Article published in Dropline.biz on April 18, 2005

Obba Babatundé’s“TV In Black, The First Fifty Years”

By Laurie Morton (co-authored by Dino M. Zaffina)

In this extraordinary show the uniquely Black perspective inside the history of television is explored and celebrated. From comedy-to-politics-to-drama, the role race plays is unflinchingly probed. Original programs and personalities are revealed and remembered. More than forty interviews, original footage and rarely seen photos tell the story from Amos ‘n Andy to Bernie Mac and everything in between in TV in Black.

The audience is guided through this journey by Obba Babatundé (Actor of films, television, and theatre). The history of this long and treacherous journey that black entertainers and performers had to endure begins with black’s struggle to earn their place on stage and in radio. Amos ‘n Andy was produced with white performers because it was economical. The Beulah Show which also started on radio did, however, star black actress, Hattie McDaniels.

Hattie McDaniels is best remembered today for her role in the film Gone With The Wind. She won the 1939 Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Mammy. She was the first African-American to be nominated for, and to win, an Academy Award.

During the 30s and 40s radio ruled the airways. Live bands, radio dramas and comedies brought families together. The 1950s brought a new age of families coming together to “watch” their favorite programs on black and white television sets.

The first break-through black television show was The Beulah Show which debut in 1950. The shows title character of “Beulah” was played by three different black actresses during its run, Ethel Water (1950-1952), Hattie McDaniels (three episodes in 1952), until she discovered she had cancer and became too ill to continue working. She died of breast cancer in 1952. Afterwards, Louise Beavers took over the role until its end in 1953.

The Beulah Show was deemed too offensive by the network watch dog groups, eventually forcing its cancellation. Fortunately, The Amos ‘n Andy Show began in 1951. It provided work for many black performers. Although it brought laughter, scheming, and confusion into everyone’s living rooms, and was widely popular, it made some African-Americans uncomfortable.

Black audiences did not like seeing black actors/actresses portrayed in a negative light or be degraded by whites. Burt Williams made a living being degraded. His sacrifices paved the way for all the black comedic actors/actresses that followed him.

So too, did actor Lincoln Penny of Stepin Fetchit who had 22 cars and servants. He lived this life-style by playing a degraded character. Penny may have not been happy with his roles, but he was most definitely the original “ghetto fabulous” which is known today as “Bling, Bling.”

 TV In Black shows how television was important for the Civil Rights movement, especially the “March on Washington” in 1963. Thanks to television, two black figures rushed to the forefront of Americans’ minds, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was seen as saintly, and the stance and religion of Malcolm X was ingrained in the hearts of the viewers. There was national coverage.

This program will provide an insight into the struggles of Sammy Davis, Jr., Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughn. Charles and Vaughn each had regional shows, but it wasn’t until Nat King Cole that a black performer hosted the first national show that featured both white and black entertainers.

Celebrities, a professor, and a historian will take you through their memories of when they saw the first black actor on television. How they took pride that blacks were there and they were represented.

Being black in entertainment means being part of a very small family inside an often larger world, but African-American performers today, from the celebrated to the unknown understand with each step they take, they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.”—Obba Babatundé

TV In Black, along with two other documentaries by Obba, Dorothy Dandridge: An American Beauty and Oscar's Black Odyssey: From Hattie to Haley can be purchased at Amazon.com.

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