(This overview of the BET Honors telecast was written at the time that the show was actually recorded, several weeks before the air date.)
Imagine an opinion poll of African Americans on the topic, “Things that would make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. turn over in his grave on his birthday.” Along with racial disparities in health and economics, widespread casual use of the n-word and the Wake County, N.C., school board’s recent Tea Party-backed efforts to abolish its diversity policy, you can bet you’d hear quite a few responses condemning Black Entertainment Television.
It’s not just the Tyler Perry-should-be-charged-with-war-crimes-against-black-women crowd or pop-culture curmudgeons claiming that a decent song hasn’t graced mainstream radio airwaves since 1968 who side-eye the network. Criticism from all corners of the black community ranges from diplomatic (it “fails to mirror the complexity of black life”) to disgusted (after Michael Jackson’s memorial service, “I wish BET would have died instead” statuses were “liked” all over Facebook). In August, co-founder Sheila Johnson told the Daily Beast that she wished those currently responsible for programming would stop “lowering the bar so far just so they can get eyeballs to the screen” by glorifying “promiscuous, irresponsible and sexual behavior.” Even the recent debut of The Game and the reported 7.7 million viewers it attracted didn’t win over critics. (Bossip asked, “Does resurrecting a canceled CW favorite redeem BET from years of degradation and misogyny???”)
But last night at the fourth annual BET Honors — an awards show designed to recognize lifetime contributions and service to African-American culture by honoring achievements of black legends in music, arts, service and education — a different, more hopeful and positive side of the network was on display. The program balanced entertainment, education and inspiration in a way that raised the question, “Why can’t this be what BET is all about?”
When the ceremony airs — during Black History Month — it will allow viewers to imagine a network that not only gives black culture a break from being dragged through the mud but also uplifts it by anchoring its entertainment focus in issues that matter to the black community.
The honorees were legendary actress Cicely Tyson; Academy Award-winning actor, musician and comedian Jamie Foxx; supermodel and entrepreneur Iman; publishing mogul Linda Johnson Rice; world-renowned musician Herbie Hancock and accomplished historian and educator Lonnie G. Bunch. Linking the event to the MLK holiday, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said, “Like Dr. King, the honorees demonstrate their commitment to inspiring others to freedom, democracy and justice.”