The controversy surrounding NBC's mini-series "Beulah Land" began months ago while the project was being filmed, and will climax today with a flurry of protest telegrams to NBC, some on-the-air comments on various stations, a heated reaction by the show's producer and a number of complaint calls to TV stations around the country.
The six-hour, three-part story of a Civil War-era plantation, the family that runs it and the slaves who live on it, last spring provoked an outraged group of black Hollywood writers and actors to form a protest group called the "Coalition Against the Airing of Beulah Land." The coalition and other groups claimed that the program was historically inaccurate and contained offensive racial stereotypes.
A spokesman for NBC said yesterday that the network will run a "legend" on the screen before the show begins, reminding viewers that slavery was a "cruel, indefensible, complex institution," and that "the characters and lives they lead in this story are also fictitious."
NBC postponed the show (it was scheduled for airing late last May) in order "to be sure it was historically accurate" according to Curt Block, director of press and publicity.
A spokesman for WRC-TV, which will carry the program in Washington, said yesterday that only a few protest calls have been received, that "Beulah Land" is only a "fictional Portrayal," and that "we see no reason not to air it." (Last week, WBAL, Baltimore's NBC station, announced that it would not air the program.)
WRC anchorman Jim Vance will deliver a commentary on the program on tonight's 6 o'clock newscast. At the same time, the D.C. Media Task Force plans to organize a demonstration at the studio headquarters from 3 to 7 p.m. to protest the airing of the show. Some protestors demonstrated at the station last week.
Yesterday, the Congressional Black Caucus chair, Rep. Cardiss Collins (D.-Ill.) sent out an impassioned telegram to NBC, which said in part: "We believe this program to be a self-serving and inaccurate representation of the oppression against blacks in the Civil War South . . . Slavery was a debilitating, dehumanizing experience for blacks just as the Nazi holocaust was for Jewish people. Moreover, it should not be romanticized and sugar-coated with distortions of reality in order to seek HUTs [Households Using Television] to an insensitive sponsor."
Last Thursday, Benjamin Hooks, the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, issued a similar statement: "We are most concerned however for our children. How can they truly develop positive self-images if they are continually fed a steady diet of 'Beulah Land,' 'Our Gang' comedies and 'Good Times'?"
The Sand Francisco branch of the NAACP yesterday said that leaflets were circulting on the West Coast that read: "Organize a dial-in party. Invite friends, clubs, organizations. Phone your local TV station. Demand to be told why 'Beulah Land' is deemed to be racist by black historians, black educators, black psychologists, black politicians."
Tonight in San Francisco, after part one of "Beulah Land," KRON will give 45 seconds of time to Virna Canson, West Coast regional director of the NAACP. She will issue a "personal opinion message" which says, in part: "the black characters are the products of the white romantic imagination and bear little resemblence to the slavery system described by black writers of the black antebellum South."
Throughout the months of protest, "Beulah Land's" producer David Gerber has steadfastly defended his product. But when he got up yesterday morning and read the latest story about "Beulah Land" in the Los Angeles Times -- in which he appeared to be apologizing for the content of the program -- Gerber became "incensed," he said yesterday. He said he promptly took out two full-page ads, one in the Hollywood Reporter, scheduled to appear today, and one in weekly Variety, to appear tomorrow. They read: "No Apologies for Beulah Land."
"I'm nervous and glad the damn thing will be over," said Gerber, who has previously won awards from the NAACP for other productions, including "Police Story." "I like my picture very much. It's not a social history. It's a woman's story. It's a well-made picture. The production is beautifully done. It doesn't approach slavery as 'Roots' did."
Gerber said his ads would also suggest that blacks in the film and TV industry get together to discuss the more general problem of why there are not more blacks in decision-making processes in studios.
NBC says that several script changes were made in the program, including one "major edit" in a scene where slaves are granted their freedom. On the advice of Yale historian John Blassingame, a section in which the slaves appeared to be reluctant to accept freedom was changed. Another scene in a Bible school in which slaves are being taught how to read and write was changed, and the reference to teaching writing was deleted.
Blassingame had been called in by the network to determine whether the show was historically accurate. "Our expert has given us his go-ahead that it is," said Block yesterday.
"We think it will get a sizable audience," he said, "It's good counter-programming to baseball."