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.
Talk to him about work, and in particular BET, and he's defensive and uptight, taking umbrage at the questions asked, intensely focused on spin. "You're bumming me out with your questions," he tells a reporter. It's as if he takes the criticisms personally. But get Hudlin talking about anything else -- the "Black Panther" series that he writes for Marvel Comics, getting married in Jamaica, the wonder of his little girl's traffic-stopping 'fro -- and he loosens up considerably. His sense of humor floats to the surface.
At 46, Hudlin is of the same generation that shaped Barack Obama, riding the cusp between Boomers and Gen X'ers, post civil rights movement and "post-racial." He comfortably straddles the line between Harvard (where he earned his bachelor's degree) and the 'hood (East St. Louis, Ill., where he grew up), a hip-hop head weaned on P-Funk and Prince, sci-fi and Marvel Comics.
Now he's riding the cusp between the old BET and the one he envisions for the future. Today, Hudlin and his network are at a critical juncture.
After nearly three decades in the business, BET is battling its image as a purveyor of stereotypes at the same time it's trying to position itself as a global player. Last month the network launched BET UK, its first real venture into international waters. (Next stop: South Africa in 2009.)
Now, after nearly three years on the job, Hudlin says he has started turning around the network, pushing it to the next level, from a surplus of music videos and syndicated reruns to scripted, original programming. At the same time, he and Lee point out that they've got a business to run, and that they'd be foolish to ignore the ones buttering their bread: that prized demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds. Young people, who, he says, "get it." BET's critics, he says, do not.
"What we do involves black youth culture, and black youth culture has always been vilified," Hudlin says. "That's the business we're in. I understand there's always going to be some level of vilification . . . and I'm not having it."
Hudlin is squeezed between making profits and making a difference. Observes a BET producer who declined to be identified for fear of losing his job: "You can criticize BET all you want, but it's about money. . . . You put all these high-minded, socially conscious programs on and your profits dip, you're right out of there."
BET, founded in Washington in 1980, emerged in the aftermath of the black-power '70s, riding a crest of hopes and expectations as the first black network. In the early days -- also the early days of rap -- the network was a family affair, with all ages tuning in. It was "Video Soul" with a genial Donnie Simpson and the wholesome Sherry Carter. It was nighttime newscasts with a sober-looking Ed Gordon. It was talk shows and Teen Summits and Mandela Freedom Fund Telethons. But along the way, things shifted. Newscasts shrank to sound bites. Hip-hop, or at least, commercial rap, morphed into something else, something harder and crasser. Videos took on a dominant role.
Being the first means being saddled with a certain amount of baggage. "BET is unique because it is the custodian of the airwaves for all black people," says Hudlin's brother Warrington. "It is a burden, a double standard. History places that on you. . . . BET hasn't done anything that VH1 and MTV haven't done. But people don't expect VH1 to be our channel."
Age-old dilemma. As Langston Hughes pointed out in 1926, "The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. 'Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,' say the Negroes. 'Be stereotyped, don't go too far, don't shatter our illusions about you, don't amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,' say the whites."Former Friends
At a recent daily taping of "106 & Park," BET's video countdown show, a plethora of hip-hop players and wannabes float in and out of the studios on West 57th Street in Manhattan. A giant screen displays rapper Rick Ross's latest video, "The Boss." In it, two half-naked women crawl over Ross's massive, tattooed chest, interspersed with dreamy clips of diamond-encrusted rings and stacks and stacks of hundred-dollar bills.
Who gives a [expletive] what a hater gotta say
I made a couple million dollars last year dealing [expletive]
The video fades out. In its place is a segment featuring black-and-white newsreel footage of Martin Luther King Jr., the Mall and a narrator intoning, "I am the March on Washington."
But it's the gangsta-rap videos that had BET critics such as Coates, of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, camped outside Lee's Northwest home from last August to mid-April on weekends, chanting, "BET, SUCH A DISGRACE! BET, UPLIFT THE RACE!" (A New York-based sister church similarly is still protesting each weekend outside the Manhattan home of Philippe Dauman, CEO of BET's parent company, Viacom. Dauman declined to be interviewed for this article.)
People protesting on his boss's front lawn is just one of Hudlin's problems. Ratings have dropped significantly, according to Derek Baine, senior analyst for SNL Kagan: Average household daily viewership dropped from 353,000 in 2006 to 316,000 in 2007. (But a popular show like Keyshia Cole's does much better.) The network reaches nearly 90 million households.
