On Its Anniversary - The Amos 'n Andy Controversy vis-a-vis Cosby, Selma, and the Ferguson Tragedies
Last night's Golden Globe recognition for Selma seems to have brought history full circle in more ways than one. As everyone knows, the film re-enacts the historic crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 during the Civil Rights Movement. But it also brings history around in another way. Eighty-nine years ago on January 12, 1926, the program that became known as Amos 'n Andy debuted on Chicago Radio as Sam 'n Henry. Two years later, the name was changed to Amos 'n Andy. In 1953, the show was canceled after ongoing protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It continued to run in syndication until it was finally withdrawn by CBS in 1966.
If you want to watch that show today, there are many bootleg copies available online. But you won't find it on DVD, and it's not likely to be released by the network any time soon.
The anniversary of the show''s debut arrives during a peculiar and even paradoxical moment. It is part of a temporal configuration that includes the movie Selma, tragic events in cities like Ferguson, and the castigation of Bill Cosby -- all of it occurring during the administration of America's first African-American president.
What are we to take from all of this? What does it mean? What does it say about being black in 21st century America?
I do not pretend to know the answer. Is there some grand conspiracy, as some have suggested, to portray black males in a negative light, thereby justifying the killing of unarmed "suspects"? Was Cosby "taken down" in the court of public opinion to silence his increasingly conservative views just as he was about to make a comeback? Does the current media moment amount to a small-screen replaying of attitudes that go back D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation ? If there is a conspiracy, are these negative images meant to sideline the Obama presidency, casting him as an anomaly? Is Ava Duvernay's Selma a similar exception, which speaks only to the past?
Whatever the answer, the present moment calls to mind dialogue from the movie, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The Sidney Poitier character is having an argument with his father because he (Poitier) is about to marry a white woman. "You think of yourself as a black man," Poitier says. "I think of myself as a man."
Is how you think of yourself enough, one wonders? Or is there some overarching perception by the larger world that places you always in danger, thereby determining for you that you are "black," regardless of how you think of yourself.
The present controversies surrounding race and even the ongoing one involving Amos 'n Andy have at their core a struggle to create a single narrative about what it means to be black in America.
The push-pull that pits past suffering against present-day injustice or Cosby "Truthers" against his accusers, or the proclivity of white police officers to kill unarmed black men against the undeniable achievements of Barack Obama -- is a struggle that seeks to define black experience within a particular frame.
Could it be that there is no single narrative? Is it possible that the multiple and conflicting storylines about blackness are simply examples that prove how varied we are as a people? Is it possible that buying into this or that storyline gives it power to influence who you are and how you think of yourself -- allowing it to play too great a role in both your destiny and identity?
One could argue the point in any direction, but in the end these are questions that can only be answered individually within the chambers of the heart.
What must be noted about the many nominations for Selma is this: It represents a significant effort by African-Americans to control the frame within which African-Americans will be seen. Of course, others have done this: Oprah, Lee Daniels, Chris Rock, and perhaps most notably, Bill Cosby.
But this brings forth yet another paradox. Does Cosby's tarnished public image diminish Dr. Huxtable? It should not.
The Huxtables were fictional characters on a TV sitcom. Their behaviors were written into the show's "bible." The actors who played those characters are not bound by that script, as Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo showed all too well. In that film, Jeff Daniels' character steps down from the movie screen and falls in love with Mia Farrow. When the real Jeff Daniels finds out about this, he behaves dishonorably in order to set things right. Mia Farrow winds up choosing the real Jeff over the fictional one and is the poorer for it in the end.
Fitting isn't it, that the similarly castigated Woody Allen should provide the best argument for saving Dr. Huxtable, even as Cosby the man takes a nosedive. These two "great" men are in the same boat. Is Annie Hall a bad movie because of anything in Woody Allen's hidden sex life? Of course not. Should we dismiss Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters or Midnight in Paris for the same reason? Neither then should the Huxtable family lose standing in the public mind.
