This fascinating, provocative and quietly adversarial documentary examines the roles of blacks in prime time TV and the relationship of the light-hearted world of video fiction to the grinding realities of a society reluctantly coming to grips with the expansion of civil rights.
Filmmaker Marlon T. Riggs, whose work “Tongues Untied” emerged last year as Sen. Jesse Helms’ worst nightmare and fodder for Pat Buchannan’s attack commercials on federal funding for the arts, has produced a film that will provide little comfort to those who create entertainment television.
His basic premise is that the white society dominating the medium — corporate conservatives in the boardrooms, liberals in the Hollywood studios — have consigned blacks to a range of roles reflective of what whites believe blacks are or should be (in general, middle class Oreos without a lot of cultural uniqueness).
From bumbling, larcenous fools Amos and Andy to Beulah, the cheerful, self-sacrificing domestic, to the Huxtables, a new white standard for acceptable minority neighbors, blacks on television, according to Riggs, have generally represented the changing perceptions of what whites deem appropriate role models.
And while the blacks of prime time (with the exception of those in such anomalies as “East Side, West Side” and “Frank’s Place”) were totally assimilatable into the serene prime time middle class, the contemporaneous television news broadcasts were revealing a world of racial confusion and conflict, if not actual strife.
There are some striking moments, such as when the broadcast considers how many blacks interpreted themselves–and the larger white society–from what they saw on television.
Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Harvard scholar and a consultant to “The Cosby Show,” recalled watching, as a young black, the distant and seemingly unreachable world of the whites in their idyllic television universe.
“There was something always good and wholesome about white culture,” he recalled. “That’s where the beauty was, and the good things, and the pleasure.”
Some of Riggs’ assumptions are not beyond challenge. Indeed, the social observers he features occasionally seem to have conflicting options, which unfortunately are never joined.
Also, while Riggs protests the innocuous, unrealistic role assigned to blacks on television, whites don’t fare much better.
But while whites now break out of the middle class construct with greater frequency, blacks generally are confined to that relatively narrow range of experience (and even when an honorable but destitute ghetto family was addressed in “Good Times,” the appalling J.J. character linked it all to the days of Amos and Andy).
This is at best a limited overview of a complex broadcast, a unique and thoughtful statement that should be seen by anyone involved in the creation of television.
And for all those aspiring “POV” producers, it is a marvelous example of how powerful television can be imaginatively produced without using clubs and pitchforks to get an audience’s attention to make a point.