- Jesse Algeron Rhinesassistant professor of political economy in the African American and African Studies Department at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. He is an assistant editor for Cinéaste magazine and the author of Black Film/White Money, a book examining how on-screen portrayals of African Americans has been shaped by social and political forces.
While the last 10 years has seen an explosion both in Hollywood films and primetime television series produced and directed by African Americans, it’s only a recent — and, some say, limited — phenomenon. For much of the last 80 years, from the silent era to World War II through to the civil rights movement and the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, African Americans have been systematically excluded and misrepresented in the American film and television industry.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re listening to Democracy Now! Today on Democracy Now!, a look at the art and politics of African American filmmakers. While the last 10 years has seen an explosion both in Hollywood films and primetime television series produced and directed by African Americans, it’s only a recent — and, some say, limited — phenomenon. For much of the last 80 years, from the silent era to World War II through to the civil rights movement and the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, African Americans have been systematically excluded and misrepresented in the American film and television industry.
Today, we’ll look examine the African American community’s struggle to break racial prejudice in the film industry and to establish an authentic African American cinema. In the next segment of the show, we’ll hear from Spike Lee and Harry Belafonte, but right now we’re joined by Jesse Algaron Rhines. He’s an assistant professor of political economy in the African American and African Studies Department at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. He’s an assistant editor for Cinéaste magazine and the author of a new book called Black Film/White Money. It’s a book examining how on-screen portrayals of African Americans has been shaped by changing social and political forces.
And we welcome you to Democracy Now!, Jesse Algaron Rhines.
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: Thanks very much. Glad to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, thanks for being with us. Why don’t we begin with why you decided to take on this issue of Black film, white money?
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: Well, it really began when I became a member of the Black Filmmaker Foundation. That’s really when my ideas began to change. And I started wondering why. Black Filmmaker Foundation had lots of Black filmmakers, who had made short films. Some had made feature films. They came by. We had a series called Dialogue with Black Filmmakers. We’d show our films around New York and get comments from audience members, just regular Black people. But rarely did anyone get a film broadly distributed. And that became the central problem for me. Why are people making these films, and the films that they’re making not being distributed? I had an interest in filmmaking. I wanted to be a filmmaker. But I saw no sense in it, since it was almost guaranteed not to have distribution. This was in 1983. So that’s what really made me start wondering what’s wrong. What is it that’s keeping Blacks out of the filmmaking industry?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk —
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: And the thing that I saw with it, that it was distribution, that it’s not making a film that’s a problem. That’s production. You can make a film. The problem is getting it into theaters. You can even own theaters, and Blacks have owned theaters. But Blacks cannot get films in theaters all over the United States, all over the world very easily. And that became the real linchpin. How do we go about getting that done? What is it that’s preventing Black people from having that done?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you give us a thumbnail sketch of, if you can — and this is pretty hard to do — but of Black films, or at least how African Americans were portrayed in film, in the 20th century?
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: Well, actually, we have to start with a broader view of just the film industry, because what’s happened to African Americans has been affected not only by things that have happened within Hollywood, within the filmmaking industry, but also in the broader global community. Now, in the 1920s — before the 1920s, in fact, when we had the early days of filmmaking and film distribution, we did have the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which made social dramas about Blacks who were making it in society, who were on their way up, fighting against the racist system and succeeding. You also had the Foster Photoplay Company. It made slapstick comedies featuring Blacks. And these were generally shown to Black audiences, in theaters sometimes owned by African Americans.
But in 1915, D.W. Griffith released the film Birth of a Nation, and this film celebrated the way the Ku Klux Klan attempted to curb a growing Black power after the Civil War. And it did it primarily by making sure that Blacks did not vote. And this is what was depicted in the film Birth of a Nation. This film was so racist in tenor that many African Americans began to change their filmmaking style and to respond to Birth of a Nation. One of the main people to do that was a new filmmaker named Oscar Micheaux, who became the dean, in fact the godfather, of Black filmmaking, just like James Brown is the godfather of soul. So, the Black filmmaking community changed its tune. And we had Oscar Micheaux making films like Within Our Gates, a copy of which is at the Library of Congress. It is the oldest feature-length film by an African American known still to exist. And it, in fact, was banned in the United States when it came out, and a copy was found in Spain a few years ago and restored by the Library of Congress.
