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Last Updated: Monday, 28 July, 2003, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
America Beyond the Colour Line
Newsnight Review discussed Henry Louis Gates' series America Beyond the Colour Line.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

I found the programmes, both of them the one in Hollywood and the one in my home town of Chicago relatively banal, basically because we know a lot of what Henry Louis Gates has said. This has been said over and over for 30 years, 'Hollywood isn't friendly to black people', well what else is new? Also, I thought the second programme about Chicago, which focused on black men particularly, I thought was a slightly dangerous programme because it didn't put it in any kind of context to let us understand the dynamics of that, relationships there in the black community, or any of the sort of underlying circumstances. Chicago is very complex, America is very complex and we don't get that in these programmes and I really thought they didn't work.

I wonder if that's the point of it actually, to let people speak for themselves. That's one of the things Gates is very good at, is talking to people in prison or housing estates or wherever.

Hmm, but he talks to too many people so everything gets reduced to a sound bite. You get an interview with Jesse Jackson, 90 seconds later you're off somewhere else. That's especially true, he almost seems in awe of the people he meets in Hollywood. He goes to Chris Rocks' house, wow man nice house. He's called 'Skip', he's not Professor Louis Gates, he's Skip Gates and off he goes. The nicest bit of the whole programme that I watched was just after an interview with an idiot producer. Over the fence they are making a music video for Alicia Keys and he just happens on it and he goes down and gets some of the food and then gets an interview with Alicia Keys. She's very intelligent, very bright, very with it and she's breaking the barriers. Much more of her and less of the other people would have made a much better programme.

He does have this dual personality. He's the academic and he's the man in the street. He's Skip Gates, he's Henry Louis Gates, does he meld those together?

I found him very irritating. The people he met didn't seem to particularly and I started to be converted in the course of the first programme. I was pretty much completely converted by the end of the second. I thought that although there wasn't much analysis and that was part of the form of the thing, you didn't know why people where in these situations and what could ever be done, except the rather quaint idea that middle class people who'd made it would stick around and move into nice areas of town.

So he's an academic actually who has no thesis, or rather plays the thesis down?

Well, he does have one. He's very powerful but he's showbiz basically. All these people are his mates. This is Skip Gates and his mates basically. That's what this show is about. The most irritating thing for me was one hour on African America, on this context is enough. Why four? I haven't seen any programme on black Britian with this kind of depth in at least five years and it really perplexes me and really irritates me, that the BBC would have invested in this kind of programme on African America and it doesn't do it on black Britain and I don't really understand why.

He uses the word "racism" and "racist". As an example of what the programme couldn't explain or reach too there wasn't any representation of that. He is always talking about racism. He has asked people, have you experienced racism. The shape of it can't actually represent the racism that he says.

The point might be if you had a racist that might dominate the programme. There were interesting moments where black actresses talk about the colour code. In Hollywood the blacker you are the more difficult that problem.

The cappuccino, café latte is OK. If you get darker than you don't get roles. I wasn't convinced by that. I think the programme in Chicago was better. I was interested. Have you seen it in films and books and magazine articles in the culture of violence and drugs. How the underclass become middle class by dealing drugs to each other. Suddenly they are driving in BMWs and wearing lots of gold jewellery. They have the acceptance of a family, a gang, which they don't get from the single parent community with very few male role models.

Skip is really, really conservative because he says at the end of the day 'education is the revolution'. Which is the way I was raised. He doesn't seem to be able to understand the dynamics that go into that community. It makes it strange to look at this black man walking as if he on safari through these industrial housing estates, the prison and he acts as if he doesn't understand why those people are there. I found that most annoying. I would have rather have a seen a black British person go over there, meld together the two instances, would have been a much better, more educational series and one which would be fresher. This man is a Harvard academic. More power to him, respect to him. What he is giving us is old and banal and that is my problem with it.

For what it's worth I thought he was great a television presenter without an ego, and that's pretty rare.



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