BOTH LIFE and art have been tough for most black actors and actresses, who trek through Hollywood barely surviving on the scant number of acting parts for them, obliged to make their way through stilted and mundane movies about slavery and television sitcoms set in housing projects.
But James Earl Jones, 49, has had virtually unparalleled critical and commercial success as a "serious" (a gross but unavoidable term) black actor. He was the flashy, aggressive boxer Jack Jefferson in the Broadway hit (and later movie) "The Great White Hope." He played Alex Haley in "Roots -- The Next Generation." And last fall he had his own TV detective series, "Paris." It was canceled. One might think that would sour him a bit on television.
"No," he said, eyebrows raised in nonchalance, shaking his head. "The show promised more than it delivered. It was supposed to show crime through the eyes of a very experienced criminologist. It didn't. Unless it fulfilled its promise it shouldn't be on the air."
Jones, who was here Thursday to talk to the National Endowment for the Arts' Advisory Panel on Minority Concerns, is performing at Yale University in a play by South African playwright Athol Fugaard until May 24. After that, he plans to make a movie called "The Red Tide" in Greece with Jose Ferrer, among others. The movie, said Jones, is about archeological searches.
Jones, in fact, had now words of condemnation for movies or theater or television, even though the last medium in that group looks particularly bleak right now. There are presently no continuing television dramas about black professionals or the like -- virtually all black characters appear in comedies. p
"I have a hard time knocking black comedies and sitcoms," he said, sitting in an NEA office with a few NEA staff members and a member of National Council on the Arts, just before his talk to the Advisoty Panel. "They might not be of the best quality, but they do prove to young blacks that there is a place for them, a job for them. It's an energy that will evolve. If you kill off that form, you kill off that energy."
And, at a time when ad hoc coalitions loudly protest films they feel are inaccurate and exploitive of blacks or other minority and ethnic groups, Jones says, "Ad hoc groups are too good at saying what's wrong with television and theater. They're not as good as saying what's better."
It was a point he would mention later during the day when he addressed the panel, noting the NEA's role in helping "seed" performing artists.
"When a protest is really a grassroots effort, I respect it," he explained, noting that he once did a television pilot for a show called "East Side, West Side," shooting on a street in Harlem. "People would come up to me and say, 'Are you showing us in a good light? Are you showing us in a bad light?' I respected them for that. But I don't respect ad hoc watchdog committees who are always jumping on somebody's case for presenting a picture they feel doesn't agree with their own picture."
Jones said he was unfamiliar with the work of the coalition organized to protest the three-part television show "Beulah Land" -- a Civil War era epic about a southern plantation and the slaves who lived there -- which has been posponed due to the uproar. He also said he did not know much about the coalition protesting the filming of "Fort Apache" in the South Bronx. "But I would be suspicious," he said.
"It's too easy to censor," he said. "The hardest thing is to pick up a camera and do it better."
His voice, even when soft in conversation, is such a deep bass that it vibrates through the quiet 13th floor in the Columbia Plaza building near the Kennedy Center. His onstage intensity comes through in his professorial image and tone almost as if it's simply another role. His three-piece suit is unrumpled. In conversation, he pauses sometimes, looking down purposefully at the floor as if diagramming the next thought on the carpet. At one point, seated in a group around a coffee table, as Jones talks, someone launches into a whispered conversation with another person. Jones abruptly stops in mid-sentence, pulling back in his chair, turning toward the window. "I'm just waiting for him to finish," Jones says almost matter-of-factly.
He is a former member of the National Council on the Arts, the presidentially appointed advisory body to the National Endowment for the Arts. This week he talked for about an hour with members of the Endowment's Advisory Panel on Minority Concerns, noting that communication between the Endowment staff and minority artists must be improved to get more minority artists to apply and win NEA grants.
Lack of communication is a common criticism of both NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and it is one of the main obstacles each agency says it is trying to overcome. The NEA's Office of Minority Concerns, which released a report this week on minorities and the Endowment, recommends developing and Endowment factsheet for minority artists and a series of regional meetings held specifically for minority artists and organizations.
The report also recommended an Advisory Panel on Minority Concerns -- made up of Endowment program directors and administrators -- which has been set up already. The report recommends that that next opening at the executive level of the Endowment be filled by a minority -- of which there are none at that level now.
On Thursday, Jones spoke less about specific suggestions for the Endowment and more about what has happened in performing arts since the pressure of the civil rights movement has faded some. "There's a great deal of apathy," Jones told the group of both black and white Endowment staff who came to hear him. "There's a sigh of relief; people think 'whew, I'm glad I don't have to think about that." There are some sighs of relief among good people in philanthropic offices as well."
That is what they should not be succumbing to, Jones seemed to say. "If you cut off energy, it can be self-destructive. Look at Mr. Mitchell's [Dance Theater of Harlem] and the energy going into it.You can imagine if that energy had not been channelled how self-destructive it would have been for those young people."
A Filipino man -- who does not work for the Endowment but was simply at the meeting -- told Jones that he had once wanted to be an actor but found no parts beside that of houseboy or similar roles. The man, now an auditor, asked Jones what advice he could offer.
"It's horrible to have that creativity and no place to express it," said Jones. "Learn how to interpret people beyond your culture and background. I tell black actors, 'Learn first how to evoke people who are not of your background. Then go into makeup, if necessary, to present yourself as Caucasian. It's part of the actor's craft.' I would like to learn how to play a woman -- straight. But," he quipped, "I know I would be booted out of town for taking someone else's job."
Jones sees spic fantasies as the way to get beyond constraints of ethnic background casting.
But some of the black Endowment staff who went to the meeting found Jones' advice unsatisfactory. As one person put it later, "How do we get at those people who control our images?"