With weeks to go before it hits the airwaves, NBC's "Beulah Land" has already provoked a storm of protest from some black writers and civil rights groups who claim that the production is "intensely offensive and degrading to black people."
And in Natchez, Miss -- where the six-hour mini-series about life on a Civil War era plantation is being filmed -- the controversy had left some members of the cast divided over the merits of the production.
But veteran TV producer David Gerber, whose company is filming the show in conjunction with Columbia Pictures for airing on NBC, last week dismissed the protests as "an ad hoc thing by a few malcontents."
"We're not doing 'Roots' or 'Mandingo,'" Gerber said. "I'm doing a romantic novel with a lot of commercial appeal.
"It is the story of a white plantation family covering a period of 50 years spanning the antebellum period to Reconstruction period as told through the eyes of a white woman . . .
"The fact that this particular plantation didn't treat their slaves with brutality does not make this stereo-type racism. We do depict some blacks who are ignorant, some who are intelligent, some who are bad, some who are good, just like the whites."
One of the principal actors, James McEachin, who plays a black slave named Ezra, said this week that he is now "terribly, terribly ashamed and embarrassed" that he worked on the show. "The whole thing -- the 'Beulah Land' mentality -- is repugnant to decency."
But actress Clarice Taylor, who plays his wife, another slave named Lovey, said of the show, "I wouldn't have consented to be in anything I considered degrading. I have a good track record with that. I loved the book. I loved the script. Lovey is really a part I wanted to play. I felt I could bring something to it."
The controversy began in early February, when Robert Price -- an independent black Hollywood screenwriter who recently wrote an episode for the new Norman Lear-Alex Haley TV series "Palmerstown, USA" -- drafted a position paper against "Beulah Land." Friends in the industry had brought the script to his attention.
In the position paper, Price and co-author Saundra Sharp, an actress, objected to many scenes, including one in which slaves are offered freedom but don't want it. Price argued that each of the 15 black speaking roles "perpetuates the image of the slave as ignorant, oversexed, sloven, dependent on the whim of his master, and filled with love for that master, and the master's land."
"It paints a picture of those days as all fun and games," said Paul Brock, director of information for the New York national office of the NAACP, which sent a telegram to NBC requesting changes.
Brock said that NAACP president Benjamin L. Hooks recently sent a telegram to Fred Silverman, president of NBC, asking that NBC sit down with "black artists and local NAACP representatives to discuss how the project can more accurately and tastefully deal with the cruelties of slavery and life on the plantation."
Executives from NBC-TV and Columbia Pictures met last week with a coalition including Media Forum Inc., the League of Black Cinema Arts, Actors Speak for Life, Concerned Black Artists for Action, Women Against Violence Against Women and the Association of Asian-Pacific American Artists.
NBC's vice president for corporate information, Jay Rodriguez, said, "Nobody went to Gerber or NBC with the problem -- we had to read it in the trades. We sought out the coalition for a meeting."
The coalition, according to Price, "wants to be rational and completely fair." They also want the show canceled. "That's been the position of the coalition all along," Price said. "It's demeaning, degrading, and dangerous . . . I'm worried about the effect on whites as well as blacks -- it reinforces stereotypes."
The mini-series is based on a novel called "Beulah Land" by Lonnie Coleman.
The cast of the film version includes Leslie Ann Warren, Meredith Baxter Birney, Eddie Albert, James McEachin, Dorian Harewood, Clarice Taylor, Hope Lange and Paul Rudd.
Both McEachin and Harewood -- who played Simon Haley in "Roots: the Next Generation" -- have been quoted as having problems with the show.
But they are the exceptions -- even among the black actors and actresses on the set -- according to Clarice Taylor.
Taylor said the directors never made her do anything she didn't want to do. "They didn't make me laugh when there was nothing funny," she said. "They didn't make me shuffle. They didn't make me throw my hands up."
Price called the show "highly violent." "There are two suicides, four murders on screen and off-screen, two rapes," according to the position paper.
"I guess there was a lot of violence," said Taylor. "It happens over three generations. The leading woman gets raped when Union soldiers come in. A pregnant black woman gets raped.
"Are you going to tell me that didn't happen? Black slaves were raped all the time. That's part of the ugliness of slavery. It was terrible. We had to do what we did to survive. If you're going to show it as a beautiful thing where we fought everyone off, you're talking about something I don't know about."
"If it's an ugly sort of thing," he said, "why are we singing and dancing? If it's an ugly sort of thing, why don't they show us fighting it?"
McEachin, who starred in the short-lived TV series "Tenafly" about a black private eye, said he read the script for "Beulah Land" quickly, believing that he could later ask for changes in the script.
"It's common to rush through a script, get a feel for the character, and just make a snappy decision. I've never once seen a script shot exactly as written," McEachin said.
But, he said, each time he wanted to discuss script changes he was told to wait. McEachin claims that when it was time to shoot scenes, he was told it was too late. In one scene, McEachin's character, Ezra, simply looks on while his son is beaten by a white slave master.
"It was absolutely humiliating the way it was done,' said McEachin, who finally persuaded the filmmakers to change it.
Chris Morgan, the producer under Gerber, said that the scene was reshot because McEachin, disturbed that his suggested changes had not been made, deliberately misspoke his lines ("I just started mouthing the words," said McEachin.)
The next day, Morgan, upset that he had been forced by McEachin to change the scene, simply reshot it again the original way -- but without McEachin, who was off that day. "He tried to outsmart me, and I outsmarted him," said Morgan.
"Now, what they'll do," said McEachin, who is angry about the filming behind his back, "is cut back to me [in the show] where I'm looking like a big, stupid, weak idiot."
Morgan said, "At no time did I tell him that the script was open to rewriting. Nor did David Gerber, nor did anyone else. Scripts are never open to major reworking by actors."
The script calls for McEachin, when offered his freedom, to say, "Freedom? Does that mean we gots to leave Beulah Land?"
"I thought, good God, this is embarrassing," he said. "This is so much garbage."
McEachin, who made $5,000 a week for his six to seven weeks of work, said he considered walking off the show twice but did not. "This was the worst show of my life," he said, "and the worst period in my life."
The teleplay for the movie had originally been approved by NBC's broadcast standards department. The completed show will be resubmitted to the group. NBC's Rodriquez said the broadcast standards department has already seen rough cuts, but will withhold judgment until it sees the full finished product. "Programs are changed all the time," he said. "I'm sure in six hours it won't meet every standard." Rodriques said that at this time he could not discuss whether or not NBC would consider dropping the show.
The network is planning to air "Beulah Land" in three consecutive two-hour installments starting May 25 -- during the May ratings "sweeps." NBC officials agree that the publicity generated by the controversy will bring in viewers. But Gerber lamented, "it will bring attention for the wrong reasons."