Roundtable: Black Films and Soldiers with Bills

Topics: the status of African-American films and filmmakers, and U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq who are now facing debts and bill collectors. Guests: E.R. Shipp, distinguished professor in journalism at Hofstra University; Joe Davidson, an editor at The Washington Post; and Nat Irvin, a professor of future studies at Wake Forest University.

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ED GORDON, host:

Now, onto our roundtable. We'll continue our discussion of support of black films and talk about a couple of other issues including wounded soldiers fighting bill collectors.

Joining us today from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., Joe Davidson. He's an editor at the Washington Post. Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University, joins us from member station WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And in our New York bureau, E.R. Shipp, a professor of journalism at Hofstra University, the School of Communication there, also joins us.

All right, folks. Let's get into this very quickly, and I should note that we went a little further--that was an edited portion of our conversation with Nnegest. And one of the things that we did talk about, E.R., was the marketing of movies. That often is a complaint that I hear from black Hollywood, that movies aren't often marketed in the right way that tell the real story, that often they are ghetto-ized in the trailer and in the advertising. What do you think about that?

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism Professor, Hofstra University): There's a lot of truth to that. We've seen it over the years. I think I've mentioned on this program before, Antwone Fisher was a perfect example of a movie that wasn't marketed quite well, and I think it was involving some of the same people, Fox Starlight(ph). They're, I guess, to be encouraged for reaching out to bring these projects into fruition, but then they don't know what to do with them.

I must say this, I haven't heard of Phat Girlz until now. Now, I shouldn't be-I'm not representative necessarily of all black people, but I keep up with a lot of things, and Phat Girlz kind of missed me all together. The writer, Nnegest, mentioned that Thanks For Smoking got a lot of word of mouth boost, but a lot of those actors went on talk shows and, you know, entertainment shows, et cetera, so that helped. I haven't seen that kind of marketing for this movie.

GORDON: Well, let me say that Phat Girlz did get a fair representation in terms of the talk shows with Mo'Nique. There was television and radio play for the movie, but Joe Davidson, here is the problem, I think, that happened here. With a big start like Mo'Nique and the way it was marketed, you almost believe that this was a "big, big film," but the reality is Nnegest only had a $2.5 million budget. She shot it on tape and not film. The lighting wasn't what one would believe that a "Mo'Nique movie" would have been like. It might have done better by marketing it as, you know, a first run director's film, so that also was part of the problem here. But what about the idea of whether black America really supports "positive movies"?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, Washington Post): Well, I think that, number one, black America does not have nearly enough positive movies, but I also think that we do-that is black America-do support those that come out. I mean, I'm thinking of some of the movies that Taye Diggs has made, for example, The Best Man, Brown Sugar, with Sanaa Lathan; or Waiting To Exhale, which was an enormously popular, not just among the black part of the population, but also was a very big crossover film.

So I think there are a number of positive films that black America has supported over the years. Having said that, it's clear that we don't have nearly enough, and there's still far too many negative stereotypes in black films by black people and in white films about black people.

GORDON: Nat, it's interesting because Joe does rattle off a number of those movies that did well, but on the other hand you can think of movies like Rosewood or Antwone Fisher or even as far back as The Five Heartbeats that didn't do as well as many people thought they would--or after seeing them later on DVD--thought they should. So it's an interesting dichotomy when you look at all of what comes into play here.

Professor NAT IRVIN (Professor of Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Hollywood is fickle, Ed. You know, it's not just-the black folks are not just the only ones fickle. White folks are fickle, too. The public is fickle. I mean, we'll say that we want good literature. I remember having the conversation with August Wilson about, you know, the struggle he had with trying to bring great literature to the stage, versus what the success that Tyler Perry may have had, and maybe the literature wasn't quite as good.

You know, I remember a debate earlier on NEWS AND NOTES that--I think the interview that Farai did about the struggle we're having between the romance novelists and the serious black authors. I mean, you know, public is fickle. We say we don't--we say, for example, that we don't want to see the black images that are on BET, but somebody's watching it. And we say we want more news, but then we don't watch it. So I hope the young director of Phat Girlz--I have not seen the film--I tend to wait the films come at home. We look--my wife and I look at a lot of film then--but I hope she's not discouraged. This is the business she's in.

GORDON: No, she didn't seem to be. And she said she believes she's going to go on and do, you know, some other good work. But here's the problem, guys, with all of this, if Ashton Kutcher puts out a movie and it bombs, it doesn't speak to the next hot white guy who's going to make a comedic movie. If, in fact, Dream Girls crashes with all of the great stars that is in it...

Prof. IRVIN: All right.

GORDON: ...that will put, oft times, the kibosh on black musicals down the road for many, many, many years in Hollywood. It's as if that one representation has to hold up to see if, in fact, we're going to make another one, or…

Ms. SHIPP: It doesn't really have to. And I think Dream Girls would be in a different category than Phat Girlz because of the production values and all that are involved in that particular…

GORDON: Right. Well, but you understand my point. Of course, I hear you, but I think--I think we have to represent everything else. They'll decide whether a black musical will move forward, or if a black drama for instance, Antwone Fisher, doesn't roll, then Hollywood will say, often, well, black folk don't want to see drama.

