The pilot of Hot Ghetto Mess opens like an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, with images of plus-sized women doing booty dances, an evangelist getting punched by a member of the congregation during prayer, and a TV reporter stumbling twice while running to get a comment from a marathon runner. The show includes clips of C-list video dancers who fall during performances but still manage to continue booty-shaking, Congressman Bobby Rush telling protesters, “fuck you and your mama too,” and a woman who calls 911 because she wants the number of the cute policeman who just came to her house. The show also features man-on-the-street interviews where people are stumped by puzzlers like, “How many states are there in the United States?”
Hot Ghetto Mess, a show set to air on Black Entertainment Television (BET), is based on the Web site of the same name (hotghettomess.com) by Jam Donaldson, 34, a graduate of American University’s film school and a Legal Aid Society attorney who lives in LeDroit Park. The pilot is light fare compared to the site, which since 2004 has featured video clips and pictures of outfits and poses that would make Miss Manners want to pimp-slap somebody, from prom pictures of women wearing pasties on down. Going from a Web site built on images that Donaldson received via e-mail to a show on BET, a cable channel criticized for reinforcing negative images of blacks, has made Donaldson a target for criticism, including an online petition urging BET to halt production of the show.
Although the site and show feature images of the African-American community at its worst, Donaldson says she considers her work constructive criticism. “I was tired of getting all of these pictures—people at the prom, street fights, people with grills, all of this ridiculous stuff,” she says. “So I was like, ‘How can I use these pictures in a Web site to make some sort of social statement?’…It started out as a sort of shame-on-you kind of thing.” The site’s slogan is “We Got to Do Better,” and since starting the site she’s added an essay explaining her intentions, a “Not Ghetto” category that features Barack Obama and Nobel Peace Prizenwinner Wangari Maathai, and a “Token White” ghetto mess category.
Donaldson first created a video version of Hot Ghetto Mess in 2005, producing a DVD of clips hosted by former WKYS-FM personality Lamont King. The following year the DVD became a finalist in the Hollywood Black Film Festival and was also featured in the Urban Film series at the E Street Cinema, drawing a sellout crowd. Among the people who got ahold of the DVD was Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment at BET. He had Byron Phillips, his vice president, call Donaldson last June to discuss developing a series. They eventually struck a deal for six episodes.
“BET and I talked a lot, and I was emphatic that the show not become a coons-on-parade show,” Donaldson says. “After speaking with Hudlin and other creative folks there over the course of several months, I was convinced they didn’t want that either, and that our vision for the show was the same.”
Latrice Janine, 25, a fashion and marketing university student in Chicago, learned about the TV show when a friend told her about a BET ad asking people to “submit your craziest video for a chance to be on BET.” In January, she launched an online petition (petitiononline.com/stpghtto/) calling on the channel and its owner, Viacom, to pull the plug. “How long must we continue the minstrel show?” the petition reads in part. “I am tired of watermelon eating dancing shucking and jiving idiots on television.” Janine plans to send the petition to Viacom once she receives 2,500 signatures. (At press time more than 2,100 people had signed it.)
“I think we need to do better as a people, but I think it is just unnecessary to parade ourselves around like buffoons. We are already portrayed as clowns on TV,” says Janine. “It makes me sad, because we sell ourselves out for a dollar, continuously.”
The show does not exclusively feature clips of African-Americans; about a third of the images on the show and Web site are of white people. But Donaldson says that she herself started to become conflicted about the project while she was working on the DVD. To that end, she sent copies of the disc to black commentators like Tavis Smiley, Henry Louis Gates, and Michael Eric Dyson, soliciting their opinions. Gates responded with some suggestions that she implemented, including the essay explaining her intentions and the “Not Ghetto” section emphasizing positive images of blacks.
That hasn’t halted accusations that Donaldson exploits poor people, particularly poor people of color. She says that she’s received death threats and has been accused of being a KKK member and an Uncle Tom. In October 2005, Donaldson wound up on Judge Judy, sued by a man who claimed that seeing his picture on Hot Ghetto Mess—showing him with his hair slicked down and wearing lip gloss and light-brown contacts—caused him emotional distress. Judge Judith Sheindlin ruled in Donaldson’s favor, arguing that the man’s picture was already on the Internet.
“There’s nothing that I can say that is positive about this except that she is black, and she’s making money,” says Mari Torres, one of the people who signed the petition. “The show is just making fun of people, and I don’t think that’s funny. I think I would have respected her more if she wouldn’t have said she was trying to help. That’s just her conscience talking, but she knows she is hurting more than helping.”
“I am a black woman and was raised in the housing projects, and these are not acceptable images to me,” says Lotticia Mack, a North Carolina resident and long-time contributor to the Hot Ghetto Mess message board. A fan of the site, she says that she’s used it to spark conversations with middle-school students she mentors and refutes the notion that the site exploits the poor. “I grew up in the housing projects, and I was preppy,” says Mack. “Blue and green hair doesn’t signify poor to me. I think it is just emulating what we see in the media. Truly poor people are just trying to buy basic necessities.”
Donaldson says the show has been toned down since the petition launched—the show now features less graphic violence and is not as sexually explicit. Zabrina Horton, a BET spokesperson, did not deny or confirm that the show has changed since the petition began. She did confirm that the show is slated to run but would not confirm an airdate. BET’s Web site says that the show will premiere on July 25.
The show is being filmed in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and D.C. Last month a BET crew set up shop on 13th and U Streets NW. A segment host, Sydney Castillo, conducted man-on-the-street interviews, asking people if they could recite a line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I wasn’t even born when he died,” one woman said, indignant. “Didn’t he die in, like, 1968? That’s my mother’s department.”
“I have a dream that one day everyone would get jobs?” a man responds.
“I have a dream that every child can live in harmony amongst the rainbows and unicorns,” a young woman answers.
One man dressed in a suit with a strip of kente cloth around his collar finally gets close to getting it right. “I still have a dream that one day this nation will rise to the true nature of its creed. I still have a dream,” he says. He pauses and adds, with some attitude in his voice, “Oh, you want me to get to the part with the little white boys and little black girls?”
“For folks who are angry at me for airing our dirty laundry, I’m glad they are angry,” says Donaldson. “Now maybe we’ll be forced to finally go wash it.”