Bias In Video Drama
In the early years of television, the relationship between African Americans and the medium was contradictory. Trapped between the traditions of racial stereotyping and the promise of color-blind programming, talented blacks found only limited opportunity in TV. In contrast to the derisive minstrel-show roles popular in cinema and radio, however, black entertainers hosted their own TV shows, or more frequently appeared as guests on musical-variety programs. Still, beyond musical entertainment, the most successful and lucrative roles for African Americans continued to be found in stereotyped situation comedies like The Amos 'n' Andy Show and Beulah.
This ambivalence was compounded because respectable dramatic parts for black actors were practically nonexistent. During the 1950s, as dramatic production flowered in the new medium, television theater was lily white. This was a situation well understood by Jack Gould, the TV critic of the New York Times. Writing in late 1953, Gould suggested that "opportunities for Negroes in television have been considerable in the realm of vaudeville and musical shows." Yet, he continued, except for "the usual stereotyped roles," there have been "very few leading parts for some of the most gifted artists in our midst."'
One local series which attempted to break this pattern of exclusion was Harlem Detective, a short-lived police drama on New York City station WOR-TV. The show was a weekly live play focusing on a pair of detectives—one black and one white—investigating crime in Harlem. The program premiered on October 14, 1953, and last appeared on January 13, 1954. During its brief run several actors, including William Hairston and William Marshall, played the central characters.
While the interracial theme was unique and engaging, Harlem Detective suffered fatally from a low budget. With limited capital with which to employ set designers, directors, supporting actors, and writers, the program was neither a critical nor popular success. A contemporary reviewer criticized it for "the avalanche of production crudities that almost decimated the noble aims of the show." It was, however, the first TV dramatic series to feature a non-stereotyped African American as its costar. As such, Harlem Detective was a decade ahead of its time. Not until Bill Cosby appeared in I Spy in 1965 was a similar program produced.
Despite the inundation of live and filmed dramas that marked the first decade of popular television, black actors seldom commanded other than minor supporting roles. And they were fortunate to obtain these parts. Frederick O'Neal, the noted actor and founder in the 1940s of the American Negro Theater, speculated that black actors in 1952 accounted for only four-tenths of one percent of all performances on TV. He argued that of the 6,620 actors used during an average week on TV, only thirty-one were black. Of all the mass media, according to O'Neal, "TV is the worst" in its treatment of African-American talent.
On the other hand, actor Frank Wilson seemed genuinely pleased when he told Jet magazine in 1953 that television was affording blacks "a new freedom." Wilson boasted that he had already appeared in supporting roles in more than twenty television dramas, the latest being a Polynesian king in the Studio One production of "A Breath of Air." He argued, moreover, that he was only one of about fifty black performers who regularly received such assignments.'
Wilson's enthusiasm notwithstanding, black actors in early TV plays were scarce. Several reasons account for this. First, the legacy of discrimination established in film, radio, and print continued to hinder African-American participation. Despite liberal and reformative sentiments which influenced popular culture in the postwar period, the prejudices of the past endured in television. Clearly, the promise of bias-free participation was being systemically denied by the new medium.
Early video also honored the long-established color line in its dramatic presentations. A traditional component of motion pictures, the color line resulted in African-American actors being employed only when a script specifically called for black characters. When an "extra" or incidental character could be of any racial background, invariably or she was white. Ebony magazine in 1955 decried this practice when it related the story of Abbie Shuford. An aspiring young actress, Shuford had worked for three unsuccessful years in New York City, hoping to break the color line in television. Four years earlier Ed Sullivan had wondered in the same magazine if TV could "crack America's color line." The case of Abbie Shuford suggested that the answer was negative.
Although they produced deleterious results, discrimination and adherence to the color line were at least obvious practices which could be openly challenged. Much more difficult to combat was the preproduction censorship that occurred behind the scenes. It was difficult, for example, to deal with the establishment by some producers of discriminatory racial quotas. The use of quotas meant that never more than a few black performers could appear on the TV screen at one time.
It also meant that stories treating racial controversy were rarely produced. Even the use of black extras was affected by racial quotas. In situations where more than a few black actors might be expected to appear—in urban street scenes, on public transportation, on public school campuses, or in hospital waiting rooms—they were severely restricted.
According to film historian Thomas Cripps, this practice was complicated when liberal activist groups brought pressure for change upon TV producers. Cripps showed how protests from organizations like the NAACP actually led producers to curb further their utilization of black talent. For every African American cast as a menial character, the NAACP demanded that another black actor be included in a professional role. Such a demand led some to ignore black parts altogether. And this discrimination was justified on the grounds that it avoided unwanted disputes over racial quotas and sensitive minority themes.
