Channel Changer

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

NEW YORK -- To understand the irony, skip back four years: Reginald Hudlin, Hollywood director and comic book nerd, is ensconced with his close friend, firebrand cartoonist Aaron McGruder, gleefully penning a graphic novel, "Birth of a Nation." The book features as its villain the network mogul "John Roberts" -- a black billionaire with a complete willingness to sell African Americans down the river to make a buck. Not coincidentally, "John Roberts" looks a lot like billionaire Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television.

Skip forward to the present: Now Hudlin's dividing his time between Los Angeles and New York as BET's president of entertainment, the man in charge of the images tumbling from the cable network's airwaves. His critics blame him for serving up a steady diet of the same old same old: poisonous, stereotypical images of blacks, specifically rap videos featuring scantily clad vixens and blinged-out gangstas.

On the Internet, Hudlin is the target of a savage cartoon sendup, portrayed as the morally challenged programming head for "Black Evil Television" -- a parody created by none other than McGruder, his former friend. And in Washington, protesters camped for months outside the home of Hudlin's boss -- network CEO Debra Lee -- each and every weekend, chanting "Enough is enough."

"Right now, Reginald Hudlin and Debra Lee preside over a media empire that perpetuates every negative stereotype about black men and black women that we fought against," says the Rev. Delman Coates, the Prince George's County pastor behind the campaign against BET. "And they have to be held accountable.

"The reality is, if Reginald Hudlin were white, more black leaders and more black organizations would be raising an outcry. But for some reason we give black people a pass for participating in our own exploitation."

Last month, Coates, in conjunction with the Parents Television Council and onetime BET video programmer Paul Porter of Industry Ears, released a study analyzing adult content on two BET video shows, "106 & Park" and "Rap City," along with MTV's "Sucker Free" -- prime-time programs that they charge are marketed to and viewed by children. Among the conclusions: In March, on the shows cited, there was one instance of adult content -- references to drugs, sex or violence -- every 38 seconds.

The next step in the "Enough Is Enough" campaign: pressuring BET advertisers to pull their sponsorship.

All of which says: It's a tough time to be Reggie Hudlin, the supposed savior of BET.

Mention that to Hudlin, and he bristles. To his mind, BET's critics are haters who can't appreciate the hard work he's put into the network. The rap videos, he says, are but a small portion of the programming that the network offers. "To me, when you look at the portfolio [of shows], the intent is very clear," he says over lunch in Manhattan, looking aggrieved. "So why are you criticizing me?"

As Hudlin sees it, he's fighting the good fight, trying to change the public image of African Americans, one show at a time, with family-oriented programming such as the newly announced gospel video countdown, "106 & Gospel"; "Black Panther," an animated series based on a comic book he writes; and "Brutha," a reality show about a group of singing siblings trying to make it in the industry.

"This is a place where you can effect a world of difference, literally a world," says Hudlin, who with his brother Warrington made the popular movies "House Party" and "Boomerang" in the early '90s. "You can just sit around and be a complainer. Or you can roll up your sleeves and get to work."

Those sleeves would be cashmere, attached to turtlenecks color-coded to match his horn-rims: brown one day, black the next. Hudlin's on the short side, broad in the chest. Gray streaks his hair and goatee, but he retains the air of the baby-faced hipster he once was.

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