Segments in this Video

"The Country's Image of the Negro..." (01:57)


Excerpts from popular American television shows from 1948-1968 show us that prime time television has, from it inception, sold the dream of the mythic American family. African Americans have become part of the myth through television.

Part 1 Color Blind TV? 1948-1968 (02:14)

Blacks returned home from World War II having fought for freedoms denied to them. Highly trained ex-military and domestics who had participated in industrial life had experienced a glimpse of the America whites enjoyed.

Television Finding Itself (01:45)

An excerpt from Texaco Star Theater (1951) accompanies a discussion of race relations in the infant medium of television. We see Danny Thomas and Milton Berle on stage attesting that there is "no room for prejudice in our profession." Television is an extension of radio

"Amos 'n Andy" (01:51)

Inherited from radio, black representations in television changed only in that blacks had to be hired. Whites portrayed blacks in radio. Both mediums relied on clichéd notions about blacks--always negative. A television producer says they were giving audiences what they wanted.

Black Actors Respond to "Amos 'n Andy" (00:59)

Actors Tim Reid and Diahann Carroll discuss their responses to "Amos 'n Andy" as children, and now.

End of "Amos 'n Andy" (02:56)

"Amos 'n Andy" played on the theme that blacks might aspire to the American dream of success, but were ill-equipped--comically so--to achieve it. Although the NAACP succeeded in getting "Amos 'n Andy" off the air, television fails to adjust; Negros remain in their place.

"The Beulah Show" (02:41)

One industry veteran says television was just trying to "amuse" audiences. "The Beulah Show" Louise Beavers reinforces the notion of an African American woman comfortable working in a domestic environment for whites.

Reality of Domestic Workers (01:17)

The reality of the black maid is shown in still photos. Most of '50s television retreated from the conflict

White Families as Center of Prime Time (01:52)

Against excerpts of "Dragnet," "I Married Joan," "Ozzie and Harriet," we learn that television promoted a belief that white families led a "wholesome" "trouble-free" existence. Baby boom families found images of what they should be and owns; blacks were rarely part of this mythic picture.

Relatable Black Perfomers (01:47)

An excerpt shows Diahann Carroll appearing on TV. Blacks watched when they knew there would be a black performer--otherwise there was nothing to to which they could relate.

"Nat King Cole Show" (04:12)

Analysis of the "Nat King Cole Show" explains what made him palatable for whites; blacks consider the cost of assimilation. His elegant presence also offered blacks an image of themselves that went beyond clichés that, so far, constituted blacks on television.

"Nat King Cole Show" Cancelled (02:15)

The violence in Little Rock Arkansas around school integration (excerpts shown here) brought the country's ongoing racial issues to the fore. Cole's sponsorship disappeared and the show was cancelled after only one season.

Network & Sponsor Perspective (01:48)

Television industry veterans analyze how advertising impacted network choices. A speaker at the National Association of Broadcasters Convention, May 1961 challenges networks to provide a wider range of choices.

Civil Rights Movement in America's Living Rooms (03:24)

We see excerpts of televised images of black Americans during the violent and non-violent events of the 1960s. Televised images highlighted the resistance to enfranchisement of blacks, who more and more Americans were recognizing as "full human beings."

East Side/West Side (03:05)

This dramatic series (excerpts shown here) boldly bucked prime time convention and undercut the myth of American progress; it was cancelled after one season.

"Julia" - Perfect and One Dimensional (03:41)

"Julia" creator Hal Kanter says he owed his black colleagues an apology for "Amos n Andy." Diahann Carrol discusses the role of the black woman as educated and integrated, neither overly grateful nor subservient. Esther Rolle discusses black response to the series.

Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom are Dead (03:13)

"Well-adjusted," "scrubbed," and "ferociously literate" blacks take to the screen. Henry Louis Gates Jr. discusses the series "I Spy" starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. Television undertakes an extreme effort to overcome all prior media images of blacks.

The White Negro (02:13)

Blacks and whites reacted negatively to "Julia." Actress Diahann Carroll was accused of "selling out." Bill Cosby's was well received in his role as Alexander Scott in "I Spy," but both were blacks idealized as whites.

Two Black Americas: News & Prime Time (02:13)

In the 1960s, each representation of blacks on TV bore the burden of representing the race, and subsequently came under attack for what it left out "Julia" was "conveniently" separated from black culture by the death of her husband. Civil rights violence continued.

Mandate to Amuse (02:11)

"The entertainment function of television is predicated on the assumption that this world is a comforting world that we all aspire to, black white, Latino, Chinese, Japanese, it doesn't matter." Hidden behind "entertainment" TV normalizes the universe it represents.

Part II - Coloring the Dream 1968 -1988 (02:26)

By the late 1960s the myth of America was under assault as evidenced by these scenes of violence against blacks and Vietnam war protesters juxtaposed with excerpts from "Bewitched," "The Brady Bunch," "All in the Family" and more.