Now, Oscar Micheaux and other Blacks were making films, silent films, until new technology came around. This was the invention of sound-to-film synchronization. Now, yes, this happened, and it happened first, but the thing that really pushed it off was the Great Depression. The Great Depression was an external catastrophe that was not just within the film industry but was in the broader society. And what the Great Depression did was reduce ticket sales. People did not go to the movies as much. So, in response to this downturn in ticket sales, large companies, like Paramount, that also owned theaters and made their own films, began to rewire their theaters for this new technology, sound. And audiences flocked to sound productions in such great numbers — and this includes Black people — that there was no way for the Black film companies to survive, and many of them filed bankruptcy, including Oscar Micheaux. Oscar Micheaux was later rescued by two white guys in Harlem who financed his films. Now, this basically continued until after World War II.
After World War II, the United States tried to establish the United Nations. It had won World War II. It was now the dominant power in the world. And it thought that it could end all war by establishing basically a nations’ conference organization. It was supposed to be nonracially based. It was supposed to be humanitarian. But all of the new countries that were now free in Asia and Africa looked at the United States and said, “How can you make an organization that is free of racism, when you have so much racism yourselves within your country, in the South and things like that?” And the response of the American government was, in fact, to enforce laws that had long been on the books and to create new laws so that they would no longer seem hypocritical, so that the United States would no longer seem hypocritical on the issue of race.
Now, the United States government led the way in this, and the American public responded. They began to accept Black people in salutary roles on the screen. You had Juano Hernández in a film that depicts an African American — this film was Intruder in the Dust — an African American in the South who stands up for his rights. And, of course, he’s defended by a white attorney and wins the case against some racists. You have Sidney Poitier in many films, the only Black person in the whole film. Sometimes he had no family, no wife, no kids, and obviously no love interests, for many of his films. But this was the first time a Black had been accepted as a doctor or lawyer, anything like that.
So, this happened in the context where something new had happened. The United States government had sued Paramount Pictures in 1948 for antitrust violations. I said before that Paramount owned theaters. It also made its own films. Well, that was a no-no. It reduced competition within the industry, so the United States government forced this company to sell off or get rid of its writers, its directors, the people that were attached to Paramount, and to let them be free agents, be independent, is the word, so that they could sell their services to any company they wanted. They also forced these companies to get rid of their theaters, so now other people owned the theaters. And all Paramount, 20th Century Fox and these other companies became more distributors. They simply distributed films.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you —
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: Now — yes, ma’am.
AMY GOODMAN: I just want to let you know that we only have a few minutes. Again, we’re speaking with Jesse Algaron Rhines, who’s the author of the book Black Film/White Money. And I wanted to ask, as we move until today, the kind of effect that the modern-day African American filmmakers have had and how much control they have over distribution and the money. Particularly I’m thinking about Spike Lee, who we’re going to hear from in the next segment.
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: Well, Spike has been able to — he’s a film producer; he’s not a film distributor. Spike has been able to produce films that have had a tremendous effect on various aspects of African American culture. Not only has he made political statements on film feasible, has he made, I think, very salutary political statements, but Spike has also started a trend — well, he hasn’t really started it — he continued the trend of employing mostly Black people and people of color behind the camera in his films. And this has been extremely important. Most Black filmmakers have made an effort to make sure that people are employed as grips, as casting agents, as lighting people behind the camera. And these have been some of the most important things, because they’ve allowed more people to get into this industry, more people to actually get jobs in the industry, at the same time that more salutary images of African Americans were coming across.
