Words By Benjamin Nugent
Illustrations By Ted McGrath
BET's new show We Got to Do Better airs candid footage of poor people doing stupid things. The majority of the poor people are black. In the pilot episode, a girl in leather shorts freak-dances until she falls off a stage, backward, and keeps on freaking upon landing until, in a moment of inspiration, she climbs a decorative column of palm fronds and humps it until a frond snaps beneath her weight, and she goes to the ground a second time, still frond-humping. A dealer sucker punches an addict. Girls pull on each other's hair and clothing while a spectator modestly reminds them they're fighting over a guy who is in prison. Then there are the "Street Walkin'" segments, in which people on the street are asked who Barack Obama is, and wonder aloud if he is the president of the NAACP. Between clips, the host, Charlie Murphy, enjoins the audience to better itself with literature rather than just watching television. He also explains the reason to watch: "We want you to think of this show as a little tough love for America."
The creator of We Got to Do Better is Jam Donaldson, a black woman. In 2004, while still a law student at Georgetown, she launched a website called Hot Ghetto Mess that collected images of dubious behavior among the urban poor. It eventually came to draw millions of hits. This year BET brought it to television--changing the name to We Got to Do Better when Home Depot and State Farm pulled ads--and gave Donaldson the sole writing credit. Her job is to write monologues that ennoble the enterprise. Within the first two minutes, it's evident that Donaldson's calling is the law; after a sequence of freak-dancers sustaining injuries, Murphy is obliged to speak the line "Have those folks ever heard of Alvin Ailey?"
But because the show is so obvious in the way it tries to win over its audience and defuse controversy, We Got to Do Better is instructive. It lays bare the mechanics of a formula followed more gracefully by many of the shows, movies, and songs we call "urban." The formula is:
2. An assertion that what is shown is of documentary
authenticity: "realer than real," "the black man's CNN," "all about reality," etc.
3. A reminder that "the reason we have brought you this programming is so that you might learn by negative example, and be inspired to do better," not, as it might initially appear, so that you might feel better about yourself in comparison to others.
This is pure speculation, but could it be that one reason the public finds, say, Diddy compelling is that he's so good at following the Formula? When he produced an MTV "documentary" about his own preparations for running the New York City Marathon, the final cut emphasized both the amount of money he raised for charity and his own (clearly staged but presented as authentic) inability to cut fried chicken out of his diet during training.
What a one-two punch of self-aggrandizement and self-degradation. The idea in Get Rich or Die Tryin', the movie starring 50 Cent (written by Terence Winter, an extremely able Sopranos veteran), is that 50 is honest about the daily routine on the street, and inspires us to rise above our circumstances. One wonders: having been given this official reason to like 50 Cent, do people feel more free than usual to smile at how many times he has been shot and how he says he's going to kill his competitors? In both of these cases, the ruse is so effective because the perpetrators seem to halfway believe it themselves.
American entertainment has long trafficked in negative images of black people. But plain old negative images of black people aren't as much fun as the Formula. There's nothing quite like the traditional pleasures of minstrelsy mixed with the euphoria of making a virtuous consumer choice. That's what makes the Formula so dangerous. Donaldson is well educated enough to grasp this, I suspect, and that may be one of the reasons her monologues are so awkward. Her writing reeks of a guilty conscience. It would be nice if more urban entertainment suffered the same affliction.
Read more and watch original video at GOODmagazine.com.
Nugent has written for The New York Times Magazine, Time, and New York. His new book American Nerd: The Story of My People, will be published by Scribner next spring.