Pressure for censorship in television dramatics came from sponsors, networks, advertising agencies, and even production personnel. Above all, these elements feared offending the prejudices and the economic strength of their white audiences. Fearing it was too controversial for the South, the CBS sales department failed to obtain a sponsor for the documentary of Marian Anderson's operatic tour of the Far East. Not until Edward R. Murrow and co-producer Fred W. Friendly personally found an underwriter would CBS air this See It Now feature in prime time. When Du Pont financed an adaptation in mid-1958 of the popular Broadway play, A Member of the Wedding, it was suggested that the tenderness and embracing between the mammy character and her white employers' children should be eliminated or toned down. Sensitive to civil rights tensions, the sponsors of the CBS series, Climax, compelled writer Ernest Kinoy to change two boys trapped in a cave from a black and a white to a white and a Mexican-American.
One of the most striking examples of preproduction censorship occurred when Reginald Rose's drama, "Thunder on Sycamore Street," was telecast on Studio One on March 15, 1954. Here, sponsor (Westinghouse), advertising agency (McCann-Erickson), and network (CBS) united in shaping the play. The original story was inspired by an attempt in 1953 by African-Americans to move into a local housing development in Cicero, Illinois. According to Rose, he wrote the drama because the "inhuman medieval attitudes of these free, white Americans had so disturbed me that I had decided to do a play about them in an attempt to explore the causes behind their mass sickness." For television, however, Rose was forced to make his central character an ex-convict instead of a black man. Rose explained that it was "unpalatable" to behind-the-scenes elements that a black man should be "the beleaguered hero of a television drama." Particularly, they felt, viewers in southern states would be "appalled" by such a depiction.
It was an axiom in the advertising industry that southern whites would not tolerate positive images of blacks on television. Advertisers and their agencies feared a white economic backlash should they finance African-American talent in other than minstrel-based comedy roles. As an advertising executive explained to black actor Frank Silvera, a company such as Pillsbury could not afford to become associated too closely with African Americans or their cause. If it became a popular perception that a Pillsbury product was a "nigger flour," the company would be severely hurt in sales.'
Boycotts by southern consumers in the 1950s had adversely affected large corporations on more than one occasion. When black workers were permitted to work alongside whites on production lines at the Ford Motor Company, white southerners boycotted Ford automobiles until the practice was changed. When an African-American girl won a Chicago beauty contest, southern whites boycotted the sponsor of the contest, Philip Morris. The fear of such organized consumer resistance was what writer Rod Serling termed "a wrathful wind to come up from the South."
The clamor for censorship moved from the lowest to the highest levels in American society. Dealers holding franchises to sell nationally advertised products—especially the more expensive commodities such as automobiles—interpreted white consumer prejudice and in turn pressured corporate offices to avoid positive black characterization. Sponsors and their advertising agencies translated this anxiety into directives to writers, directors, and producers of television plays. Few personalities except Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen had the conviction and leverage necessary to withstand these pressures.
As the noted dramatist Paddy Chayefsky explained to a TV audience in 1958, no matter how compelling the story, if it had racial implications it was almost impossible to produce. Speaking of the unwinding story of public school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, Chayefsky argued that it could never become television drama. To be acceptable for TV, he remarked, a writer would have to make the central character not a black child seeking integrated education, but "a Hungarian immigrant coming in from another country, and the reason they didn't like him was because he looked dirty." Simply stated, in Chayefsky's view "you can't write the Little Rock thing because they can't sell the sets down South ... or you can't sell the aluminum paper down South ......
A flagrant example of southern pressure on a TV dramatic production occurred with a play written by Rod Serling for the United States Steel Hour telecast on April 25, 1956. Although the play, "Noon on Doomsday," was not a racial drama, its theme was inspired by the Emmett Till case—a murder case in Mississippi in which an all-white jury acquitted two white men of killing Till, a black teenager who had made the mistake of whistling at a white woman. For Serling the poignancy in the acquittal was that although the two men were set free, the townspeople ostracized them as if they had been convicted.
Serling intended to stress this poignancy, the notion of a closed society rejecting state laws, but dispensing justice according to local values. However, to avoid racial controversy and to make his theme universal, Serling located his drama in an unspecified, nonsouthern locale. His victim was an elderly Jewish pawnbroker. The killer was made a neurotic malcontent who killed out of "his own unhappy, purposeless, miserable existence."
But, when it was publicized that Serling's play was related to the Till murder case, reaction was quickly forthcoming. In the several months before it was actually produced, White Citizens Councils and similar organizations sent more than fifteen thousand letters and telegrams protesting its showing. Despite denials in the press, "Noon on Doomsday" was anticipated as a racial play.