Now, I will be speaking more about this in Washington, D.C, next weekend, next Sunday, in Georgetown. And I’ll be speaking about it on the 27th at Barnes & Noble in New York City. So, that’s Barnes & Noble in Washington next week and Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Center, New York, on the 27th. I hope people will come out to hear me then.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jesse Rhines, let me ask you this. The blackout at the 1996 Academy Awards, when — what was it? — one African American was nominated —
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this? Also, I understand that People magazine was punished in various ways for publishing the blackout article that called attention to this, at least in the mainstream media. Of course, people outside of the mainstream media were recognizing this for a while before that.
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: Well, People magazine people tell me that during the Oscars, as a result of this article that they did, which in fact was a seminal piece — it was the first in-depth general issue article that People had done, and they were hoping to do more — they were punished by getting some of the worst seats — certainly the worst seats in People magazine history at the Oscars, and perhaps some of the worst seats they hope to get in the future. So that’s a subtle form of punishment, but it really shows the displeasure of Hollywood executives with what People magazine had done. I don’t know about other forms of punishment, but they were chastised for that.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the fact of how few African Americans were acknowledged last year and in general in the Academy Awards? And what impact do you feel the protests will have this year?
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: Well, I think that we need to protest. I’m a professor, and I tell my students that the one thing that they must constantly do is complain. Anything that anything is wrong, you have to complain. And Blacks have made their most advances when they have had rebellions, riots and things like that, when they have complained. So we must, in fact, stand up and complain about what is happening.
I do not know that there was a lot of impact last year. We have seen a reduction in the number of films directed by African Americans, while we have seen a significant increase in the number of films with Black people in them, starring in them, directed by white Americans, both men and women. So, there has been a change, and so that what this means is there’s less control behind the camera and that African American points of view are not being put across. The film that is interpreted —
AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Algaron, we’re going to have to break.
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: Agaron Rhines. OK.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to break, but, Jesse Algaron Rhines, I want to thank you very much for joining us. And this is —
JESSE ALGARON RHINES: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. And this is certainly an issue that we are going to continue to follow through this year. Black Film/White Money is the name of Jesse Algaron Rhines’s book. He’s an assistant professor of political economy in the African American and African Studies Department at Rutgers University at Newark, New Jersey. You’re listening to Democracy Now! Up next, Harry Belafonte and Spike Lee. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now! The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman.
Paul Wunder, who is a Pacifica Radio station WBAI producer in New York, has been interviewing filmmakers and actors and looking at the film industry for more than 20 years. And today we’re going to bring you two of his interviews, two of his interviews that we felt fit in very well with what we’re talking about today, African American films and African Americans in film. We’re going to begin with Harry Belafonte and then move on to Spike Lee. This is Paul Wunder talking to Harry Belafonte recently.
PAUL WUNDER: You know, I can remember, as a teenager, walking down the streets and hearing “Day O” everywhere I went. And I was surprised to read in the press notes that Calypso was the first album in history to sell over a million copies.
HARRY BELAFONTE: That was a startling bit of information for me, as well, beyond the fact that that album started the kind of gold record trend and giving out mementoes for having achieved that kind of sales level. It delighted the company because of the economics of it. What it meant to me, however, was that America was far more open to diverse broadcasting, diverse cultures, diverse music, than most of the people who controlled the music business and what people listened to would have given them credit for.
When I wanted to do the album, as a matter of fact, RCA gave me a great deal of resistance: It’s not in the popular mold; people are not interested in music from the Caribbean or foreign music, as some of them called it. And I said, “On what basis had they arrived at that decision or conclusion?” And they couldn’t give me any argument that made any sense. So I went to the head of the company, George Marek, and I talked to him, and he permitted me to go ahead and make the album. And when we did, the startling result, I think, did a lot to open up the thought and the idea that America was prepared to listen to far more than the Americans were given — than they were given credit for.
PAUL WUNDER: Tell me about that transition from your interest in jazz to the folk music which sort of put you on the map.
