Book Review: Black Power TV

This review is adapted from an original piece published in the Centre’s journal Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World.

Book review: Black Power TV by Devorah Heitner (Duke University Press: Durham & London 2013)

Review by Jo Manby

A compelling and detailed chronicle of the way that a range of Black public affairs programmes arose within the history of American television during the period of the Black Power movement, this book examines four television shows in particular, both directly and indirectly funded by the (White) Ford Foundation, among other sources, and critical in allowing ‘the imagining of a Black nation and a distinctly African American consciousness’ (p.14).

book coverThese programmes are:

  • Inside Bedford Stuyvesant
  • Say Brother
  • Black Journal
  • Soul!

The programmes were chosen specifically for the study because there were at least fifteen episodes from the period of the late 1960s – early 1970s available for viewing by the author. Despite the proliferation of Black programmes during this era, when ‘Black authority was urgently sought after’ (p.15) on the one hand, and television was seen as a means of keeping Black people at home during a time of civil unrest on the other, very few were archived and many were taped over.

Inside Bedford Stuyvesant had the lowest budget of any of these shows, and was the only one to be broadcast from a commercial station, New York’s leading independent, WNEW. It was also arguably the first of the genre of Black public-affairs programming. It had been created out of a response to an uprising in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, summer 1964.

Following riots by residents who were protesting about bad housing and general lack of civic services, activists at Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council invited US senator Robert F. Kennedy to tour Bedford Stuyvesant. This led to the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC), the country’s first community development corporation. One of its board members, Fred Papert, suggested BSRC launch a TV show of its own.

Inside Bedford Stuyvesant, with its low financing levels, was filmed outdoors, relying on its charismatic anchors, Roxie Roker and Jim Lowry, to link apparently disparate elements ranging from interviews with Black Panthers to children’s musical performances. It was a positive, community-focused programme that put ‘community members in front of the camera’ and ‘showcased local artists’ (p.40).

Say Brother varied from Inside Bedford Stuyvesant in that its agenda from the start was political, whereas for Inside Bedford Stuyvesant it was left up to the programmes’ guests to make political comments. Say Brother’s story ‘illustrates how a television program created to contain Black anger was reenvisioned by staff members to express the Black critique and articulate alternative visions for Black life and Black empowerment’ (p.54). Its young hosts were ‘of the same political persuasions as many of their most radical guests’, and the ‘title and content of Say Brother constituted a call to action’ (p.55).

Black Journal, examined in Chapter 3, was ‘able to represent a Black world that spoke to both Black and white viewers’ after transforming itself from ‘the first national Black program, while still under white editorial control, to a very public strike by Black staff members, to the program’s emergence as an experimental documentary newsmagazine under the African American filmmaker William Greaves’ (p.22).

Greaves championed such coverage as the critiquing of ‘powerful white institutions’ – the education system, the police; after him came the equally controversial move whereby Kent Garrett was sent to Asia with a two-man crew to cover ‘Black enlisted men in Vietnam, Japan, and Okinawa’ (p.103), creating an hour-long documentary about Black GIs broadcast during the height of the Vietnam War.

Say Brother had a larger budget than Inside Bedford Stuyvesant, but Black Journal and Soul! benefited from being national network shows. In 1972 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting stopped funding for Black Journal and Soul! After much protest, Black Journal continued but with reduced production values.

Soul! was ‘public television’s national Black arts and entertainment program’ (p.123), billed as ‘a weekly all-black variety talk show’ (p.125). It was initiated by ‘a white media maker’ (p.123), hosted by Ellis Haizlip, a theatre producer fresh from presenting James Baldwin’s plays in Europe, and by guest hosts including Nikki Giovanni and Curtis Mayfield, then directed by Say Brother and Black Journal ‘veteran’ (p.126) Stan Lathan.

Black gender relations were regularly appraised, including discussions of ‘Black heterosexuality and homosexuality, motherhood and fatherhood, and Black women’s liberation’ (p.126). Heitner shows us how ‘the story of these programs emphasizes the positive gains brought about by media activism and affirmative hiring practices’ (p.158); the rise of Black Power demanded them and drove forward the ideas for Black liberation that they incorporated so effectively.

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