Bending to the pressure, U.S. Steel demanded and obtained wholesale changes in the drama. The story was now set in New England. The victim was made a foreigner of unspecified ethnicity. The killer was no longer a psychopath, but an average American boy who had just gone wrong for a moment. Anything hinting at the South—the word "lynch," fried chicken, any social institution or event—was forbidden. Even Coca-Cola bottles were removed from the set because the national headquarters of that soft drink company was in Atlanta.
This is not to suggest that the South was the only region of the nation antipathetic to strong, honest portrayals of African-American life. If such were the case, network TV would have avoided such imagery, but local television in the rest of the country would have aired consistently positive programs. The latter phenomenon never materialized. With its higher percentage of black residents, with its segregated caste system, and with its economic power securely in the hands of the Caucasian population, the South was only an intensified microcosm of national racial attitudes. Its Jim Crow laws were more blatant, its segregation was more developed, and its economic disparity was more apparent than in other regions of the United States.
With the civil rights movement growing in the mid-1950s, many commercial elements in TV programming feared association with the black cause. With the weight of federal law and force threatening to overturn the inequitable social system established in the Reconstruction era, many considered it economic suicide for a national manufacturer to sponsor a video drama showing the black minority in a flattering or martyred light.
The result of such bias was that African-Americans were practically invisible in the most prolific of TV productions, the commercial. In the millions of advertisements appearing on American television in the 1950s—and into the 1960s—blacks were never there. On sidewalks in urban centers: none seen. In restaurants or other public venues: not there either. And as the central characters eating, drinking, driving, playing with, or otherwise buying the sponsors’ products: not to be seen. TV never even appealed specifically to the multi-billion-dollar black market. American television commercials were pure white.
There was one important exception to this rule. A few charities employed African American performers in their public service announcements seeking for donations. This was true of The Sister Kenney Foundation in its fight against polio (Louis Armstrong, Jackie Robinson), and to a much greater extent it was the case with the March of Dimes which throughout the decade featured black celebrities—from Toni Harper, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis Jr. to Lionel Hampton, the Benny Goodman Quartet, Eartha Kitt, and Sam Cooke) in their anti-polio PSAs which ran as long as five minutes.
It is not that advertising agencies and U.S. companies did not know how to approach African Americans either as a separate group or as part of the broader general audience. Cunningham and Walsh, the agency that represented Liggett & Meyers tobacco, made perfectly respectable commercials that appeared in some of the Negro America newsreels. These featured Claude Barnett and entertainer Etta Moten (Mrs. Barnett) endorsing Chesterfield cigarettes. Another example of positive imagery in filmed advertising exists in William Alexander’s By-Line Newsreel. Here, Pepsi-Cola—a company which since 1940 had respectfully targeted the African American market through print advertisements—showed how respectful television advertising might have been.
When black performers or racial themes did gain dramatic exposure, familiar characterization was expectable. Ethel Waters appeared on TV as early as August 1947. On the Borden Theater production of "Ethel's Cabin," she portrayed a middle-aged black woman saddled with a lazy husband and a dilapidated cabin—yet with still enough soul to sing the blues. One reviewer understood the implications of the telecast. While he praised the vocal talents of Waters, he noted that "presenting the lazy Negro, supported by his wife, is objectionable as fostering color discrimination."
Waters' dramatic roles were typecast. As well as playing the lead for almost two years in the Beulah series, she appeared from time to time during the 1950s on such vehicles as General Electric Theater, Climax, Favorite Playhouse, and Playwrights ‘56. In all instances, she was portrayed as a faithful mammy servant, beloved darkie, or suffering mother.
The struggling boxer was a familiar role for black actors. During this first decade of TV production, Canada Lee, Frederick O'Neal, and Harry Belafonte appeared in teleplays as boxers. Another acceptable role for black actors was that of a swarthy Latin-American. Frank Silvera, for example, played a Latino musician on the Studio One production of "Guitar" on August 26, 1957. Although born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Spanish language, Juano Hernandez spoke flawless English. Nonetheless, his most substantial TV parts were as a Latin-American professor and doctor on two Studio One productions.
Even when stereotyped, seldom were African-American performers given parts like Frank Silvera's role as a wrongly convicted, pitiful prisoner and Georgia Burke's role as his enduring wife, in "The Julian Houseman Story" on The Big Story on November 25, 1949. It was an unfamiliar television scene for a black actor when, after the court reversed its conviction of Silvera's character, he spoke into the camera:
You see, I learned somepin. That—ef you believe somepin, don't put you head down. Don't say, "Nah, that can't be." Put you face up and fight what you believe. Ef you do that, people care, cause they see you cares."