HARRY BELAFONTE: In the beginning, my great interest in the performing art was theater. I wanted to be an actor, and that’s what I studied for. And finding it very difficult to find work, I fell into singing, quite by accident. And it was at the Royal Roost in New York, a jazz nightclub, which was at the height of its popularity then. And I was offered the opportunity to sing as an intermission singer between the major acts and while they were seating the audience. And I had as my accompanist someone whom they had given to me by the name of Al Haig, who was one of the master pianists of the time. And I learned a couple of songs. I went on to do my turn. And as I walked upon the podium to sing, on walked Charlie Parker, on walked Miles Davis, Max Roach and Tommy Potter.
PAUL WUNDER: Wow!
HARRY BELAFONTE: And they said — they said, “Let’s launch him.” You know, they had befriended me. They liked me. They knew it was my first time out. And they became my backup for that — off and on, for that week. I always have loved jazz, and I admired greatly the singers of jazz — Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan — the voices of the day. And I never thought that I had the richness of talent to be able to do it as well as they did. And as a matter of fact, I wasn’t quite sure that I did it well at all. There’s no question that there was some favorable response from the public, but I didn’t have a passion for it.
And I left the jazz scene, opened up a little restaurant in Greenwich Village, trying to make my living while I was still pursuing my studies, a little small hamburger joint. And the place that I had was in the proximity of a lot of little clubs in the area that had folk music everywhere, in particular the Village Vanguard. The two big ones were Café Society Downtown and the Village Vanguard. And in the Village Vanguard, I went there, and I heard Woody Guthrie, and I heard Big Bill Broonzy, and I heard Lead Belly. And I sat enamored of these people who sang this marvelous music that told incredible stories about life and experiences. And they told them humorously, they told them tragically, they told them in protest. And I thought that in there sat my kernel of expression, that if I could gather together a repertoire, a repertory of folksongs, that I could perhaps do something with it that was unique. And I gathered together all this material, and I opened at the Village Vanguard. And the rest was history.
PAUL WUNDER: Now, I remember, in the '50s, going away each summer to my parents' summer home and then coming back into New York. And on one of those trips back into New York, I saw this wonderful film. I was a science fiction nut. And it’s a film that you never see today. I don’t know if it’s on video cassette. And the film was The World, the Flesh and the Devil. And that was the first time I saw you on the screen. Now, I know that you had some films before that, including some films, I believe, with Dorothy Dandridge.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I did Carmen Jones before that. And I did Island in the Sun. Then I did another film called Bright Road with Dorothy Dandridge.
PAUL WUNDER: What ever happened to World, the Flesh and the Devil? It was an MGM film. I remember it was even black-and-white in CinemaScope. I’ve been trying to see it again ever since, and it just seems to have disappeared.
HARRY BELAFONTE: It has, on occasion, shown on cable, in, like, Arts & Entertainment, I think, channels like that. And it is a kind of a cultist movie. A lot of people have collected it. It is on video. It’s hard to come by. But I enjoyed the idea of that film, not only because it was science fiction, but it was not really so science-fictioned that it left reality altogether and people didn’t have anything to relate to.
The subject matter was quite simple. It was just that a mining engineer, having gone down, way down into the depths of a mine because of a cave-in, while he was down there investigating the problem, an atomic holocaust took place and wiped out everybody on the face of the Earth. And he got trapped in this mine. And after some time, he is able to work his way out of the mine. He comes back up on the face of the Earth, and nobody’s alive. No one. And the story pursues him trying to put something together to try to make sense out of his existence, when, all of a sudden, midway in the film, appears a young and very beautiful woman, played by Inger Stevens. And here were these two people — one Black, one white — the two last people left on Earth.
And up until that moment, everything worked perfectly for me. And then the studio went very soft, because the rest of the film was supposed to have been how we come together. And I just thought that it was very unbelievable that these people would not have consummated their relationship sexually and emotionally, in all kinds of ways, as would have been expected and would have been true to reality. What happened was that because of the racial delineations, because of segregation, because of fear of the distribution of the film, all kinds of things intervened to let them — we never got together. And by the time we got to the last 25% of the film, the last third of it, in walks another character who’s white, and the two men vie for the attentions of the girl.
It all took on a very false note, but from the point of view of filmmaking and an idea, it was way ahead of its time. And I think that a lot of people who watch the film are deeply moved by it because of its technology.
