From the beginning, television -- the image mill for the mainstream -- has not known quite what to do with black characters. It has struggled, as has the country, to find a place for them that white Americans could find comforting and digestible from the safe distance of their living rooms. Reality had nothing to do with it. Were real blacks ever the docile buffoons depicted on "Amos 'n' Andy," or jolly sycophants like Beulah? Could blacks on television be palatable if they were anything less than Rhodes scholars who speak seven languages, like Bill Cosby on "I Spy," or the properly powdered nurse Julia?
Most seasons, old stereotypes pass for shorthand sociology, broken only by contrarian moments like "Roots" or "The Cosby Show." Now, after the success of street movies like "Boyz N the Hood," television, particularly in a few bold steps by HBO, is making black dramas with the highest production values and an edgy pseudorealism, in which violence and pathology are inherent in being black and crack is a required character.
Consider this scene from "Strapped," a movie about guns in the inner city that will have its premiere on Saturday on HBO: A black teen-ager sits on a Brooklyn stoop with semiautomatic weapons to sell. He does not want to do this. This is an act of desperation and misguided urban heroism. He knows of no other way to bail out his girlfriend, who is pregnant and charged with selling crack.
And this scene from "Laurel Avenue," last month's critically acclaimed mini-series about a black working-class family in St. Paul: Late at night in an unlighted living room, a black woman envelops her adolescent son in her arms, stills him, as he slowly lets his hand, the one holding the gun, go limp. She is a recovering drug addict, an unwed mother with no job, trying to keep the boy from going back out to the streets. She would return him to the womb if she could, but it is too late. He is already selling crack and seeking revenge on her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend for beating her.
To many in the industry, this is landmark television, evidence of a brave new realism in the portrayal of blacks, long overdue after 40 years of minstrels and sidekicks. To others, it is merely a richer, more elegant form of stereotyping that, combined with the explosion of brutish, unremittingly violent movies like "Menace II Society," does greater damage to blacks because viewers see so little else.
The two HBO offerings, and a season's worth of new slapstick hip-hop comedies, are at the center of a sharpening debate over the images of blacks on television today and in seasons to come, a painful introspection that occurs, paradoxically, at a time when there are more blacks in front of and behind the camera than ever before. While many series include a black actor or two in the cast -- Blair Underwood, for example, in "L.A. Law" -- what is at issue now are the shows that have black America as their subject.
It would be naive to suggest that a few dozen black directors could weed out demeaning portrayals. The directors say there is not a single black in the television or movie business who can green-light a project and get it to the public. The people who call the shots are white executives who obsess about ratings and box office, not civil rights. Pathology sells. And producers, black and white, cannot get it to the screen fast enough.
"As long as it's in the ghetto and people are carrying guns and even the dog speaks in four-letter words, they'll give it four thumbs up and nine stars," said Robert Townsend, who directed the 1987 movie "Hollywood Shuffle," a satire on black stereotyping, and the new film "The Meteor Man." "They say, 'Give us the ugliest side of the world.' Not that it doesn't exist -- we know it exists. But can we show another side of the world?"
Right now, the industry does not appear especially interested in that. It seems a black movie or television show is not considered "authentic" without a rap score, a slack-shouldered teen-ager and drugs, violence or some other social ill. Reality is the new buzzword. But some blacks in television ask, whose reality?
"We've seen the black lower class, and I wouldn't say it's always accurately depicted," said Thomas Carter, who has directed episodes of "Miami Vice," "St. Elsewhere" and "Hill Street Blues." "What we don't see is black working people. Most black people go to work every day. Most black people are not on welfare. Where are those people? Most black people are trying to keep their families together. Where are those people?"
Some of them were in "Laurel Avenue." The single mother in the mini-series has a twin sister, a police officer who is about to be promoted to sergeant. The young crack dealer has a teen-age aunt who makes good grades and has a job at a coffeehouse. But the plot is driven mainly by others' drug troubles and shady dealings.
The actor and producer Tim Reid, who starred in "Frank's Place," a comedy-drama cited by many blacks for its full-spectrum depictions of them, crunched numbers in his head to make the case that with blacks, Hollywood has made the exception the rule.