Mr. President, Where’s The Love For ‘First Family’?
Success, opportunities for black actors depend on all possible exposure
Oh, no he didn’t!
President Barack Obama hosted a private screening with the cast and crew of NBC’s “1600 Penn,” on Wednesday, a new comedy about a dysfunctional white family living in the White House. The comedy, which premieres at 9:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, features Bill Pullman as President Dale Gilchrist with Jenna Elfman as First Lady Emily. It was co-created by one of Obama's former speechwriters, Jon Lovett.
Try as Obama may to act like he is "down with the cause," he didn't extend the invitation to the cast and crew of “The First Family,” a sitcom about a well-to-do black family living in the White House. Entertainment Studios has garnered a 104-episode syndication deal for the show, which premiered on a number of CBS stations last fall.
Although the White House screening of 1600 Penn was closed to the press, NBC’s sitcom likely will benefit from the news and his former speechwriter's involvement.
The well-known struggles that plague many black Hollywood actors and show producers have been well-documented. They need work. Additionally, there is the challenge of bringing positive representations to major network lineups and movie studios. Besides, the African American unemployment rate remained the highest in the nation last month, at 14 percent.
"First Family" creator Byron Allen, who is black, has championed his ability to assemble a large cast of veteran and up-and-coming black actors and secure a hefty investment in the show’s production.
“Most people don’t build six rooms for a pilot – you just don’t,” Allen said in a promotional interview before last fall’s premiere. “You don’t have a cast of 18 people – you just don’t… We don’t have a budget. Our budget is, ‘the very best.’”
"First Family" is loosely based on the Obamas, the first blacks to occupy the White House. Christopher B. Duncan of “Jamie Foxx Show” fame, stars as the fictional president who assumed office right after President Obama. The show follows the commander-in-chief who stumbles through balancing the duties of office with the demands of parenting four children, being a loving husband and dealing with in-laws. Kellita Smith ("The Bernie Mac Show") portrays the First Lady. Jackee Harry, Marla Gibbs and music icon Gladys Knight also are part of the cast.
The show is nothing like "1600 Penn", in which the premiere episode shows Secret Service agents rescuing first son “Skip” after he started a fire at his college fraternity house.
"We really wanted to dissect what it meant to be a family in the most extraordinary of circumstances - and what's more extraordinary than being the First Family?" said "1600 Penn" co-creator Josh Gad in a press interview last month.
It’s no secret that many black actors and actresses have long complained about the lack of opportunities in Hollywood. The younger set are particularly plagued by being underutilized, 33-year-old actor Anthony Mackie said.
"It's frustrating that the movies I want to make I haven't been able to make," Mackie told the Los Angeles Times. He was interviewed for a 2011 article about discrimination against younger black actors. "Orlando Bloom was given 15 opportunities after 'Lord of the Rings.' Black men are given no opportunities."
Of course, there’s something to that. By Forbes magazine's estimates, the top 10 richest (and constantly employed) African-American actors are all over 40.
What does Obama have to do with that?
Mackie continued: “In the early 1990's, every black actor you know now was starting out and making movies. They were making more movies under Daddy Bush than we are under Obama, which is ridiculous."
True or not, Mackie believes that too few young black actors get the exposure afforded to the older set – and certainly not the opportunities given to the marginally talented Brad Pitts and Jason Segals.
The Screen Actors Guild’s National Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee has taken up the issue.
“At this critical juncture for the American labor movement, it is paramount that the vastness of the real American scene be represented on screen,” said Bertila Damas, co-chair of the committee, during a panel discussion in Los Angeles featuring actors Don Cheadle, Taraji P. Henson and Wayne Brady.
Cheadle told the audience, which included aspiring black actors, that finding success comes from being multi-talented. “What are you doing now? Are you pursuing it in any other way than (saying), ‘I want to be famous,’” he said.
Sure, success and opportunity are undoubtedly linked to an individual’s drive. But who you know and whose attention you get is just as important. The makers of "1600 Penn" clearly had a foot in the door at the White House, as did the makers of "Red Tails," the 2012 George Lucas-produced film about the Tuskegee Airmen.
That film was screened at the White House, with President Obama in attendance, but suffered a bit from a Hollywood publicity machine that couldn’t build a viable campaign around the predominantly African-American cast.
Lucas said as much in a "Daily Show" interview promoting the film: "It's because it's an all-black movie. There's no major white roles in it at all...I showed it to all of (the Hollywood studios) and they said no. We don't know how to market a movie like this."
He continued: "I realize that by accident I've now put the black film community at risk. I'm saying, if this doesn't work, there's a good chance you'll stay where you are for quite a while. It'll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower budget] mold.”
"Red Tails" surprised the industry by debuting at No. 2 in box offices nationwide, bringing in more than $19 million in its opening weekend. But it made just $50 million in theaters, $8 million shy of its overall budget.
Had President Obama not screened it – or hosted surviving Tuskegee Airmen at the White House – would the film have done worse?
Unfortunately, there's no way to answer that question. Despite syndication, there’s been almost no chatter or reviews about "First Family" since its fall premiere. Anecdotally, it is said to leave viewers wanting in the funny department.
NBC, of course, has put its mammoth publicity machine behind "1600 Penn".
Shouldn't the nation's president support the only depiction of a black first family on television, anywhere?
Seems like a missed opportunity to promote African-American employment in Hollywood for a “toilet humor” take on life at the White House.