"All in the Family" (02:21)

Norman Lear discusses the choice to produce a television show that addressed America's racial prejudice. We see Archie Bunker rant. These first steps toward realistically depicting American households because the public was becoming intolerant of the perfect families on TV.

The Changing Prime Time Family (01:52)

As in real life, the TV family became a political battle ground. We see scenes of forced busing on the news and excerpts from "All in the Family" in which Archie belittles blacks. Ironically, the show reinforced the myth that families solve problems and stick together with affection and humor.

"Good Times" (03:00)

"Good Times" star Esther Rolle was the first series featuring a black family with both father and mother. It was an attempt to be relevant for blacks.

"Good Times" Potential and Failure (02:16)

An analysis of "Good Times" reveals that when the J.J. character became a buffoon, in an attempt to let off some steam from the issues it was trying to address, the character took on a minstrel tone which robbed the show of political bite.

Ghetto Sitcoms of the '70s (02:22)

Shows like "Sanford and Son" and "What's Happening" represented inner-city life, but did so in a way that made the ghetto palatable for white Americans--that blacks could thrive and be happy there.

"Roots" (03:12)

Producer David Wolper discusses the making of this series. We see a scene in which a mother begs the white master not to sell her daughter, and we see scenes of black and white families watching it on television.

Kunta Kinte (02:04)

As "Roots" unfolded night after night, Americans took up a dialogue. White Americans could identify because of the connection to the immigrant experience, says Henry Louis Gates Jr.

"Positive Stories Can Be Equally Negative" (02:04)

"Roots was a Horatio Alger story," says an industry veteran. With this series, blacks find a place in mainstream America by adaptation. Television reframed national disgrace into an epic triumph of the family and the American dream

"The Cosby Show" (02:23)

The affluent and educated Huxtables had an image of success perfectly attuned to the politics of post-civil rights America. The show was seen as an opportunity to diminish attitudes of racism.

1980s Polarization of Rich and Poor (02:18)

Television promoted the idea that people could work hard and have opportunity during the Reagan years. We see excerpts from Reagan speeches and from "The Cosby Show." The TV family is once again, a mythic sanctuary.

Reaffirming Middle Class Values (01:05)

"The Cosby Show" is "everyone's fantasy." It is appealing to white audiences because it reinforces the notion that the Civil Rights movement took care of all the racial inequities of our society. "Frank's Place"

"Frank's Place" (04:15)

"Franks Place" was a genuine depiction of American life for many blacks. It never gained popularity/acceptance from whites because of its honest representation of blacks in American society. Star Tim Reid elaborates.

What is Television's Responsibility? (03:26)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says hundreds of years of misrepresenting blacks cannot be corrected by television sitcoms. Producer Steve Bochco says whether we like it or not, television programming represents our country. What are we saying about it?

Understanding How Inequality Operates & is Perpetuated (01:33)

Esther Rolle myriad representations of blacks on television." What makes us think a whole people have to be alike?" There is a continuing press toward an "imaginary middle."

African Americans & Pop Culture (01:22)

Have we exchanged old myths for new? The film closes with a quote from James Baldwin: "All roles are dangerous. The world tends to trap you in the role you play and it is always extremely hard to maintain a watchful, mocking distance between oneself as one appears to be and oneself as one actually is. :

Credits: Color Adjustment (02:01)

Credits: Color Adjustment

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Color Adjustment

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This award-winning documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Marlon Riggs takes a close look at how network television absorbed deep-seated racial conflict and transformed it into the nonthreatening offerings of 20th-century prime-time TV. Narrated by Ruby Dee, the film examines popular programs such as Amos ‘n’ Andy, I Spy, Julia, Good Times, Roots, and The Cosby Show, weaving clips from the shows with news coverage of the civil rights movement. Esther Rolle, Diahann Carroll, Tim Reid and other black performers discuss the impact their acting roles had in shaping race relations. With Norman Lear (All in the Family, The Jeffersons), David Wolper (Roots), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and others. (88 minutes)

Length: 89 minutes

Item#: BVL49751

Copyright date: ©1991

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

Winner, George Foster Peabody Award


Winner, Outstanding Achievement Award, International Documentary Association


Winner, Erik Barnouw Award, Organization of American Historians


“A cogent and thoughtful survey of Black America as represented by American television, from the demeaning stereotypes of Amos ’n Andy to the subtler, more insidious ones of The Cosby Show.  The New York Times


“An impressive and provocative and quietly adversarial documentary...examines the relationship of the lighthearted world of video fiction to the grinding realities of a society reluctantly coming to grips with the expansion of civil rights. A unique and thoughtful statement that should be seen by anyone involved in the creation of television.”  Daily Variety

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