PAUL WUNDER: Well, racially speaking, things haven’t changed that much. Take, for instance, the recent John Grisham film, starring Denzel Washington and, I believe, Julia Roberts. What was it? The Client, or whatever it was. In the book, Denzel Washington, as a reporter, has a sexual relationship and eventually winds up with the white woman. And the studio softened that down so that they’re just friends, and that relationship never develops. So, in a sense, things have not changed that much.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Tragically, that is the truth. It has changed in reality, because I think there are more interracial couples now than I think there have ever been before. I think all kinds of cross-pollination is taking place, not only between races, but between cultures and between religions. And I think that America’s inability to deal squarely with the issue of race, to really and truly sit down and to have a kind of debate on the issue, on all levels of social experience, I think, is greatly to our discredit. And I think that until we’re able to squarely face that issue, America will never sit in a comfortable place as a society.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, actor, singer and political activist. He’s talking to Paul Wunder.
AMY GOODMAN: The Lead Belly, that Harry Belafonte loves.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re now going to turn to Paul Wunder’s interview with Spike Lee, at least an excerpt of it — Spike Lee, who’s director of such movies as School Daze, She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X.
PAUL WUNDER: Let’s back up to before She’s Gotta Have It. At what point in your life — you were brought up in Brooklyn. You went to school down South.
SPIKE LEE: Morehouse College.
PAUL WUNDER: Then you came back up to Manhattan to study school — at NYU.
SPIKE LEE: NYU.
PAUL WUNDER: At what point did you decide that you wanted to become a director? Now —
SPIKE LEE: It was at Morehouse, between — the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I declared a major, mass communications, which encompassed print journalism, TV, radio and film.
PAUL WUNDER: Now, before She’s Gotta Have It, which issued in — and you may take objection to this; a lot of people, too, do — but She’s Gotta Have It sort of issued in what’s now euphemistically referred to as the Black filmmaking renaissance.
SPIKE LEE: Well, I don’t — I don’t take issue with that. It was She’s Gotta Have It along with Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. Those two films really brought it about.
PAUL WUNDER: What do you think happened between that area of Blaxploitation films in the '70s and then _She's Gotta Have It_, which — was that 1986?
SPIKE LEE: Well, what happened was, first, number one, Black people no longer just came to the movies because they’re Black films. That excitement was over. Now the films had to be good. Number two, the same films were being made. So, when Black people started going — stopped going to see these Blaxploitation films, Hollywood decided they’re not going to make anymore. The same time that happened was also when films like Jaws and Star Wars came out, the blockbuster, so Hollywood said, “Why should we cater to one group when we can make a film like Jaws or Star Wars that the whole world goes to see?”
PAUL WUNDER: My guess would be that your favorite film would be Malcolm X.
SPIKE LEE: And Do the Right Thing.
PAUL WUNDER: I understand there was some controversy to get Malcolm X. Someone else, Norman Jewison, was supposed to have originally directed it or something?
SPIKE LEE: There’s been several directors attached to the project, but Norman Jewison was going to direct with Denzel as Malcolm. And I had a conversation with Norman Jewison and reasoned with him that he might not be the best director for this film. And he thought about it and agreed and gracefully stepped aside and then let me take over.
PAUL WUNDER: Now, there was — I have the feeling — I didn’t read this anywhere; I read maybe some of the rumblings — but, for Malcolm, I have a feeling there were some problems for Warner Bros. also. First of all —
SPIKE LEE: A lot of problems with Warner Bros.
PAUL WUNDER: I mean, there were both financial problems, the opening titles.
SPIKE LEE: No, they didn’t want that at all.
PAUL WUNDER: I’m surprised, at the point that you came to Warners, that you didn’t have total control. At this point —
SPIKE LEE: See, the thing about it, though, is that I was the last person to come to the project. Marvin Worth had been trying to make that film for 20 years. It was set up at Warner Bros. Norman Jewison was hired to direct it. And Denzel was going to star. So, it’s not like I had — I could really dictate what happened.
