Two Sundays ago, a new version of “Steel Magnolias” premiered on cable. This was noteworthy for several reasons. First, somebody actually thought we needed another version of “Steel Magnolias” when the 1989 movie is a certain kind of classic. Second, the cable version starred black women. Third — and this is the remarkable thing — the new, black “Steel Magnolias” premiered neither on BET (because there’s now almost nowhere on the network to put a movie like that) nor the theoretically more upscale BET alternative, TV One (it’s become a lot of “Save My Son” and “Martin” reruns).
No, the new, black “Steel Magnolias” premiered on Lifetime. Lifetime is television for women. And for a long time, that meant television for white women. But on “Steel Magnolias” weekend, the network devoted a prominent portion of its programming to movies starring black women. “Abducted: The Carlina White Story,” with Aunjanue Ellis, Sherri Shepherd, and Keke Palmer, debuted the night before, and “Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys” was its lead-in. And during the broadcasts of both were dozens of commercials for “Steel Magnolias.” The network was proud of this movie.
If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, then the network’s instincts are correct. “Abducted” is just another dumb Lifetime movie in which something bad happens to a woman and then justice is served. The movie isn’t race blind. It’s simply race unimportant. That, of course, is the big deal. This was television for women who were also of color. But blackness — the politics of it, anyway — was in no way the subject of the programming. It was played as universal.
Lifetime was proud of “Steel Magnolias” because it was really good and prestigious — because Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, and Jill Scott were in it; because the talented, well-regarded Broadway director Kenny Leon made it. Its pride had little to do with self-congratulation. Lifetime’s entire approach to that weekend was casual. There were ads for Motions hair-care products and spots for Heidi Klum’s Babies “R” Us clothing line, featuring biracial children who could be her own.
The network seemed to be saying, this is the way it should be. And they might be right. That, of course, is not the way it is. The stars on most television shows and in most movies are still predominantly white and occasionally supported by people of color. Sometimes that support is absurdly derogatory, the way it is on a show like “Two Broke Girls” or in a movie like “One for the Money.” But the news isn’t all bad. Some of it’s extremely interesting.
You have reached the limit of 5 free articles in a month
Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.
- High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
- Convenient access across all of your devices
- Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
- Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
- Less than 25¢ a week