"The PJs": Desmond Pfeiffer, No; Problems, Yes

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson


Last October many African-Americans were outraged by UPN's "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer." There was good reason. It was a historical absurdity, that insulted and demeaned African-Americans. It was so poorly, written, crafted, and slapstick that it was quickly and deservedly doomed to extinction. Now we have Fox's "The PJs," produced by Eddie Murphy which purports to spoof life in a mostly African-American housing project.

When Murphy conceived this idea he must have known that he would be treading on shaky if not dangerous ground. Sure enough even before the first episode hit the air the howls went up that the series was:

A. racially demeaning.
B. distorted black life.
C. promoted stereotypes. and
D. unfunny.

On two, possibly three counts the critics are right. The scenes which depicted black men sitting around the table guzzling beer, that made light of a crackhead character, and took slaps at religion, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are more than enough to offend racial sensibilities, not to mention sending the wrong message about drugs and alcohol. As for the humor, maybe those slightly before comatose might get a chuckle or two out of some of "The PJs" childish antics, but thinking people, no.

Still, despite the gaffes, image missteps, and offensive scenes, there's no reason to stampede to the barricades ala Desmond and demand that Fox snatch the series from the airwaves. It does have some redeeming qualities, and even offers some hope. The principal character, the building super, is a solid working class guy, with a loving wife and a good friend who's a solid professional. He makes a mighty effort to be a mentor, and a solid role model to the kids in the building. He demands that they stay in school, and prods them to have a work ethic and ambition. With one exception there is no profanity, use of the 'N' word, or disrespect of black women.

A fair number of its writers, creators, and executive producers are black, and of course, there's Murphy. This in itself is cause for much cheer coming at a time when some TV executives have made strong hints that black-themed series, will be either time segregated on one or two nights a week, if not outright eliminated. This would dump many more skilled and talented African-Americans in the TV industry out on the street with no place to go.

But "The PJs" still needs some immediate surgery--desperately. This means a healthy dose of enlightening humor, more positive characters such as a businessperson, educator, or another trades person, and more care by scriptwriters not to mock personal beliefs, religion, and revered black historical figures.

The producers and the critics of "The PJs" producers say they want the series to tackle tough issues and tell the world the real story of black life. Now all they have to do is to figure out what that reality should be, and present it with a laugh.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:ehutchi344@aol. com

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