PAUL WUNDER: Do you think — I mean, is it the fact that you’re an African American? Did you think that was an essential for that —
SPIKE LEE: I think it had — not just the fact that I’m an African American. I thought I had the skills to do the job also. There’s just — Norman Jewison is a very fine director, but he will never be a Black man in this country. He’ll never know what it feels to be like a Black man in this country. And I felt that now I could impart into the film the same way Francis Ford Coppola being Italian American really helped The Godfather trilogy.
PAUL WUNDER: Right.
SPIKE LEE: Or if you look at the films Scorsese has done, the fact that he grew up in Little Italy on Mulberry Street or Elizabeth Street, and look at his films — Mean Streets, Good Fellas, Raging Bull, Casino. I mean, the fact he’s Italian American helped him do those films about films dealing with Italian Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Spike Lee, director of such films as Malcolm X, School Daze, She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and a number of others. And we want to thank Paul Wunder, WBAI producer, for sharing some of his interviews with us.
We’re going to end this segment with Color Adjustment. Color Adjustment is the definitive study of racial prejudice and progress in the television age. It deals with the changing role of African Americans in TV. Pathbreaking filmmaker Marlon Riggs chronicles the changing representations and stereotypes of African Americans on primetime television over the last 50 years. And this documentary is narrated by Ruby Dee.
RUBY DEE: If any one Black performer of the time held a key to primetime’s family of entertainers, the key to inclusion within the American dream, it was Cole, the model of assimilation. But was this enough to pay the price of the ticket? Would primetime America open the door and welcome him in?
ARKANSAS SEGREGATIONISTS: Two, four, six, eight! We don’t want to integrate! Two, four, six, eight! We don’t want to integrate! Two, four, six, eight! We don’t want to integrate!
PATRICIA TURNER: In 1957, the same time Nat King Cole was on television, Black children in Little Rock, Arkansas, are trying to go to school and meeting with a great deal of resistance on the part of the white political structure that is supposed to enforce their rights.
HERMAN GRAY: King Cole was very threatening. How dare you bring a Black man into our homes and into our communities, with white guests no less, with white women no less, with white men no less!
PATRICIA TURNER: They’re trying to go to our schools. Now, look, they’ve picked a television show? So it became impossible for the producers of The Nat King Cole Show to find a sponsor willing to underwrite that program. They did not want to alienate their Southern constituency.
RUBY DEE: The reality of race relations had reframed television, making an otherwise acceptable image taboo. Unable to find a national sponsor, The Nat King Cole Show ended after one season.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to an excerpt of Color Adjustment, the award-winning documentary on the changing role of African Americans in television. It’s by filmmaker Marlon Riggs. And we’re going to go back to that in the last segment. You’re listening to Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 60 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re back with an excerpt of Marlon Riggs’ Color Adjustment, the definitive study of racial prejudice in the television age. You’re listening to Democracy Now! Again, this documentary is narrated by Ruby Dee.
BOB HENRY: [I think it was Sam Goldwyn] who once said, when he was criticized about some of the — why he didn’t do shows of a more sociological import, he said, “If I want to send a message, I’ll call Western Union!” The networks, the sponsors, they just want to get good ratings, high ratings. High ratings, good for NBC, and it sells product, because, ultimately, let’s face it, television is a commercial industry.
DAVID WOLPER: The society moves like this, and television moves a little behind it all the time. It’s never going to lead it; it’s always going to follow it, because it’s a sponsored medium.
CHEVROLET AD: Just out, and just wonderful! The 1957 Chevrolet!
DAVID WOLPER: The theory is, when a sponsor advertised a show, it’s to sell the product, period. He’s not — he doesn’t care what — you could put test pattern on. If a lot of people will watch it, he’ll put his commercials in it, so that if somebody feels, by putting a commercial in a television program that has some controversy to — this is early on in television — that may affect their product, they didn’t buy anything with controversy.
NEWTON MINNOW: Broadcasting cannot continue to live by the numbers. Ratings ought to be the slave of the broadcaster, not his master. You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives. It is not enough to cater to the nation’s whim. You must also serve the nation’s needs.
