Marc Henry Johnson, executive producer and chief visionary of the newly premiered public television series Colorvision, is a passionate advocate for fair and balanced representation of minority cultures on our airwaves and movie screens. Disarmingly affable, Johnson is also politically savvy, articulate, and inclusive-minded. With Colorvision, an interesting, if at times overly ambitious, showcase of short films and their filmmakers, Johnson has found a place and a way to apply his unique sensibility.
Johnson, whose previous work as a producer includes the award-winning film The Huey P. Newton Story for HBO, adapted from a stage performance by Roger Guenveur Smith and directed by Spike Lee, explains that his film and television interests go back to a crucial moment in college where, as an undergraduate at Cornell and recent transplant from the school’s engineering department to its theatre and film department, he took his first film history survey course. The course included a screening of D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation, and Johnson remembers that the class discussion focused more on the film’s cinematic influence than its racism and historical revisionism. Although his first impulse was to bolt back to the clear boundaries of engineering, Johnson decided instead to stick it out with a promise to himself that he would, “find a way for the voices of my community to get their stories told.”
If you’ve ever tried spitting in the wind, you probably know what it feels like to be a filmmaker of short films. Considering that the medium has few distribution outlets, no financing options (save inheritances, credit cards, and wealthy relatives), and razor-thin chances that the final product will end up in the hands of someone who can actually kick-start your career or your financial independence, it hardly screams mainstream opportunity outlet. So when Colorvision, which was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Ford Foundation, and ITVS, hits American Public Television (APT) in January, with its mission to create a national venue for African American, Asian American, Native American, Latino, and Pacific Islander filmmakers to screen their short films and create a dialog on race and culture, you may feel the impulse to give your head a scratch. That is to say, when the medium itself is marginalized, under-funded, under-appreciated and misunderstood, at what point does the hair split so fine that only a barber would give a damn?
The ultimate goal for Colorvision, though, Johnson maintains, goes beyond the series itself, further specifying that his hope is to generate enough revenue to found and support a studio for independents. That kind of cash, however, has to come from a mainstream economic infrastructure that sees a bottom line profit opportunity. With other producing projects in various stages of development and completion, including a documentary on black filmmakers, a TV series on the history of Latino baseball, and Rodney Evans’ 2004 Sundance entry Brother to Brother, Johnson is not a novice in the industry, and understands well that the fact of his being a one-man equal opportunity impresario is largely why the unique and admittedly risky venture of Colorvision has any legs at all. To wit, he has taken a deceivingly passive route with the series by taking confrontational material and wrapping it around softball segments and soft-focus patter from a recognizable minority host. The real meat of racial and cultural identity is in the short films themselves, where it should be.
As a producer, Johnson has worked with such cultural maelstroms as Michael Moore and Spike Lee, as well as less controversial outlets like PBS, The Learning Channel, and Discovery. Although the original idea for Colorvision was conceived of by a multi-cultural consortia looking to get their communities’ programming on television, the series is Johnson’s first production as auteur—it’s his baby from start to finish, which, Johnson concedes, has been both exciting and daunting. He recalls that the day after the project was approved he felt the full scale of its weight come crashing down on him, briefly turning his enthusiasm to paralyzing anxiety. But after a night in the Mojave Desert with friends under an intense meteor shower, he had, he says with a sheepish laugh, a vision: “We could put Colorvision together and make the most of it [by augmenting] the films with these originally produced, hosted segments, which string it along and highlight the themes and give you a pool of talent and, hopefully, the audience will come back week after week and see what they are up to.”
And so it came to pass. The two-year journey culminates with six hour-long episodes hosted in a TV magazine format. The series host is J. Lo’s late 80’s doppelganger, Daisy Fuentes, and the short films are broken up by light-hearted segments hosted by a mélange of multicultural talking heads in fish-out-of-water scenarios. For example, in episode three, Kate Rigg, a quick-witted Canadian comedian with Indonesian roots, dives into the current craze of three-minute dating parties in an effort to gauge the ethnic diversity of the mainstream singles scene. And in one of the series’ few self-generated segments where racial tension is a palpable presence between host and community, Marc Anthony Thompson, a dynamic, Panamanian born African American extrovert (who also happens to be the series composer) takes a trip to New York City’s Puerto Rican Day parade, where his non-Puerto Rican presence briefly raises hackles. The six episodes are divided up into universal themes: “Heroes,” “Dreams,” “Identity,” “Love,” “Rage,” and “Death,” respectively. The films run the gamut of experimental non-narrative to Hollywood-lite; crude to eloquent; stiff to poetic; technically complex to barely competent.
