The American Equation
Race remains the great unresolved factor in the complex American equation—the factor that has tormented America for 243 years, the one that keeps coming back, the one that the greatest nation on earth still can’t lay to rest. And television has played a major role in cultivating and reinforcing that unresolved equation.
It’s a known fact that the media we consume shapes our perception of the world: after all, media has economic, political, social and aesthetic purposes. TV is a constant presence in most Americans' lives. With its fast-moving, visually interesting, highly entertaining style, it commands many people's attention for several hours each day. Studies have shown that television competes with other sources of human interaction—such as family, friends, church, and school—in helping young people develop values and form ideas about the world around them. It also influences viewers' attitudes and beliefs about themselves, as well as about people from other social, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds and representation of African Americans in the media has not always been seen in a positive light and propagates controversial and misconstrued images of what African Americans represent.
African Americans and Television
In the 1950s and early 1960s, prime-time television programming largely ignored the real-life concerns and contributions of America's racial minorities for many years. "Research on the portrayal of African Americans in prime-time television from 1955 to 1986 found that only 6 percent of the characters were African-Americans, while 89 percent of the TV population was white.
This situation slowly began to improve during the civil rights movement (1965–75), when African Americans fought to end segregation and gain equal rights in American society. TV news programs provided extensive coverage of civil rights protests, which helped turn public opinion in favor of the cause of equality.
As awareness of racial discrimination increased, more social critics began complaining about the absence of minority characters on television. They argued that positive portrayals of minority characters in TV programs could help increase the self-esteem of minority viewers, promote understanding, and improve race relations in the United States.
Television’s Dirty Secret
So, by the late 1960s African Americans experience what could be termed a Golden Age with shows like Julia, The Mod Squad, Mannix, The Leslie Uggams Show, Room 222, The Flip Wilson Show, I Spy, The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show and Star Trek, these shows featured blacks as stars, co-stars, or continuing characters and spoke to and reflected to some degree the African American experience.
But there was one little dirty secret. These and other shows featuring African Americans were largely written, produced and directed by non-African Americans. Is it possible that White writers, directors and producers could put words in the mouths of Black actors and accurately portray the Black experience?
What effect did this miss representation of Black life have on the millions of weekly viewers across America and what lasting effect does is have now? Did the misuse of television, a medium that flooded the minds of mainstream Americans with a caricature of African-American life, lay the psychological groundwork for today’s continued conflict, misunderstanding and racism. These are some of the questions the documentary Hollywood Black explores.