RUBY DEE: The networks were predictably slow to take up this challenge in television entertainment, but in the primetime arena of public affairs, the civil rights movement provided a golden opportunity.
HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Precisely in this period, the images of Black people dominated the news. And it was — they were images of, on the one hand, Black men and women being tortured and beaten and abused, and whose rights were being systematically violated. On the other hand, there was a certain nobility of spirit, and no one knew what to do with Black people in terms of representing them in a TV series.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: This afternoon, I have a dream! It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream!
DENISE NICHOLAS: There was so much possible. And there was, at the same time, so much fear and so much violence. And out of this pressure that was brought to bear by the civil rights movement on the structures of the South particularly, there was the potential for a new day. And everybody knew it, because it was on television.
PATRICIA TURNER: Those images brought home to America what was actually going on in these places. And seeing them on television was much different from reading about it in the newspaper.
DENISE NICHOLAS: I think people began to see African Americans as full-blooded, total human beings for the first time in our history in this country, in a mass way.
HERMAN GRAY: That was a turning point. That was an important turning point, to mobilize and get the sympathies of whites, who started to see the brutality, who started to actually see the deep resistance to essentially Black enfranchisement into the society. And I think the spillover that it had was to at least raise the question of absence of Black representations on television, or at least raise the question of to what extent did television have some responsibility to try to participate in this opening up of the society.
WIFE: Chuck? Chuck, we’ve got some new neighbors.
RUBY DEE: One of the most provocative series of the early '60s was East Side/West Side. Stories were set in a variety of communities, each dramatizing not America's dream, but her nightmare realities.
CHUCK: I told you, there is no jobs!
AMY GOODMAN: The scene: An African American father sees his baby bitten by a rat.
CHUCK:* Hear something?
WIFE: Just the baby, crying herself to sleep.
CHUCK: Ruth! Ruth!
AMY GOODMAN: He grabs her, races out and tries to get a cab to the hospital.
CHUCK: Hey! Please, stop! Hey, you! Hey! Cab! Hey, stop, will ya? Come on, stop, man! Hey! Hey, cab! Man, will you stop over here?
RUBY DEE: There were no neat resolutions in the show, no happy endings, no sentimental songs or canned laughter. In one episode, the show even challenged the unspoken assumptions behind American integration.
MAN: Oh, come on, now! He’s a perfectly nice old man, but, uh…
*NEIL BROCK: * But you wanted a white Negro, and you got a black one.
MAN ON THE STREET: Negroes have a right to move in under the Constitution. The only thing is: What kind of a Negro?
MAN: I’m telling you, he isn’t the type for this community!
NEIL BROCK: What if he were white? Come on. A rough, uneducated, decent sort of a guy who made it the hard way, a guy who could never be your particular friend. Is that any reason for keeping him out of here? We have a different yardstick for measuring a Negro, don’t we? If he went to Harvard, if he plays golf, if he looks like a Boston gentleman and talks like a Philadelphia lawyer, why, fine, let him be Brown. Only not too Brown. Yeah, your husband believes in equality. But Mr. Adams was the “but.”
MAN: Neil! I — I —
NEIL BROCK: No. I’ll see you around.
RUBY DEE: Boldly bucking primetime convention, the show repeatedly undercut the myth of American progress. East Side/West Side was canceled after one season. Still, primetime was faced with adjusting to the continuing civil rights struggle. Could TV entertainment address Black life in America, yet still sell success, the good life, the American dream?
ADVERTISEMENT: The look of success, the feel of success, the power of success.
HAL KANTER: A luncheon I attended in which Mr. Roy Wilkins spoke, and he spoke to a large group of Hollywood writers and producers and directors and made a pitch for gentler treatment and more aware treatment of Blacks in all media.
ROY WILKINS: The aim was always to be the inclusion of the Negro American, without racial discrimination —
HAL KANTER: And he really shook up that audience.
ROY WILKINS: — as full and equal in all phases of American citizenship.
