in the '80s with my generation, and now my kids - they are 14, 15 and 16 - they don't know a world without hip-hop. And just like hip-hop showed them we're all the same and that we can get along together, now they have the Internet that connects them to different people all over the world - sending them the same message in a global way. ... And, hopefully, these television shows are part of that wave that young people will respond to."
In the end, said Cutler, the decision to tackle race on TV is an easy one to make - or should be - for any producer or programmer. "Race is the central defining issue of American society, identity and culture. As a nation, we're going to have this conversation whether we enter it with our eyes wide open - or with our heads buried in the sand."
Exploring race in TV shows
New shows in which race informs story line or character:
Jamie Foxx's Laffapalooza:
Offering evidence that the variety show is alive and well, Jamie Foxx and Cedric the Entertainer present standup comedy on Comedy Central. Urban comedians stretching back beyond another show biz Foxx, this one named Redd, long have offered daring commentary on race in America. The show will be broadcast tonight at 10.
Two families, one black and the other white, switch racial identities for six weeks with the help of makeup artists. Produced by two of Hollywood's more socially conscious filmmakers - rapper Ice Cube (Barbershop) and R.J. Cutler (American High) - Black.White. is a reality TV descendant of John Howard Griffin's acclaimed Black Like Me. The 1959 nonfiction book told the story of a white journalist who used medication and a sun lamp to darken his skin so that he could pass for black in the Jim Crow South. The FX cable series has its premiere March 8 at 10 p.m.
Directed by Edward James Olmos, this HBO docudrama depicts the Chicano student uprising in East Los Angeles in 1968. Based on the experiences of co-executive producer Moctesuma Esparza (Selena), the film stars Alexa Vega (Spy Kids), Michael Pena (Crash) and Yancy Arias (Kingpin). It makes its debut March 18 at 8 p.m.
Andre Braugher returns to prime time as the leader of gang of jewel thieves in post-Katrina New Orleans. Just as the images of Katrina's aftermath focused attention on the nation's racial divide, so does this compelling FX drama. Its premiere will be March 28 at 10 p.m.