Black Reflections: BET 1980-2010

Memories from 30 years of Black Entertainment Television...

Jun 13th

What Alex Haley Taught Me About Writing & The Artist Way

By Maxie Collier

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Me, author Alex Haley, and camera operator Darryl Player, after Mr. Haley's appearance on Our Voices, 1991. He passed away the next year. Photo courtesy of Darryl Player.

During my seven years working full-time and freelance at BET, I can't begin to count the number of celebrities and VIPs I encountered over those years.

It still seems like moments ago when I was taking Mrs. Rosa Park's hand and helping her off of the stage after an episode of the talk show Our Voices. Or, when the young Fugees performed on Teen Summit and kicked into some great Bob Marley freestyles- right after the live show ended, and a couple of years before they blew-up with The Score album.

Or, when George Clinton and Bootsy Collins talked about their process recording the song Flashlight, a staple of my childhood funk diet. Putting the mic on President Bill Clinton, while BET founder Bob Johnson and a room full of Secret Service people watched. And volumes of other recollections.

But even among these many episodes, there are several moments, individuals, and conversations that have impacted me far deeper than others. One of those wonderful, unhurried dialogues was with the late author Alex Haley.

As the child of Southern writers and Black activists, I grew up hearing the name Alex Haley as far back as I can recall. First, because of his  work on the Autobiography of Malcolm X, then later as a result of his book Roots and the milestone TV series it produced.

However, our connection on that relaxed evening, following a taping of Our Voices, started with me saying "Mr. Haley, my name is Maxie Collier, I'm a writer,  and my family is also from Tennessee."

He stopped and replied with a smile "How nice, I know a lot of Collier history in Tennessee."

We talked more about my family, his family, and our Southern heritages. Then I asked him "Can you tell me about your writing process... how do you manage to get such comprehensive works completed?"

He started off by telling my about his decades in the Coast Guard and the writing habits he developed being away at sea for so many years. He said that even after his Coast Guard years, he would take long trips on merchant ships. Not the all you can eat/drink/sleep cruise ships, but the commercial cargo ships that rented unglamorous, low cost rooms for long transcontinential voyages. He said he spent much time alone and away from people, while focusing on his research and manuscripts.
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The US Coast Guard ship Alex Haley, named in honor of the late writer and 30 year Coast Guard veteran.

I immediately recognized a similar pattern in my own life. Growing up in a house full of family members, I had started sneaking away on the commuter buses from Columbia, MD to DC, at thirteen and fourteen years old, trekking on my own to the Library of Congress, museums, National Archives, and Howard University's Library, trying to claim quiet time and feed my appetite for knowledge and adventures.

Then by seventeen, I made my first of many voyages across the country on a Greyhound bus, writing and chronicling the stories and people I encountered.  A habit that still continues today.

But at the time and prior to my conversation with Mr. Haley,  I was often told and felt that my trips were aimless and that  I " should be focusing my time and energy" on more traditional pursuits, in more conventional manners.

However, that moment and those words with Mr. Haley helped me understand that the artist way is rarely conventional and often filled with days, weeks, and stretches alone, in our works, our words, and our worlds... prior to gifting the outcomes to those who may or may not receive it.

My brief but memorable encounter with Alex Haley, helped my feel far more assured and far less misunderstood. When he died, a few months after this meeting, I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with him and the spirit, words, and graciousness that he bestowed to me.
Jun 13th

Momma Look At Me, I Work At BET!

By Maxie Collier

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Some of BET's "Teen Summit" Crew, on set in the early 90's - Me, Elise Perry, James Stubbs, Karen Cromwell, William Harper, Tim Brown, Sylvia Reis, and Dave G. Most of us were in our early - mid 20's. BET helped launch the careers of many young, African-Americans, working behind the scenes in professional television.

By December 1989, my brothers and I had been publishing our magazine, Black Reflections, for more than two years. It hadn't made us any money but it taught us about production and provided an opportunity to conduct our first interviews. One of these interviews was with a rapper named Redhead Kingpin. We interviewed him in the parking lot of Black Entertainment Television (BET), a national cable TV channel based in Washington, DC. It was my first time there at the facility.

After that,  on several occassions, I drove and sat in the McDonald's parking lot next to the building, imagining all that was going on inside.

By this time, I was a student at Howard University, stumbling thru business classes while living and partying at the lovely new co-ed residence, the Howard Towers.  I was pretty much in school for social activities, but yearning for more.

It was during the holiday break, at our father's annual Kwanzaa party,  that I had the good fortune to meet one of my magazine’s subscribers, Dr. Bruce Marshall. As fate would have it, he happened to be the Chief of Engineering for BET!

After plucking Dr. Marshall’s head with a bunch of questions about TV production, I asked him if he could hook me up with an internship at BET. To my surprise and delight, he offered me a part-time job, primarily on the basis of the work I had done with my magazine.

I was twenty-one when I started my gig at BET. My first job was as a part-time teleprompter operator. It was a paper pushing job-- literally. I had to tape script pages together, then rolled them through an old mechnical teleprompter, as it was read by the on air talent.

I’d occasionally have to use my writing skills to make changes on the script. I wore headphones, which allowed me to follow everything going on in the control room, as well as watch the way the talent, camera operators, lighting crew, and sound people moved about in the studio.

I worked a four hour evening shift but only operated the prompter for a one minute news report during each hour. The free time gave me an opportunity to learn TV production on the job by watching the other programs being produced. Taking the same approach I used to learn computers and desktop publishing, I also read all that I could about TV production.

I developed a reputation for asking questions and practicing on the equipment in the studio and control rooms. The producers, talent, technicians and directors at BET shared their experiences with me. A few months later, I was offered a full-time job as a floor director. Much to my academically minded, mother’s dismay, I quit school and took the job.

During that period, there was a resurgence of Hollywood interest in African-American films. In addition to Spike Lee, many other directors such as Robert Townsend (“Hollywood Shuffle”); the Hudlin Brothers (“House Party”, “Bommerang”); Doug McHenry and his partner, the late George Jackson (“New Jack City”); Bill Duke (“A Rage In Harlem”) and John Singleton (“Boy’s In The Hood”) would visit BET to promote their projects. As well as countless other business leaders, writers, recording artists, movie and TV stars.

As a floor director and stage manager, I was responsible for attending to the needs these folks when they were in the studio during rehearsal, during, and immediately following shows. This provided me many chances to ask questions about TV, filmmaking and showbiz. Eventually, I started to believe that I could do it myself. And soon I did... I had found my career.

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