HAL KANTER: And I left there saying, “There must be something I can do.” I thought that I really owed to my Black colleagues some sort of an apology for a lot of the things that we had done on Amos 'n' Andy.
NURSE: Too bad you didn’t get back earlier. You really missed it!
JULIA: Missed what?
NURSE: Dr. Chegley has…
DIAHANN CARROLL: Hal Kanter created an environment that was new. So he created this young lady who was a nurse, who had a family and an education. And she lived in an integrated environment.
MARIE: Well, how did it go?
JULIA: It didn’t. I tried, Marie, with Brenda, you have to turn her off first. However, if there’s anything you’d like to know about flamenco, just ask.
DIAHANN CARROLL: She didn’t present a picture of being either overly grateful or overly subservient. She felt she belonged there.
JULIA: You’ll just have to figure out some way for me to tell her.
ESTHER ROLLE: It felt like a step above the grinning domestic, who had to be very stout, very dark, preferably with large eyes and a wide grin. And I guess we were tired of being so inundated with that imagery that we accepted Julia as a breath of fresh air.
DIAHANN CARROLL: I think that we were very one-dimensional in many areas. She was — listen, she was the perfect mother.
JULIA: Did you brush your teeth?
COREY: Yes, ma’am.
JULIA: Good. Brushing your teeth wakes up your mouth! Now you can eat breakfast.
COREY: Mama, why are we…
DIAHANN CARROLL: What we had to do, I think, was to find a kind of acceptable area that broke down some barriers, and then we were able to move on from there.
PIANO PLAYER: Man who has no music in himself…
ALEXANDER SCOTT: Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.
PIANO PLAYER: Greetings! That’s your assignment. That man.
HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: We all watched I Spy. I was 15 at the time. I couldn’t wait to watch it. I mean, he was my hero. He was a Rhodes scholar. He was so articulate. I mean, so much more articulate than his sidekick, Robert Culp.
SHELDON LEONARD: Race was not a factor. These were two men. There was a male bonding occurring there, loyalty, friendship, love between the two. And it had nothing to do with whether one was Black or the other was white.
ALEXANDER SCOTT: Listen, we’ve been through a lot together, haven’t we?
KELLY ROBINSON: I guess.
ALEXANDER SCOTT: I’ve pulled you out of close shaves, haven’t I?
KELLY ROBINSON: Yeah.
ALEXANDER SCOTT: Oh, I know you’d do the same thing for me, if I needed it, wouldn’t ya?
KELLY ROBINSON: I would hold white-hot steel in my hand to save you. Are you kidding?
SHELDON LEONARD: Cosby’s acceptance was immediate and overwhelming. And this encouraged the medium, the television medium, to say, “Hey, look what we discovered! The Black people are not only acceptable, but they — there’s a very — they’re a good box office. People like to watch ’em!”
ALEXANDER SCOTT: Look, Kelly, you did what you could. You phoned it in to the police.
KELLY ROBINSON: Yeah.
ALEXANDER SCOTT: There’s nothing else you could do. Nothing.
HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Alexander Scott from I Spy and Julia were designed to overcome the received images of Black people from all forms of media, whether it was minstrelsy and vaudeville, or whether it was television’s own early history itself. These were fully assimilable Black people. These were people who could move into your neighborhood and not disturb you at all.
JULIA: Thank you, Mrs. Waggedorn.
MRS. WAGGEDORN: Sure.
JULIA: I’ll come back and get Corey.
BOY: That’s your mother?
BOY: You know what?
BOY: Your mother is colored.
COREY: Of course. I’m colored, too.
BOY: You are?
BOY: Oh boy!
PATRICIA TURNER: The political climate of the 1960s sort of forbade liberal-thinking producers from putting any other kind of image on television. And part of their mission, if they perceived it as such, to amplify the civil rights movement rested in telling America that Black people were just like white Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’ve been listening to excerpts of Color Adaptation. It’s a film by Marlon Riggs. Democracy Now! is produced by Dan Coughlin and Errol Maitland; our executive producer, Julie Drizin; our engineer, Kenneth Mason. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!