Black class, as 'reality' would have it
Monday, 11 August 2008

La Times

LATE last month, Bravo aired a half-hour preview of its forthcoming "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," and with clinical precision, it lived down to expectations. Here, again, will be a group of women, many married to wealthy men, cataloging their possessions and their beefs for the cameras, largely because they lack the good sense not to.

But the opening monologue, voiced by all of the featured women, highlighted what will set this show apart from its New York and California predecessors: "Atlanta is a mecca for wealthy African Americans. Nowhere else is there an elite society of African Americans going to galas, fashion shows, and living in luxury gated communities. Atlanta is the black Hollywood."

Certainly the wealthy black communities of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities around the country are breathing collective sighs of relief that Bravo has chosen to train its cameras elsewhere. Most of the Atlanta "Housewives" are African American, making for the largest collection of black wealth any reality show has yet displayed, even if the opening monologue does describe it as "new money."

And in what feels like an almost deliberate redistribution of reality programming face time, "Housewives" is but one of a spate of current reality programs focusing on wealthy African Americans. In addition to the "Housewives," whose show likely will debut properly later this year, there's the second season of BET's "Baldwin Hills," a docusoap in the mold of "The Hills" filmed around the well-to-do Los Angeles neighborhood. Additionally, there are shows revolving around celebrities and their broods -- MTV's "Run's House," TV Land's "Family Foreman," VH1's "Luke's Parental Advisory" -- as well as would-be celebs looking for an in: MTV's "Buzzin' " and VH1's "New York Goes to Hollywood."

Throw into the mix the competition shows focusing on strivers -- namely, VH1's "I Want to Work for Diddy" and MTV's "From G's to Gents," both of which have significant numbers of black participants -- and what it all adds up to is the largest public conversation about class in the African American community ever facilitated by television.

What that conversation often is not, though, is complicated or controversial or fraught. By and large, these are polite, tightly framed representations, as if the weight of polyvalent images were too burdensome.

This is particularly true of the celebrity-focused shows, in which the patriarch -- and in these cases, it is always a patriarch -- is invariably portrayed as a next-gen Ward Cleaver. The template here is "Run's House," now in its fifth season on MTV. Rev. Run, the former Run-DMC rapper, has in recent years become better known as a Cosby-esque dad. He and his wife, Justine, now have six children, including a baby, Miley, they recently adopted.

Family values

LIKE most parents, Run is intermittently inspiring and embarrassing to his children (and, frankly, to his wife). And even though the scenarios this season feel more contrived than ever, there is nothing forced in the good cheer Run deploys to solve all crises. A couple of weeks ago, the family went on vacation to a dude ranch, where Run unironically referred to himself as Chevy Chase in the "Vacation" movies. Obviously his two oldest daughters, aspiring fashionistas and demi-celebs, weren't thrilled with the arrangement, but by the end, family joy had been achieved.

Run is a harmless dad, and his show has actually gone a long way toward defanging hip-hop culture in the eyes of the mainstream. Watching "Run's House," it's clear that rap can have family values too. (George Foreman's reality show "Family Foreman" operates similarly. It's unbearably genial, mere advertorial for Foreman's personal and commercial interests, and a showcase for his impossibly good-looking children, of which there are many.)

It's with a clear eye on the Rev. Run that Luther "Luke" Campbell, late of the Miami bass icons 2 Live Crew (known best for being deemed obscene by a local court and getting arrested for performing their songs; the obscenity ruling was later overturned), arrives with "Luke's Parental Advisory." Unlike Run, who has turned being avuncular into a lifestyle, Campbell has kept up his naughty ways, to a point, running an adult-entertainment company. But his home life is even more conventional than Run's, making this show all titillation, no payoff. In the premiere episode, Campbell held a casting call for girls for his adult properties but told his fiancée, Kristin, a 27-year-old lawyer, "If a girl like you came to the casting, then we'd ask her to work in the office!"

(One notable exception to the patriarch rule, BET's "Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is," is now on hiatus. Revolving around the R&B singer and the troubled family she supports, it is transfixing in a way none of these shows is.)

Despite appearances, these shows aren't solely about affirming traditional family structures. They're also about the power of legacy. Run's daughters have a clothing line, Pastry, premised almost completely upon their participation in this show. Similarly, his son JoJo has a record deal. Last week, Run's 13-year-old son, Diggy, was given his own clothing line, Space Jam, which is slated to launch next year. What good are fame, wealth, power and status if you can't pass them on?

Like most children of privilege, Run's kids do not seem to comprehend the exceptional circumstances into which they have been born. A similar blitheness is present in "Baldwin Hills," which was mostly hollow in its first season. This year is an improvement, thanks to a cast that includes young people from a greater variety of economic and social backgrounds. So while Gerren, the model, still frets over breaking up with Moriah, the basketball player, more interesting things are happening at the sidelines, particularly with Staci, struggling with a deadbeat boyfriend and trying desperately to find a job, and Justin, a former criminal who has reformed himself through religion, commitment to fatherhood and songwriting.

Justin, in particular, is compelling, both swaggering and thoughtful. In the men's group at his church, Justin wonders about his largely absentee father: "What was wrong with me that you couldn't love me like I love my daughter?" One hopes that Justin will continue to repair the wounds to his family, so that the next generation will have a more benign set of concerns than he does.

Competitive edge

SEEING THE difficulties of the well-off, though, makes the stories of struggle on reality competitions even tougher to watch, and makes them feel more intractable. On "I Want to Work for Diddy," contestants from a range of backgrounds battle one another for the chance to become Diddy's assistant (or one of them, one assumes). And while some contestants come from comfortable backgrounds, many do not. In the premiere, the one standout particpant (in an Omarosa way) was Kim, a.k.a. Poprah, who was venomous and unpleasant, except when she began discussing the death of her parents, and how she put herself through college.

Similar tales of family woe bedeck "From G's to Gents," in which onetime Diddy manservant/umbrella-man Fonzworth Bentley helps mold a series of ruffians into something approximating gentlemen. Thus far, it's been more wacky than thought-provoking, more focused on weeding out those who weren't G, or gangster, enough to start with. But there have been moments of genuine feeling. In an early episode, the men were taught to tie a tie, and one of them, Shotta, noted that this was something one's father is supposed to teach, but that many of the men didn't grow up around father figures.

Growth has been slow to come on this show, and only a couple of cast members seem genuinely invested in their own betterment. Last week, though, after several incidents, one of them, Kesan, removed himself from the competition, fearful that his own propensity toward violence would ultimately lead him into a physical altercation with a housemate. (Several other cast members said they felt unsafe around him.)

But it's probably not Kesan they need to worry about. On the show, the men are attended to by a butler, Frederick, who is played by an actor, C. Frederick Secrease. He has perfected the look of disdain one expects from such a character, but one can't help but detect a note of repressed envy, looking out at the future D-listers in his midst and wishing maybe he weren't so proper.

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