MICA Board member highlights the First Lady's trip to Africa for BET
Posted 11.01.11 by MICA Communications
MICA trustee James F. Blue III is no stranger to high-stakes broadcast reporting and film production. He has reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, Russia, China, Pakistan, South Africa, Iran, the Persian Gulf, Latin America, and Europe. He worked with Bryant Gumbel in Zimbabwe, Ted Koppel in London, and led a news team into southern Iraq as US forces advanced. Over his 14 years as a producer for ABC News, NBC News, and the Discovery Channel, he has won eight Emmy Awards, two George Foster Peabody Awards, and numerous other accolades. However, even he was surprised when he was approached to produce a Black Entertainment Television (BET) special on First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent trip to Africa and to help transform the cable station’s programming brand.
Blue is founder and executive producer of Public Affairs Media Group, Inc. and was asked by BET to also produce a documentary on the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial unveiling. He sat down with Juxtapositions in his home to reflect on his filmmaking, his unique access to Mrs. Obama, and the possibilities for BET.
Tell us about your opportunity to highlight the first lady’s trip to Africa.
BET has recognized that there is an under-served market, particularly in the black community, that really wants quality original programming. This summer they called me up and said they had the opportunity to do a project with a celebrity in South Africa. They wouldn’t tell me who it was. A few days later, they called me up and said it would be Michelle Obama. I said, “Great. Let’s do it.” We went in late June and spent a week with the first lady and her family and went on this mission to Africa, as Mrs. Obama called it, and it was amazing.
What was she doing in Africa?
It really was a working trip. She was highlighting the things that were important to her and her agenda—youth empowerment, women’s empowerment, and healthy living. So she did visits to child care centers, universities, and AIDS clinics, where she could shine a light and inspire people to do better. She thinks that—and I think it’s accurate—people can identify with her in a way that perhaps they haven’t been able to identify with former first ladies. So there is an authenticity to what she is saying: “You can do it. You can do anything.”
What was the reaction to her visit?
It was pretty overwhelming. People were inspired, and as they say in the story, they’ve never seen an American first lady who looked like them. I’m pretty jaded. I’m a journalist; I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. But it is pretty amazing that we have a first family in the White House who could easily be my contemporaries. We know people in common. So it is amazing that we have gotten to the point where we have a black first family.
You’ve seen other interviews with the first lady before so what kind of special insight did you want to bring out?
This is my first time working for a majority black network. I worked at ABC; I worked at NBC; and I worked at the Discovery Channel. It’s a much more general audience. So I think one of the reasons the Obamas asked BET to go is because they really wanted to show the BET audience, mostly urban and black, the possibilities of life. Mrs. Obama makes a point in the segment that middle-class black people when she was growing up didn’t just go get a passport and go overseas. But she wants people to recognize that those are the things that are possible for all of us, black, white, red, or whatever— and how connected we all are. She gave a speech in one of the old Soweto churches, and she really spoke quite movingly about how were it not for the struggles of all the people that have come before us—King, Mandela, and others—she would not be standing there as first lady of the United States.
And that was pretty powerful.
You had behind-the-scenes access. What did you learn from her that you wanted to incorporate in your storytelling?
I was really taken with her personal warmth. I think she is probably the engine of that family.
The president seems to have an even keel, and I think she’s the one that provides the spark. I came away impressed. It’s really rare when I come away really impressed. She’s trying to do something with her platform. During our visit, she told a young woman she believed in her. And for this woman in Botswana, that was the first time anyone had ever said that to her.
Image captions (top to bottom): James F. Blue III (pictured on left) with First Lady Michelle Obama (Photo by Fletcher Johnson); Part of a Film Still from James F. Blue III's documentary Michelle Obama on a Mission: Impact Africa