There were, of course, other significant exceptions to the pattern of exclusion found in television drama. An episode of Death Valley Days in June 1953, "Land of the Free," concerned two black prospectors in the old West. Although it was only a single episode in a lengthy syndicated series that totaled 558 half-hour episodes, it represented one of the few instances in which blacks were shown to have been a part of the frontier legacy.
Other appearances by blacks were notable. Eartha Kitt appeared on The Peter Potter Show in early January 1954 to plug her new recording and to learn if the panelists on that record-rating program felt it would be “a hit or a miss.” The following year she performed on the Ed Sullivan Show at least six times. She ended that year with a highly praised dramatic performance in "Salome" on the prestigious Omnibus program on December 18. Similarly, Harry Belafonte, dubbed as "America's foremost balladeer," made five guest appearances in 1955 on The Colgate Comedy Hour. He sang on The Ed Sullivan Show. He starred in a CBS musical special, Three for Tonight, on June 22, 1955. Belafonte ended the year in a dramatic role, co-starring with Ethel Waters in "Winner by Decision" on General Electric Theater on November 6.
James Edwards, best known for his portrayal of the black soldier in Stanley Kramer's controversial film, Home of the Brave, appeared in two dramatic productions in 1955. In "D.P." on the General Electric Theater in January, he portrayed an American soldier stationed in Germany whose bitterness was mellowed when he became the surrogate father of an orphaned black boy. In "Toward Tomorrow," on the Du Pont Cavalcade Theater in October, he played the young Ralph Bunche struggling with the idea of whether or not to attend college.
There were other dramatic triumphs. Sidney Poitier played a central character on "The Parole Officer," a presentation on the distinguished Philco Television Playhouse. Clarence Muse in 1955-1956 enacted the role of Sam, the piano-playing friend of Rick on Warner Brothers' short-lived series, Casablanca. And Duke Ellington lent his narrative voice and musical talent to "A Drum Is a Woman," a jazz fantasy which he composed for the United States Steel Hour telecast of May 8, 1957.
Combining the best of drama and music, Leontyne Price made her debut on national television in the title role of Puccini's Tosca. Produced on The NBC Opera Theater on January 23, 1955, it was an artistic triumph for the young soprano from Laurel, Mississippi. Variety praised her performance effusively, announcing that "a new operatic star was born." Unfortunately for opera lovers in the South, several southern affiliates refused to carry the program because Price was black.
Much of the South was also unable to see Leontyne Price in her next several appearances on The NBC Opera Theater. She precipitated local preemptions on January 15, 1956, when she sang the role of Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute. Several southern stations canceled the program on December 8, 1957, when she appeared in the role of Mme. Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. As late as August 10, 1960, racial prejudice caused the cancellation in the South of a Leontyne Price operatic performance. This time eleven of NBC's forty stations below the Mason-Dixon line refused to broadcast Mozart's Don Giovanni because Price sang the role of Donna Anna.
As poignant and artistic as were many of these performances, the most profound role given a black actor in early TV was Sidney Poitier's part as Tommy Tyler in the Philco Television Playhouse production of "A Man Is Ten Feet Tall." Written by Robert Alan Aurthur, the play was televised on October 2, 1955, as the last effort sponsored by Philco in seven years with this dramatic showcase. Knowing that this was to be the last program for the sponsor, both Philco and Aurthur decided to be forthright in this final product.
Poitier played a railroad worker who befriended a white deserter from the Army. A sensitive and humane character, Tommy Tyler invited his white friend to share Christmas dinner with him and his wife. The play ended, however, with Tyler dying—stabbed in the back when he intervened in a fight between his friend and another white man.
The drama possessed an interracial theme, a sense of Christian suffering, and a remarkable probing of human emotionality. It was definitely not the type of show with which African-American talent was usually associated on TV. Years later, Aurthur recalled the reaction to his drama. "Following the show I received more than 1,100 letters, cards, telegrams," he stated. Further, according to Aurthur:
We won seven awards.... Two Southern newspapers printed editorials calling me a Communist, and several others condemned the network for airing the show. Six Philco distributors threatened to cancel franchises, and we received a rolled-up petition from Jackson, Miss. with more than six thousand signatures of people who swore they'd never watch the Playhouse again. Too late.