The twenty-three films featured in the series were culled from over 500 submissions that came through the casting of a wide net—Johnson solicited from film festivals, museum curators, film departments at universities, and film agents. While he already had longstanding connections to the African American film and television community, he had to take a crash course in the four other less familiar cultural identities, which drew for him an interesting conclusion. “I realized that if you put those five groups together (African American, Asian American, Pacific Islands, Latino and Native American) all of a sudden they are not a minority group—together they are a majority. From that point of view it kind of lightened things up and allowed me to look for good stories. Which in the end, that’s what it’s about.”
The end game, as far as Johnson is concerned, for Colorvision or any other of his forthcoming projects, is not just in giving airtime to minorities, but in changing the infrastructure that evaluates and finances the future work of the directors. He credits promising models of institutional diversity within public broadcasting itself, as well as divisions within HBO, the Ford Foundation, and ITVS, although he sees perpetual stagnation within the larger outlets. He explains, “The result of the [last] census [demonstrated] a changing face of the American public. Media ultimately is for the people and it should reflect the people. That might sound idealistic but I think a problem is that the media—i.e. studios and networks—are the last bastion of the old boys network.”
Johnson admits that progress in front of the camera has been notable (black and Latino sitcoms, for example), even though he strongly adheres to the notion that any real change will only occur when network, studio, and cable executives who greenlight projects are themselves representative of our national diversity. Johnson says that in the five-year process of seeking funding for The Huey P. Newton Story, he never once sat across from a black executive who could sign a check. “I pitched all these young white guys and they’d be like, ‘Okay, what’s this Huey Lewis thing you got?’” He laughs about the curious phenomenon within studios that have created “diversity departments,” adding, “Why don’t you just hire a VP of production who happens to be Latino? Or a VP of Development or Creative Affairs who happens to be black or Native American? It seems like a real waste of resources . . . but it’s something that they can point out and say, ‘hey, we have black executives . . . in the diversity department.’”
There are inevitable gaps in a six-episode series with such a broad mandate as Colorvision—perhaps the most glaring of which is that the patronage of the consortia inevitably generates a series that represents a rather neat assemblage of cultures, and it is that very oversimplification that denies the viewer a window into how complexly the American identity is tied up in its native and immigrant experiences. Which, one could argue, creates the very sort of economic tit-for-tat that Johnson hopes to defy (i.e. mainstream cash buys the programming it wants to see). And what is most obviously absent (save a Palestinian character in The Satellite Shooters) is the Arab point of view, a culture at the forefront of disenfranchisement and misunderstanding on a global scale. Johnson brushes off these observations, explaining that he was randomly selective since obviously no show could ever claim to represent every culture, and this series represents the best of what they screened. In fact, he suggests the only way Colorvision could get any broader would be to consider foreign films, which is where he hopes to take the show if it gets picked up for another season.
Potential faults and criticism aside, Colorvision is a solid first step in the post-affirmative-action world of culture identity, and it says a lot about Johnson’s skills as a producer that he has managed to adequately represent such a dynamic panoply of identities through these twenty-three short films. But can this dialog and format affect the larger public, beyond American Public Television and PBS’s reach? Is there new ground here, not yet covered? Johnson ambitiously aspires not only to get his show franchised in Europe, where minority culture is fraught with a sea change of new hostility around the tide of immigrants from the African colonies, but also to seek out the newest means of distribution and broadcasting, through technological innovations like satellite and HD. And in terms of programming innovations, some of the films in the series do challenge the viewers’ assumptions about other people and the simultaneously protective and isolating nature of community, through good storytelling and filmmaking.
Johnson’s plans for an as yet unconfirmed second season of Colorvision include themes on family and hustling—segments like a Cowboy-Indian poetry showdown and the separate black and white Thomas Jefferson family reunions. But for now, his focus remains on his high hopes for the series debut this January. Because the series is offered by APT, it is not on the PBS schedule, and Johnson has lobbied tirelessly to impress affiliate stations and seize precious time slots, the last leg of the production process that many show creators leave for others to sort out, either because they lack the savvy to pursue it, or the production has worn them out. And Johnson is convinced that if he can appeal to the local markets and build an audience on his own, he can create a demand that will ultimately penetrate the mainstream. Because the goal, he says, is not to win viewers by pegging interest to the minority content, per se—he wants to expand on the “majority” experience. “Revelations about the culture we call America,” says Johnson. “That’s what we set out to do.”