(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."
Iman was celebrated for her career in the fashion industry, but she called recognition for her philanthropy on behalf of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo the "highest honor" of her life. Herbie Hancock highlighted his efforts to put jazz education in New Orleans public schools. The focus on Cicely Tyson was not just on her big-screen roles but also on her commitment to inspiring young people (her best advice: "You must know your craft").
What distinguishes the honors from everyday programming on the network that so many love to hate? On the red carpet, April Woodard of BET News told The Root, "This show celebrates people who don't necessarily make headlines," adding, "If you don't see this type of thing, you can't be this type of thing.”
According to Stephen Hill, president of programming, music and specials for BET, the program "has much more in common with Black Girls Rock [Awards] than the BET Awards. It's about celebrating African Americans for contributions beyond just dancing and singing."
But the audience will likely wonder, why can't BET do this all the time? Sure, it's an entertainment network, but the event should put to rest any doubts about whether it's possible to merge fun and meaning. Despite heavy discussion of substantive social issues, it didn't turn into a PBS special — there were jokes from Cedric the Entertainer and Jamie Foxx; and host Gabrielle Union told us on the red carpet, "I have 11 outfit changes!" During the ceremony, she coyly acknowledged each gown change for the audience. And no one was bored. Performances by Trey Songz and Guy and a Teena Marie tribute by Marsha Ambrosius had the audience dancing.
In his introduction of Tyson, Tyler Perry explained his take on the significance of the event: "If no one calls you on your birthday, you make yourself a cake. If we don't celebrate our successes, no one else will." If the honors are any indication, it's possible that BET is starting to get it.
The special will premiere on Feb. 21 at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. CDT).
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributor to The Root.