By Allison Klein and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 29, 2006
ABC's prime-time drama "Commander in Chief," starring Geena Davis as the president, ignited an explosion of anger in Prince George's County yesterday as community leaders denounced an episode as offensive and racist for portraying the county as crime-ridden and in need of a federal takeover.
In the episode that aired Thursday night, called "Ties That Bind," Davis's character, Mackenzie Allen, watches a segment on the local news about civil unrest in Prince George's during a protest over the high homicide rate and a lack of police protection. She then goes to the Prince George's city of Hyattsville and gets out of her car in front of a restaurant advertising sweet potato pie, pork chops and chitlins.
After listening to people talk about slain loved ones and a lack of police, Allen sends 40 U.S. marshals into the county to quell the crime.
Peter A. Shapiro, a former County Council member who represented the Hyattsville area, said he was astounded as he watched the show.
"They took the largest, wealthiest black county and reduced it to a stereotype of a poor, dangerous black neighborhood," Shapiro said. "And the irony is the neighborhood isn't even a poor black neighborhood."
Shapiro lives in Hyattsville, a racially and ethnically diverse community of single-family homes, apartments, shopping centers, restaurants and a historic district with a small-town feel.
County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) held a news conference yesterday with Hyattsville Mayor Bill Gardner, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and others to denounce the episode.
"When the president of the show gets out of a car and is in front of a restaurant that advertises chitlins and pork chops in today's America, what any right-thinking American knows is we are harking back to an age-old inability of this country to celebrate the leadership and achievement of African Americans and other diverse people in this country," said Johnson spokeswoman Sharon Taylor, quoting from Johnson's speech.
Johnson said he was writing a letter to ABC demanding a public apology. He also said he would invite the cast and crew on a tour of Prince George's to show them that there is more to the county than crime.
ABC Entertainment released a statement last night saying the show is fictional and the network apologizes for any offense. The statement said the show picked Prince George's because of its proximity to the District.
"While we used the name of the community, and we researched crime statistics related to the area, we also embellished the reality to enhance the story. Our goal was to create a more compelling drama for our viewers, not to portray the actual community or its citizens, law enforcement, or civic leaders in a negative light," the statement said. "We apologize for any offense, and reiterate that the series, the storyline, and the episode are all entirely works of fiction and do not depict any real person or situation."
"Commander in Chief" opened to a large audience and mostly kind reviews in the fall but has seen viewership fall precipitously. It recently returned to ABC's prime-time lineup after a three-month hiatus, and ratings have remained low. Thursday night's episode was written by Alex Berger and Cynthia J. Cohen, according to an ABC news release. The show's executive producer is Dee Johnson.
Prince George's was a majority-white and partly rural county until African Americans began moving there in large numbers in the 1970s and '80s. By 1990, the county had become majority black and solidly suburban.
The county is the nation's most affluent majority-black county. But despite its progress over the past couple of decades, Prince George's has long been sensitive about its image and about being compared with more affluent majority-white suburbs such as Montgomery and Fairfax counties, which have less crime.
"It touched a lot of buttons -- all the issues around community, racial identity, ethnic identity," Shapiro said of the episode. "It threw gasoline on those fires at once."
Another of the show's insults, critics said, was its references to the county by its initials, P.G. Some residents argue that Prince George's should not be referred to by its initials because no other county is. A state senator once corrected basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson during a news conference when he called the county P.G.
"The people in this county know that when other people say it, it's meant as a put-down," Taylor said.
In one scene in the episode, the fictional governor of Maryland, Stan Preston, asks the president why she is paying so much attention to Prince George's. She responds: "We might as well start with the community with one of the fastest-growing crime rates in the country."
It was unclear whether she was referring to Prince George's as a whole or to Hyattsville. It was also not clear whether she meant violent crime, such as homicides and carjackings, or overall crime, which would include trespassing and littering.
Last year, overall crime was down 0.7 percent compared with the previous year, and violent crime was up 12.5 percent.
In 2005, the county logged its highest homicide total ever, 173. Also, carjackings were up 47 percent, and robberies increased by 24 percent.
This year, homicides have dropped. Last year at this time, there were 49 killings; this year there have been 34.
Hyattsville has had close to a 20 percent reduction in crime over the past decade, said the city's police chief, Douglas K. Holland. Last year, there were three homicides. There has been one this year.
Shapiro said television writers and producers have a right to do what they do. "But we have a right to be angry at their use of stereotypes," he said.
Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.