Almost exactly a year ago, CNN presented Black in America, a 4-hour, 2-night documentary that aimed to explore African-American life. The first part focused on the black woman & family; the second, the black man. Soledad O'Brien did the reporting.
Touted by the network as 'groundbreaking', the series attracted a lot of conversation, not all of it good. Some African-American viewers thought it was simply a litany of black pathology, aimed primarily at explaining issues to a white audience.
Still, Black in America attracted 16 million viewers, so tonight and tomorrow CNN presents Black in America 2. And, as if in response to those negative criticisms, the 4-hour, 2-night sequel is about solutions. Tonight's episode at 9 p.m. (after the president's press conference) is Today's Pioneers. On Thursday, at 8 p.m. there's Tomorrow's Leaders. (At 7 p.m. tonight there is a live countdown to the show.)
Yep, it's all positivity. At least the two hours (an hour of each night) I got to screen.
There's nothing really wrong with the reports. It's definitely inspiring and encouraging to see a workshop that aims to save black marriages or the story of how actor/director/writer Tyler Perry went from poor and homeless to owning a studio in Atlanta that employs hundreds. (There's a challenge too, to some of Perry's screen images.) In a Thursday segment, Malaak Compton-Rock (comedian Chris Rock's wife) takes kids from Brooklyn to South Africa, thus opening up their worlds. In another part, the focus is Steve Perry's Capital Preparatory Magnet School which gives kids high standards and demands they reach them. And they do.
Yet while I was impressed by the good works, in the end, I wasn't sure of the point of the reports. It's no surprise that there are people working hard to deal with the ills of society. (If it is a surprise to you, maybe you need more enlightenment than a 4-hour documentary can accomplish.) And while those ills, from disease, to lack of education, to marital woes, to crime affect African-Americans disproportionately, they aren't uniquely black problems. These are American problems.
I have to give CNN and Soledad some credit. Tackling race isn't easy, and making the attempt leaves you open to all kinds of criticism. Journalism doesn't typically do a great job with the topic. It's an emotional issue, requiring a heavy dose of nuance and thoughtfulness, and an ability to look beyond facts and a willingness to challenge both the subjects and the reporter.
But it seems to me that if you're going to explore blackness in America, you should be exploring blackness in America; what it means to be black, whether that's a distinct experience and what makes up that distinct experience. And if it's not a distinct experience, maybe the documentary should explore why the nation can't wrap its collective head around that notion.
That's not what "Black in America 2" does. Instead, it takes the Obama/Cosby route, heeding the call of black responsibility and culpability and tough love. That's not a bad thing. But we've heard that before.