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Color Adjustment Movie Review

television black images marlon

When we look at early images of television, an atmosphere of false innocence saturates everything we see. We don't think of the real-life Donna Reed, infuriated by relentless male visions of what the perfect wife and mother should be, we don't think of the real-life Robert Young and his offscreen struggles with alcoholism, we don't think of the real-life Nelson family, nearly torn apart by custody battles; we prefer to think of serene communities like Mayfield where Wally and the Beaver are always twelve and nine years old and Ward and June Cleaver are always there for their little boys. But as false as white images on television are, at least they exist. In the early 1950s, as Color Adjustment, Marlon Riggs’ absorbing 1991 film shows, you could stop counting shows about black Americans after Beulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy. Both series were originally created and played by middle-aged white guys for radio. (Yes, Beulah, too. Marlin Hurt and Bob Corley were the voices of Beulah the maid long before Ethel Waters and Louise Beavers took over the role on television.) The N.A.A.C.P. fought hard to get the racial stereotypes of Amos ‘n’ Andy off the air and finally succeeded in 1953, although the show persisted in reruns through 1966. After that, there were only sporadic efforts to acknowledge black artists on television. Nat “King” Cole was given a shot at his own weekly variety show, but the series failed to attract a sponsor after its first season. Bill Cosby's role as Alexander Scott on I Spy provided a breakthrough of sorts, but the doors opened very slowly and only for the most non-threatening images of black Americans, like the nurse Julia, interpreted by Diahann Carroll. (Room 222, clearly inspired by the huge international success of To Sir with Love, gave slightly more realistic roles as teachers to the late Lloyd Haynes and to Denise Nicholas.) But it was Norman Lear's All in the Family, with two of its enormously popular spin-offs, Good Times and The Jeffersons, that finally convinced network executives that shows about black Americans could be ratings leaders. Even so, black images popularized by television in the 1990s are often just as unrealistic as their 1950s predecessors were. Television projects with a conscience like East Side, West Side, Roots, Frank's Place, and The Cosby Show are examined in the context of what is actually happening in the lives of television viewers and contrasted with thoughtful observations by the late James Baldwin, Diahann Carroll, Esther Rolle, Tim Reid, and others. As always, the late Marlon Riggs offers welcome counterpoint at a time when we are all challenging what we see and hear in the media. If you can find it, you won't want to miss Color Adjustment.

1991 88m/C Ruby Dee; D: Marlon Riggs; W: Marlon Riggs; C: Rick Butler; M: Mary Watkins. VHS

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