She's 34-years old, a Washington DC lawyer with a degree from prestigious Georgetown University Law School and little did she think selling a show idea to Black Entertainment TV would land her in the biggest "mess" of her career. It was Jamella "JAM" Donaldson who sold the concept, "Hot Ghetto Mess" to BET – a show which depicts Black folks doing the most absurd and over the top behavior while host Charlie Murphy (Eddie Murphy's brother) delivers commentary stating, "we've got to do better."
This week, Donaldson and BET's President of Entertainment Reginald Hudlin faced a firestorm of controversy and loaded questions from local and national press reporters at the Television Critics Association (TCA) meeting at the Beverly Hilton hotel. Only days before, two major advertisers, Home Depot and State Farm pulled their ads from the show and the network's website.
You probably have seen the latest pictures and videos of one of the global African American community's delight and bane and no, not The Flava of Love. The pictures at the center of the storm include those of a young woman with a hairdo skillfully, artfully, but ridiculously shaped like a Bell helicopter, complete with moose-stiffened rotors. The images cause many to ask for the need for social dialogue – a family get together to seriously discuss 'us.'
"The website has been somewhat controversial since it started," said Jam Donaldson, Hot Ghetto Mess originator. "I am amazed at how quickly the protestations began and how they circulated and how distorted they are. But I'm not really shocked. I am not the end all when it comes to fashion, but I think a lot of the images go a lot further than fashion, but the hyper-sexualization of our women, our obsession with consumerism, the bling mentality, speaks a lot about the inner workings of our communities and I think that needs to be addressed."
Donaldson was approached by BET and together they have produced, "Hot Ghetto Mess: We Can Do Better." She wrote six episodes and is executive producer for the show scheduled for release July 25 at 10:30pm. Donaldson started the site first several years ago. When she first saw the images, she had the insight to know that, although they may be amusing, she was concerned about the image we are displaying on the world stage.
"I had gone through a period where I would get a lot of emails showing those girls at the prom wearing really bad outfits and it started to disturb me that we were laughing at them with each other," Donaldson said. "I was trying to figure out a way to use these images to say, 'look, y'all, this really isn't funny.' And that was the genesis of the site. We have to do better. That has always been the intention and the message."
Comments posted to the site range from outrage to high praise, but most importantly, the site is generating a lot of buzz, many images have more than 500,000 hits, and sparking even more dialogue about whether the site is helping or hurting Black America.
That is one of the reasons Black Entertainment Television (BET) partnered with her to produce a new TV show to add to their powerful lineup. Controversy about the site moved a few companies to pull their names from her website.
"Here's the unfortunate part about the controversy," said Reginald Hudlin, President of Entertainment for BET Networks since June 2005. "We are launching 15 new shows – shows for families, teens, adults, news, and my fear is that [the press] will only write about the most negative thing you can find and harp on it and obsess on it and that would be a real misfortune for your readership. People need to understand that BET is doing what our viewers are have been asking us to do and that is to step up and show a variety of programming. BET is showing programming that addresses some of the toughest problems in our community."
In support of Donaldson's idea, Hudlin and his staff raised the bar by bringing the website to the airwaves. "We are trying to do a show that is challenging and outside the box of anything we have seen," Donaldson said. "But it's surprising that it immediately draws this passionate opposition from people who haven't even seen the show. How can we challenge ourselves and have a discussion when we can't even get out of the gate. It's one thing if you see the show, then we can have a great dialogue about what you didn't like, what you did like, what worked, what didn't. But I can't defend something that the audience has never seen. Just see it, and then we can have an intelligent conversation about it."
Donaldson voiced other concerns about the show that she has received in emails on her website. "I think there's a popular misconception that the TV show [ Hot Ghetto Mess: We Can Do Better] is going to be about Charlie Murphy [Eddie Murphy's brother] telling a few jokes, then showing a lot of ignorant videos then coming back to tell more jokes and that's the end of the show, but it's not. Every video-clip segment is followed by commentary. Finally someone out here will be putting these images into context. The whole point is that there's a message, there's a mission [to the show]. The message is that of social change."
Donaldson said she thinks the show will touch a nerve and hopes it will inspire a lot of dialogue and self analysis that will ultimately benefit the black community tremendously.
"It's not just about fashion, I think it's just a lowering of community standards," she said. "I'm not that old, but when I was in High school, I would not have gotten into the prom dressed like that. So, [I feel ] there this community acceptance of our standards getting lower and lower and that's the genesis for the website and now the BET TV show."
And to the critics who say she may have had good intentions, but that BET will exploit her idea, she said, "I wrote all six episodes, they're not going to exploit it, they wanted me to do it, because they like my message. My message is clear on the website and on the show."
n Hot Ghetto Mess debuts July 25 at 10:30.