Originally created 01/20/99

'The PJs' raising howls in black community



PASADENA, Calif. -- Black filmmakers and actors are engaged in a spirited debate as to whether Fox's new animated comedy series, The PJs, is offensive.

Film director Spike Lee, who appeared via satellite Sunday at the TV press tour to publicize a PBS show, called PJs "hateful toward black people" and "very demeaning."

The new series "shows no love at all for black people," Mr. Lee told reporters.

Mr. Lee is the best-known critic of the show, which is set in an urban housing project and features an all-black cast. Eddie Murphy created the program, is among its executive producers and does the voice of the lead character, Thurgood Stubbs, the building superintendent. The series is groundbreaking in its use of Foamation, a form of animation that is similar to the Claymation technique used in the well-known California Raisins commercials.

Black actors and producers affiliated with the show took issue with Mr. Lee during their press tour session.

PJs executive producer Larry Wilmore said the show is not intended to be representative of the black community.

"As African Americans, we fought for years to be treated as individuals by all people," Mr. Wilmore said. "These people are individuals. Just in the same way you wouldn't say Seinfeld represents all Jews -- you know, that would be silly to say that."

Actor Shawn Michael Howard, who does the voice of a recovering crack abuser, would get an Emmy if he played a recovering crack addict on NYPD Blue, Mr. Wilmore speculated.

"This is not new territory," he continued. "It's all been done before. Richard Pryor did every one of these characters in all of his routines. ... And he has been applauded for it and cherished for it."

Late last week, a coalition of grass-roots organizations tried to launch a protest against the show, led by a Los Angeles-based group called Project Islamic HOPE. But a planned protest at the Fox studio did not come off, and an effort to get viewers to boycott the Tuesday-night show also appears to have come to nothing, since PJs got hefty audiences in its initial two broadcasts.

Missing from the debate has been Mr. Murphy. Tony Krantz, president of Imagine Television, which produces PJs, says nothing should be read into Mr. Murphy's absence; he also has avoided publicizing his recent films.

Mr. Lee, who was addressing reporters to publicize PBS's upcoming program I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts, emphasized that he was speaking personally, not as a representative of blacks.

Reaction to the program in Augusta has not been nearly as volatile. Augusta's Fox affiliate, WFXG (Channel 54), has not received any negative feedback since the show began airing, said general manager Dave Olmstead.

"The ratings will tell us the general acceptance of the show," Mr. Olmstead said, noting that sweeps week is coming up in February. "But generally viewers don't call us with positive feedback, only when it's negative. And we haven't had any calls or anything negative at the station."

Nielsen Media Research reported that the preview episode of the show on Jan. 10 took 13th place for the week with a 12.6 rating (12.5 million homes).

The Rev. David Walker, president of the Aiken chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he hadn't seen the program or heard much about it.

"I've seen some previews of it, but I haven't talked to anyone who's seen it. I'm not much for animated movies," he said.

The PJs is meant to be humorous and should be taken lightly, said Kevin Anthony, a 16-year-old junior at T.W. Josey High School.

"It's just satire and something they thought would make a good show," he said. "It shouldn't be taken as hard as people are taking it now."

He said the show fulfilled its purpose: providing entertainment.

"It was funny. I could relate to it," he said. "It wasn't stale. It was fresh. I liked the show."