Then there's Paul Porter, a former BET video programming director who left the network in 2002, who charges that payola was, and is, a regular part of transactions at the network. On any given Friday, he says, he would receive a FedEx box stuffed with as much as $15,000 in cash. (Porter now heads Industry Ears, an advocacy group that participated in the "Enough Is Enough" BET survey.)
Hudlin vehemently denies any knowledge of, or involvement in, alleged payola at BET. As for Coates's protest, he says, "it's such misplaced aggression that doesn't deal with the root of the problem. They're attacking someone [Lee] who cares a great deal about all the things that they care about."
He'd rather talk about his successes: "We have expanded the breadth and depth of programming on the network in a very short time. We're far from done. But I think the work we've done so far on the network should be celebrated."
As evidence, Hudlin points back to a 2005 telethon to raise money for Katrina victims; a two-part town hall special, "Hip Hop vs. America," aired in the wake of the Don Imus brouhaha; a reality TV show featuring R&B starlet Keyshia Cole and her dysfunctional family; a documentary series produced by writer Nelson George, "American Gangster"; an "American Idol"-style gospel show, "Sunday Best"; and "BET Honors," an awards show for prominent African Americans.
Between 2003-2007, BET has doubled its programming budget. Last year, Hudlin and his crew announced plans to release an impressive lineup of original programming -- 16 shows, including an animated series about the Carthaginian general Hannibal to be produced by Vin Diesel. In April they announced programming for the 2008-09 season that includes a courtroom reality show and a dating show. It'll also boost its news programming with two shows: "The Truth With Jeff Johnson," a news talk show, and "Unreported," an investigative series.
But several shows announced last year have yet to air or have died quick deaths. "Judge Mooney," a sendup of courtroom shows featuring veteran comic Paul Mooney, was canceled days before its scheduled October debut. The ambitious "Wifey," a drama starring Queen Latifah as a widowed music industry executive, remains unscheduled. The pilot was directed by Hudlin, an unusual move for a network head.
To be sure, television programming is an exercise in experimentation. As Lee put it, "Some things fall by the wayside," while Hudlin insists that most of the network's pilots do make it on-air.
BET's shows that have aired are a mixed bag.
"Take the Cake," a live interactive daily game show starring Tocarra of "America's Next Top Model," only lasted a season. "Hell Date," a mash-up of dating shows that features a dwarf in a Devil suit, doesn't exactly advance the cause for quality programming. "We Got to Do Better" has come and gone, as has "Socially Offensive Behavior," a kind of "Candid Camera" for the 21st century, starring comic D.L. Hughley. "Read a Book," a satirical animated short by Washington rapper Bomani, came under fire by critics who said the video perpetrated negative stereotypes, and inspired the "Enough Is Enough" campaign.
A firestorm of controversy started last fall when BET debuted "We Got to Do Better," based on a Web site, "Hot Ghetto Mess," which casts a jaundiced eye at tacky African Americans, taking the "America's Funniest Home Videos" approach.
Critics like Gina McCauley, an Austin attorney, charged that the show catered to offensive stereotypes. She launched an online protest with her blog, "What About Our Daughters," and some Internet advertisers pulled their support for the show.
Observes Hudlin's mentor, the television pioneer Steve Bochco: "He's had to completely change the culture there, which is always a complicated chore. He has to grapple with a very, very anemic budget. When you look at what he's been able to do and the context of those challenges, you have to say he's doing a wonderful job. He needs more time to accomplish what he's set out to do. You don't turn those ships on a dime, big heavy corporate cargo vessels."
Hudlin has hurt feelings along the way. Mooney says his show was abruptly pulled without explanation and Hudlin never returned his calls. "I thought he was a king," Mooney says. "I had no idea he was a slave." (Both Hudlin and Lee maintain that the show was killed because it didn't test well with focus groups.)
His feet are to the flame. A few years back, Hudlin joined forces with comic strip artist McGruder to produce the cartoon version of McGruder's "Boondocks" on the Cartoon Network. The show takes frequent potshots at BET.
Today Hudlin and McGruder, once close friends, no longer speak. And Hudlin himself became the target of two "Boondocks" episodes. (The episodes, which the Cartoon Network decided not to release, are now making the rounds in the Afrosphere.) Hudlin is cast as the bow-tie-wearing "Weggie Rudlin," who declares, "My Harvard education tells us that our goal is to take all the [expletive] reality TV shows that MTV made five years ago and make them black!"
