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Turn Off Channel Zero

September 29, 2007

Turn Off Channel Zero

By Kwan Booth ( April 12,

It’s no secret that mainstream media’s coverage of African Americans is severely one- sided. From the nightly news to “reality shows” like “Cops” and “Flavor of Love” to almost every music video on BET, MTV and VH1, the dominant image of black people these days is criminal, bitchy and more than slightly stupid. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the whole Black World is rocking grills, packing gats and sitting on 24-inch spinners.

“Turn Off Channel Zero,” a new film by Opio Media, attempts to broaden that image and get everyday black folks interested in the ways they’re represented in television, film and popular music. The documentary features commentary from Professor Griff of legendary hip hop group Public Enemy, alongside media personalities including the Last Poet’s Abiodun Oyewole, journalist Davey D, radio programmer Paul Porter and Dr. Ray Winbush, Director of the Institute for Urban Research.

Opio Lumumba Sokoni, Zero’s director and producer calls it an “activist film,” created to spark dialogue within the black community. “We need to be the ones to change our media; the important work starts after the film.”

The documentary, which takes its name from the 1998 Public Enemy anti-TV anthem “She Watch Channel Zero,” features a network of media activists who got tired of talking and decided to put action to their words. Clips from The Maleena Lawrence Show, Block Report Radio, Freemix DC, Vox Union and Luv4self all provide examples of young people around the country taking a stand against biased depictions of black life.

“From here on out,” Griff says in one segment, “we are going to control our own images.”

With a gang of mics, notepads and a digital camera, the film crew hits the streets of Atlanta, Boston, Oakland, New York and Baltimore to find out what black people think of their public image and the way it’s influenced by shows like “Flavor of Love”-which follows PE hypeman Flavor Flav on his game show search for his new love. Footage from recent FCC deregulation hearings, community roundtables and TV broadcasts round out the film and address topics like public radio’s Payola scandals, the responsibility of alternative media and the importance of knowing your history.

“We’re throwing (these issues) on you and asking ‘what are you going to do about it'” the director explains.

The white whale of the doc is Sumner Redstone-CEO of Viacom, the company behind shows like “Flavor,” “I Love New York” and a morning radio show hosted by Don Imus, who’s been trying to backpedal from some incredibly stupid comments made on air a couple of weeks ago (he refered to the women of Rutgers Univeristy basketball team as “nappy-headed hos”). Sokoni says they linked the issues directly to Redstone because the decision to air these shows is ultimately in his court.

“When you hit the very top it all rolls downhill.”

Eschewing linear story telling, the creators follow a structure used by recent hood films like “Treal TV” and “Hood 2 Hood” to produce a mix tape of black life. Images of a Nation of Islam step team counterpoint archival footage of Lil Black Sambo, while televised clips of Redstone blend with backstage conversations on the greatest “hype man” ever (which of course, would be Flav).

Sakoni says he and the team avoided over intellectualizing in favor of showcasing the real opinions of everyday people; people who don’t always share the filmmakers concerns. In one beauty shop segment, two women say that the shows are just entertainment and do nothing more than show people the way they really are.

Whether or not you agree with the representations, topics like the pay for play radio scandals, unchecked media consolidation and tightening restrictions around intellectual and Internet rights directly effect those representations. Black people can’t afford to be silent and “Turn off Channel Zero” is an prime example of concerned citizens who are making sure our voices get heard.

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