What if you couldn’t tell people who you really are? And what if someone else did that for you, without really knowing you? Would that work?
That’s what happened to African Americans on television in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, the misuse of this powerful medium, laid the psychological groundwork for today’s conflict, misunderstanding and racism.
Of all popular media, television illustrates the power of mass communication to inform, educate and influence the public. While industry insiders often deny this power, saying television is just for "entertainment," it is clearly obvious that both adults and children learn a great deal from watching television week after week.
In 1948, regularly scheduled programming on the four networks — the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the National Broadcasting Co. (NBC), and the DuMont Television Network was scarce. But by the 1950s television had reached its Golden Age with shows like Your Show of Shows, The Honeymooners, Texaco Star Theater, and I Love Lucy.
For African Americans, television offered few opportunities to star, co-star or be a recurring character on network television. Serious entertainers such as Billy Daniels in 1952 and Nat King Cole in 1956-1957 had failed to gain or maintain popularity. The only successful programs, Beulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy, amused enough people to keep them viable for several seasons, but they unfortunately resurrected minstrel-show stereotypes.
Speaking in July 1964, Frank Stanton, president of CBS, called upon broadcasters to launch a "mighty and continuing editorial crusade" in support of civil rights. In an address to the National Broadcast Editorial Conference of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Stanton called for commitment and advocacy.
And 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.
By the late 1960’s African Americans were clearly on the television landscape, but had effectively loss control of their image. And without control of one’s image or the ability to tell your own story, others have the power to define you as a person, a race or a nation. In many ways, mainstream America learns about African Americans less through personal relationships than through images portrayed of them by media. The image stamped into America’s mind by the media contributes to ambivalent and even negative attitudes toward Blacks.
So, is it possible that White writers, directors and producers could put words in the mouths of Black actors and accurately portray the Black experience?
And 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?
These are the questions the documentary Hollywood Black explores. The documentary is the story of television’s miss representation of African Americans in the 1950’s and 60’s and how that miss characterization contributes to a continuing era of racism in America.