At first glance, the dramatic scene being filmed inside a nondescript pink warehouse in the middle of an industrial park here seemed simple enough.
Cameramen and technicians surrounded actor Joe Morton, who was wearing a robe and slippers as he stood with actress Vanessa Bell Calloway in a cramped stairwell of a “house” that had been built in the middle of the warehouse. Morton was playing a hardware store owner who had been confronted by two robbers and now was telling his wife how one of them had aimed a gun right in his face.
“The guy, he never took his eyes off me,” said Morton, acting shaken as Calloway stared with concern. “He never blinked. … His eyes were empty. I wanted to see hate or fear, or even pleasure, somewhere in him. Something. … He was a brother, and he didn’t give a damn what happened to me, or anyone. It was like facing an alien.”
“Cut!” bellowed director Michael Engler as he sat nearby, watching a monitor. “I want to try it another way.”
Morton and Calloway listened attentively to Engler as he worked through what is intended to be a pivotal scene in an episode of the new CBS series “Under One Roof,” a drama about a multi-generation black family that premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
On one level, it was business as usual - the routine work on any set. But on another, Morton and Calloway - both seasoned performers who have been in numerous television series and films - confessed that they could not escape the feeling that this particular job was far more significant.
The series marks the first time in 16 years that a one-hour weekly drama on network television has centered exclusively on a black family. Although many dramatic series have featured blacks in starring or costarring roles, few have focused on family units or have featured large black ensemble casts, even though the number of blacks on network programs has risen dramatically in recent years.
Instead, most of the network shows about blacks during the past two decades have been half-hour comedies - often with characters that scholars, sociologists and other black professionals have decried as cartoonish, offensive or stereotypical.
The historical significance of “Under One Roof” and its effect on future television portrayals of blacks have put extra pressure on executive producer Thomas Carter and the cast as they put the finishing touches on the episodes.
“This show is history, very much so,” Carter said. “No African American family with this kind of breadth and complexity has ever been shown on a weekly drama. Never has there been one with the amount of talent and experience that has gone into this show.”
Added Calloway: “All the time I’ve been filming, I’ve been thinking, ‘I’m part of a historical event.’ It’s very satisfying to be part of a show that people are going to have to take seriously.”
“We’ve all grown up with ‘Ozzie and Harriet,’ ‘Father Knows Best,’ ‘Eight Is Enough,”’ Morton said. “White families have always represented the universal family. For the first time, we’re the universal family.”
Now Carter and Co. believe they must disprove the longstanding theory of many skeptics in the television industry: blacks may yearn for a drama that reflects their experience in a positive, uplifting light not filtered through the aura of comedy or crime, but the mass television viewing audience - read: white - will not be receptive.
“The resistance has been (that) white America is not interested in taking a serious look at African Americans,” said Jannette L. Dates, senior editor of the 1990 book “Split Images: African Americans in the Mass Media” and an associate professor of communications at Howard University. “There are issues that rise up and overwhelm them - issues of slavery, segregation and prejudice. It raises feelings of guilt.”
Carter thinks it is more simply a case of decision-makers at the studios and networks being “white men whose friends and relationships are with other white men - their perceptions are colored by the limitations of their experience.” Nonetheless, he acknowledges:
“Yes, naturally, there is an extra weight attached to all of this, but I try not to think about it too much. I’m trying to remember that my primary responsibility is to make an honest, revealing and compelling drama. My belief is that if we do that, the American community will support the show.”
Boosting the series’ chances is its quality pedigree both in front of and behind the camera.
In addition to Morton and Calloway, the series features veteran stage and screen actor James Earl Jones as the curmudgeonly family patriarch. And Carter is one of the most respected directors in television: He won Emmys for best director of a dramatic series two years in a row for “Equal Justice” and also has directed for “Miami Vice,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Midnight Caller.” He has directed two of the six episodes of “Under One Roof.”
Carter set the series in Seattle because he wanted the stories to be told in a city with a significant minority population but one that did not have the atmosphere or expectations that a location like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago might arouse with audiences.
Some stories will deal directly with racially charged situations: a black businessman’s options when a white client would rather do business with his white partner than him, and how a black store owner feels when a member of his race threatens his life during a robbery. But the majority of “Under One Roof” will deal with the enormity of the events in everyday family life that have nothing to do with race.
Carter said he knows he must appeal to more than black viewers.
“I want this family to be not just a black family but the modern American family,” he said. “I want people to watch and say, ‘Hey, that’s the fight I had with my wife last night. That’s what my child said to me this morning.”’
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