Ms. SHIPP: Well, I there's some truth to that. And I think, in a way, that the opposite is also true, which is, you can get a very successful black film and often it does not have spin-offs, not in terms of a sequel, but a spin-off in terms of that kind of positive vibe in Hollywood so that the next film has an easier time getting that green light. I think that's also an issue.

GORDON: All right. Let us move to another topic if we can on our abbreviated Roundtable for today, and that is what we're hearing from the government accountability office. And what we're seeing now is, returning soldiers, oft times wounded, having now--having to face, I should say, military debt collection on money the military says that they are owed by these soldiers.

For instance, one soldier had injuries that forced him out of the military. He now has to repay an installment bonus of $2,700 because he only served two-thirds of his three-year tour.

Nat, when you hear this kind of thing, and we could go on and on, these stories replicate themselves down the line, either by the fact that the Army may have overpaid, didn't get a chance to look at the records, et cetera, et cetera. Is this fair at all?

Prof. IRVIN: No it's not, Ed. And the fact is, I think the numbers are something as high as 25 percent of the Iraq--the soldiers who've served in Iraq have faced this kind of a problem. So this is a serious issue.

I tell you what, I am really sympathetic to the fact that the Army is trying to get it right. They're using systems that basically were in place right after the Vietnam War. And you can know how much technology has changed over the last 30 years, so they're really up against some really old technology and they've been overwhelmed with, you know, major disasters, too. One, the Katrina situation, which impacts National Guardsmen, and then of course, what has happened in Iraq. I'm really sympathetic to the Army trying to get it right.

I think they've forgiven a lot of the debts, but it just sort of just aggravates the daylights out of you to think that you've gone over into Iraq, suffered some serious injury and then have to live in an automobile. In America? You know, we ought to be able to do better than this.

GORDON: Joe, the Army is saying that, for instance, they've moved wounded soldiers off the battlefield so quickly the accounting office cannot keep up, resulting in numerous payroll errors. But as Nat says, often the soldier doesn't know that these are errors. The money is spent and now the demand of that money back on a soldier often can't work really is a hindrance.

Mr. DAVIDSON: You know, I think that it's really a testimony to the lack of skill that the Army has displayed in taking care of its own. And some of the numbers are really astounding. There's this one report that says almost 900 Army soldiers were wounded in combat between early 2001 to September 2005. They had military debts totaling $1.2 million, but an estimated 73 percent of those were caused by payroll errors. You know, that's a really huge number.

Another report says 4,000 soldiers who were seriously wounded in Iraq were either overpaid or underpaid. And I think that forgiveness is something that the taxpayer would really understand in this situation.

GORDON: E.R. Shipp, here's the ironic thing that the government accountability office also uncovered. We're starting to see the same kind of thing with FEMA and Katrina victims.

Ms. SHIPP: Very much.

GORDON: A question of overpayment, not being able to really look into it with a fine-tooth comb.

Ms. SHIPP: Yes, and people who had relied upon FEMA's promises that they would have at least a year's worth of shelter by giving them vouchers are now being told, nope, we're not going to do that. And others are being told they were given too much money, or they were given money two or three times when it should have been one time.

So we're seeing, again, a breakdown in our government, and it raises questions, as does the military issue, of the competency of our various systems that are in place, but also the willingness of the government to realize that it's made mistakes and that the victims should not be blamed.

GORDON: Nat, real quick for me, if you will. It's a huge Catch-22 here, because one has to believe that with double payments or all of the red tape that comes through, even with Katrina victims, you may not know that you weren't supposed to be "double paid" from FEMA and your insurance company. If that money's spent and the demand to have it back, as you say, with the crucial nature of Katrina victims or soldiers, it really, really adds an extra added burden on all concerned.

Prof. IRVIN: Well, you know, the simplest thing would be, Ed, as the government right now, or as Congress right now, is considering, actually maybe placing FEMA back into the--as a separate entity, the simplest thing might be to forgive all the debts; wipe the slate clean and just start all over again.

I bet you that would be the--the folks who have certainly find themselves on the wrong end of receiving the money would certainly appreciate it. But to get started all over again, that might be the best thing for all hands.

GORDON: Joe, with about 30 seconds. I heard you earlier saying that the forgiveness of debt might be something the taxpayers want to take. But do you think that's going to really be the case if you're talking about forgiving FEMA debt and Army debt, et cetera, et cetera?

Mr. DAVIDSON: I think the public would forgive the Army debt quicker than they would forgive the overpayments to FEMA--to Katrina victims, frankly.

GORDON: Yeah. Well, its one of those things that is an unfortunate incident of bureaucracy that we see, even with all this technology, we haven't been able to figure out yet.

Joe Davidson, Nat Irvin, E.R. Shipp, thank you very much. Appreciate you being part of the abbreviated Roundtable.

ALL: Thank you.

GORDON: Thank you so much. Have a good weekend.

Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, Pentecostalism celebrates its 100th anniversary at its Los Angeles birthplace. Plus, Angela Bassett draws on her own life experiences for her latest film, Akeelah and the Bee.

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