And yes, Hudlin still has an executive-producer credit on the show. And no, he's not going to talk about what happened, or how he feels about being skewered by his onetime friend/protege. Nor will McGruder comment.
The comedian Orlando Jones, director and producer of the upcoming BET animated sketch show "BUFU," says Hudlin "did everything right. He went to Harvard. Now he's been charged to change the stereotypes for people who think BET is the chitlin circuit network. He's like, 'I've never done anything in my life that's stereotypical, and now I'm that guy?' "In the 'Ghet-to'
Hudlin grew up in East St. Louis, Ill., a city with a rich artistic past: Lillian Gish, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, dance pioneer Katherine Dunham and bluesman Albert King all called it home. But by the time Hudlin came of age in the late '70s, East St. Louis, once dubbed an "All America City," was rapidly unraveling, the victim of riots, factory closings and virulent street gangs. A city that he affectionately sends up in "Birth of a Nation," where he and McGruder imagined what would happen if East St. Louis seceded from the union. (Hint: chaos.)
Hudlin's description of East St. Louis? "Ghet-to."
Still, his is hardly your standard by-the-bootstraps story. Hudlin's mother was an educator. His father, who died in 1998, was an insurance agent who served as president of the Chamber of Commerce, ran the local community college -- and turned down an invitation to run for mayor.
"My family was very educated; we have people with PhDs," says Hudlin over lunch at an upscale midtown Manhattan brasserie. He pauses, and then adds this caveat, as if to establish his 'hood bona fides: "But we collected grease on a stove. Both my parents were real products of the Depression: Real, real hard work, never throw something away that you can use again."
From an early age, he knew that he wanted to be a filmmaker. As a kid, he spent hours drawing comic books and hanging out at the community arts center that Dunham created in the heart of the ghetto, studying martial arts while his mom took dance classes. Films entranced him: Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz," Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep." But it was Ken Russell's rock opera movie "Tommy" that clinched it for him: the surreal rush of music and imagery.
With visions of directing a funk opera starring George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, he headed off to Harvard, where he majored in visual and environmental studies, a multidisciplinary honors program that combined film, photography, graphic arts and architecture. After college, he joined up with his older brother Warrington, a Yale grad who was working as an independent filmmaker.
"I was doing work that was important, but not commercial," says Warrington, co-founder of the Black Filmmaker Foundation. "He said, 'What you're doing is good, but it's about time to make some money.' He always had a much stronger commercial instinct."
But Hollywood is notoriously fickle. After his film successes, Hudlin turned to TV, directing shows including Bochco's "City of Angels," "Bernie Mac" and his good buddy Chris Rock's "Everybody Hates Chris." Rock says he was a little surprised when Hudlin took the BET gig.
"He's got good taste," Rock says. "There's the Reggie who thinks like a director, and the Reggie who thinks like an exec. On the one hand, he's got real artistic taste. And then on the other hand, he's got real pop taste, 'This'll sell, this'll work.' "'Ching-Ching'
Cold, hard commerce is in the house.
From up on high in the Hammerstein Ballroom, in a box reserved for corporate muckety-mucks, Hudlin sits, head bobbing to the beat, taking in the cross-pollination of hip-hop and fashion, of industry and art. There are dudes lining up along the front row, doing the retro rap thing, all flattops and neon, looking just like Kid 'n Play did when Hudlin directed them in "House Party." Hudlin spots them and laughs.
Here, at the taping of BET's "Rip the Runway," booty-shaking is in short, and tasteful, supply. Instead, cash is the theme du jour. Pharrell, backed up by N.E.R.D., is rapping about "hundred-dollar bills" while models sporting ruffled Zac Posen evening gowns prowl the catwalk, affecting a studied indifference.
Then there's Missy Elliott, plugging her new single, chanting, "Ching-ching, getting paid over here," as models sporting duds from her fashion line bounce around the runway. From there, Flo Rida takes to the stage, name-checking Nelly's line of Apple Bottom jeans while models strut and preen, sporting, um, Apple Bottom jeans.
Over the course of the night, Snoop Dogg and Nelly, accompanied by their entourages, make their way up to the box, to pay their respects to Hudlin and Lee. To kiss the ring.
At the end of the day, it's all about doing business.