Cathy's World:Jesse & Al, the Entertainers

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  Oct. 9, 2002 at 1:48 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton just played the race card against Hollywood and lost.

They demanded that MGM cut some offending dialogue out of "Barbershop," a low-budget comedy set in an inner-city barbershop with a mostly black cast, when it's released on home video. MGM refused, the film -- probably helped by the attendant publicity -- became a sleeper hit, and pretty much everyone agreed that Jackson and Sharpton's complaints are ridiculous.

But here's what else is ridiculous: Hollywood lost the opportunity to send Jackson and Sharpton out of town in a barrel. You can't really hold the behavior of these grandstanders against them at this point -- you might as well get mad at a dog for barking at squirrels -- but why the continued pandering?

"We have great regard for your opinions," MGM president Michael G. Nathanson wrote in a letter to Sharpton, "and hope that our disagreement over this film does not detract from our shared commitment to equal opportunity, fairness and justice."

Now maybe someone in the world besides Al Sharpton has great regard for Al Sharpton's opinions but I doubt Nathanson is that person. So why pretend?

Sharpton said that he and other black leaders are considering a boycott against "Barbershop." These kinds of boycotts are always threatened and never seem to happen, but it's a free country, and just as Hollywood has a right to distribute product that offends some people, those offended have a right to boycott. Why not just tell Sharpton, Jackson et al. to go ahead?

Certainly now would be the time, because their stock has never been lower, even among their supposed constituency.

"My question is, who named Jesse Jackson as my leader?" a customer in a real-life, South Central L.A. barbershop told Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez the other week. "Because I didn't get no ballot."

In "Barbershop," a loud-mouthed, elderly barber played by Cedric the Entertainer insults O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and -- this is probably the real sticking point -- Jesse Jackson. He gets some laughs, is shouted down by the other characters, and the story moves on. Jackson and Sharpton, naturally, have not.

"You would not make Golda Meir the butt of a joke -- it's sacred territory," Jackson said, referring to the barber's line that Rosa Parks "didn't no nothin' but sit down on a bus."

The comparison is of course absurd; Golda Meir hasn't been exactly a hot topic on the stand-up circuit lately, but she was fair game for jokes when she was alive. Jackson's subtext and real point is just a neat bit of Jew-baiting -- the Jews control Hollywood, so that's why Rosa Parks is the target for onscreen trash talk and not the former Israeli prime minister.

Except that in this instance Jackson is really flailing. "Barbershop," which was the No. 1 film in the country for two weeks, was written, directed and produced by blacks.

Whatever else it is, it's a nice little success story of big box office bucks without big white stars. No wonder Sharpton and Jackson haven't been able to stir up much outrage.

What's interesting is that the race card hasn't really played in general lately in Hollywood. The last major kerfuffle was when Fox announced plans to move its hit black family sitcom, "Bernie Mac," to 8 p.m. Wednesdays opposite ABC's hit black family sitcom, the Damon Wayans vehicle "My Wife and Kids" this fall.

The offense here -- so the party line goes -- is that television doesn't have enough successful shows about positive black families, and therefore networks should in this instance shelve their normal cutthroat practices and behave more like PBS.

Damon Wayans is in this camp, saying that Fox and ABC had "a moral responsibility" to try to keep both shows on the air. But Bernie Mac isn't.

"I'm not into all that stuff," he shrugged, when asked about the new schedule at the Fox media tour. "This is business."

And Cedric the Entertainer really isn't. His eponymous new variety series premiered Sept. 18 on Fox at 8:30 p.m., right after "Bernie Mac." He's an equal opportunity offender, hilariously making fun of everything from fat cafeteria ladies to the flatulent qualities of Mexican food. (Or at least, I find him hilarious. If you don't, maybe it's just a lowbrow thing; you wouldn't understand.)

"You have to compete against somebody," he told the same group of press tour reporters, when asked about the scheduling conflict. "These shows both existed on Wednesday nights last year, they were just at different timeslots. Packaging me with Bernie, it only makes sense to have the established show lead in the new show. As far as Damon's sake goes, it's an unfortunate situation. That's the only thing I have to say on that matter."

But when asked about his own favorite television shows, Cedric seemed to make a point of eschewing any expected race loyalty. You might have expected him to mention Flip Wilson as an inspiration for his new variety series -- instead he named Jackie Gleason and Dean Martin.

"I was always a fan of that Rat Pack era...and that was the style of show that we wanted," he said.

"I don't get a chance to watch much television," he continued. "I like a few shows that are on the air. I'm a fan of 'King of Queens.' I like 'Everybody Loves Raymond.' I've been a fan of 'Friends' since the reruns late at night. My wife loves it, so now I watch it and it's pretty funny. I like shows like 'The Practice' and 'Law & Order' and HBO's 'The Wire.'"

Except for "The Wire," a gritty urban crime drama, all the shows Cedric named are basically white. "Friends," in fact, is notoriously whiter-than-white; even in a big city like New York, the friends never seem to make any black acquaintances.

But it is pretty funny, and the fact that Cedric admits to enjoying it rather than more politically correct shows may say more about racial progress than any number of threatened boycotts by Al Sharpton.

Or perhaps he's just tacitly asking the question: Who elected Jesse Jackson his leader?

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