More familiar to viewers in the early years of television was the image of blacks cast in stereotyped parts. Tap dancers were popular: The Barry Brothers appeared on Toast of the Town in 1950, The Three Rockets danced on Cavalcade of Stars, and Fred and Sledge (Fred Davis and Eddie Sledge) appeared on The Colgate Comedy Hour as well as Arthur Godfrey and Friends while they were dancing in “Kiss Me Kate” on Broadway in 1950.
Blacks in dramatic role were usually predictable. James Earl Jones, Sr. played an African native on “Heart of Darkness” when it was produced on The Ford Theater Hour in 1950. And Ossie Davis starred in the celebrated "Emperor Jones" on The Kraft Television Theater in 1955. Predictably, there was a dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It occurred on Omnibus on April 10, 1955. But, the most flagrantly stereotyped presentation, however, was "The Green Pastures," and it appeared three times on network television during the 1950s.
"The Green Pastures" was an acclaimed all-black play which premiered on Broadway in 1930. Written by a white man, Marc Connelly, it played in New York City and 112 other locales before it was produced by Warner Brothers in 1936 as a motion picture. The drama was a boon for black actors, since it had eighty roles to fill. But it was an outlandishly stereotyped fantasy about the Old Testament, one which envisioned an all-black Heaven that was "one big fish fry, where Mammy Angels feed custard and fish to little cherubs.
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning play made its TV debut on April 7, 1951, when excerpts were enacted on ABC's Showtime, U.S.A. The cast for this production included Avon Long and Ossie Davis. William Marshall played the leading role, that of De Lawd. More elaborate was the ninety-minute version of "The Green Pastures" which was presented on October 23, 1957 on the celebrated Hallmark Hall of Fame. Here it was given a full treatment, complete with engaging sets, believable special effects, and strong realization by the distinguished director George Schaefer. The main roles were played by William Warfield, Eddie Anderson, and Frederick O'Neal. And it was successful. It received awards from Look magazine and Sylvania television. The ninety-minute version was also repeated for Hallmark on March 23, 1959, by essentially the same cast.
Nevertheless, "The Green Pastures" owed as much to minstrel shows as it did to Biblical inspiration. Its character development and impressive appearance could not but be diminished by its overpoweringly prejudiced script. Many of the clichés created in nineteenth-century ministrelsy were prominent. The term "boy" was used frequently to refer to adult men, there were crap games, drinking and carousing, pidgin English, knife fights, emasculating women, and a generalized atmosphere of "fightin', gamblin', and loafin'." Emerging from this facile picture of black religious fundamentalism was an imposing image of God, De Lawd, whose overbearing preeminence rendered all other characters simple children.
For the racially biased viewer, this was a safe portrait of American blacks. All the characters were essentially Sambos—uncomplicated children whose mischief would be handled by the inexorable acting out of the Old Testament story. Even the black God was unthreatening. His bad grammar and dialect immediately compromised his superiority. This was no character affected by contemporary considerations of civil rights and social freedom. De Lawd was another Uncle Tom, the "good old darky" image drawn directly from the entertainment stage of the previous century.
The fact that the program was repeated and found such widespread approval suggests, moreover, that unlike the dramas of Reginald Rose, Robert Alan Aurthur, and Rod Serling, "The Green Pastures" more accurately reflected popular racial perceptions of a sizable number of Americans in the 1950s.
By the close of TV's first decade, the original promise of unbiased treatment for African Americans remained unfulfilled. Certainly, there were occasional black faces on the video screen. But they continued to appear in familiar or stereotyped situations: as dancers, vocalists, and comedians on variety shows; as supporting characters in a few dramas; as occasional contestants on audience participation and quiz shows; and as impersonal competitors in some sports.
Equally striking were the TV niches into which no African-Americans fit. In early television there were no black newscasters or correspondents, no black Western stars or supporting characters, no black staff announcers, no black detectives or undercover agents. Likewise, African Americans were minimally represented, if at all, in TV producing, directing, and writing, as well as in network and station management, and in related work with sponsors or advertising agencies.
As television emerged and adapted to the values and tastes of its audience, there developed certain perimeters clearly marking the borders of black expression in the medium. These were not necessarily dictates from any network official or television producer. They emanated, usually, from the process of adaptation TV experienced as it found its place within the American culture. On the one hand, it was quickly established that racial resentment and frustration—especially as enunciated by militant black spokesmen—were unacceptable on network and local television. On the other hand, TV showed itself chronically inhospitable to sponsored national programming hosted by black entertainers.
Hostility toward African-American militancy and nonsupport for black-hosted network series at first seem unrelated postures. But their implications and relationship were clearly demonstrated in two events during TV's first decade—the banning of Paul Robeson from network and local television, and the cancellation by NBC of the Nat King Cole Show.