The Huxtables did what fictional characters must always do. They showed us a possibility worth thinking about and even emulating. Regardless of anything that might be happening in your life, that TV show allowed you to think of yourself in a certain way. If they could be a doctor-husband and lawyer-wife raising a family the best way they knew how, then perhaps you could aspire to do that too. Even if you still thought of yourself as a "black man" to return to Poitier and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, at least that idea of blackness was not some low and loathsome buffoon incapable of making a success of anything.
Perhaps that was always the problem with Amos 'n Andy. The original actors were whites pretending to be black. Those actors presented African-Americans through the eyes of whites whose perceptions were shaped during the first half of the 20th century. Although the TV version brought black actors aboard, the show was never able to jettison its origins in the derogatory tradition of "black face."
What follows here are four items of interest with regard to all of this: 1) The NAACP Bulletin on Amos 'n Andy; 2) The documentary called Amos 'n Andy: The Anatomy of a Controversy. 3) The viral YouTube video on racist cartoons; and 4) Harry Belafonte's moving acceptance speech, upon receiving the 2014 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, about the impact of media images on the black psyche and the role Hollywood has played historically in shaping how black people think of themselves.
THE NAACP'S AMOS 'N ANDY CANCELLATION BULLETIN
HARRY BELAFONTE & THE IMPACT OF MOVIES ON THE BLACK PSYCHE
Born this day in 1901, Strasberg is the "father of method acting," who mentored many actors whose work we now consider great. The following clip gives an idea of the man in terms of his famous "method" and its impact on the actors who use it.
It's a long way from Mean Girls to The Notebook and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. But Rachel McAdams, born this day in 1978 is a bonafide star now. Here's a look at her audition for The Notebook.
Born this day 71 years ago, this director has given us one great film after another - Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, Gangs of New York, and The Color of Money among them. But wasn't it nice that his 2011 film, Hugo, picked up five Oscars and a Golden Globe for Best Director - a film without an ounce of violence even his own little kid could see.
Born this day in Toronto, Canada, in 1944, Lorne Michaels got his start as a writer for Laugh-in back in the 1960's. By 1975, he was ready to co-create one of the most successful television comedy programs in the history of the medium. We know him for Saturday Night Live, which has served as the launching pad for many successful actors over the years: Eddie Murphy, Dan Akroyd, Tina Fey, Adam Sandler Chevy Chase, Jane Curtain, John Belushi, and the list goes on.
It is documented that Fyodor Dostoevsky was born this day in 1821, but it can also be argued that the great Russian writer whose work we admire today was really born after his arrest in 1849, when, as he was standing before a firing squad, a note of clemency was delivered commuting his sentence from death to four years at hard labor. I'm parroting Irrational Man, William Barrett's book on existentialism, here, but the point is well taken. To be certain that you are going to die, to find yourself in the moment when it is sure to come and you have no reason to believe anything but that final destination is upon you, and then to be released - there is no way you will ever be the same afterward. So our thanks to the Czar for delivering into our hearts and minds one of the greatest novelists in history. If you suffered through Crime and Punishment in your youth, try reading it again as an adult. If you're still struggling to get your mind around The Brothers Karamazov, you could start with this clip from the 1958 film starring Yul Brenner, and yes, that is the ubiquitous William Shatner, eight years before Captain Kirk, as Alexei.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut (born this day in 1922). And thanks for Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Mr. Rosewater, and the idea of the centipede in Slaughterhouse Five. You know you're doing something right when they burn your books (as was done in Drake, North Dakota, in 1973), though it's hard to understand why anyone would not want others to read Slaughterhouse. Unless it cuts too close to the truth, and the only thing they can think of to justify narrow-mindedness is to say that it is "unwholesome." Really? Because it blends fact and fiction? Because it uses the MF-word once in a line of dialogue? Or because it speaks about the unnecessary Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II? Here's the trailer from the film version. But the book, of course, is a thousand times better.
We all know that Leonardo (born this day in 1974) is the "king of the world." He recently brought life to Gatsby and gave us an unforgettable portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Aviator. But did you know he also worked with Woody Allen? Here's a clip from Celebrity. He's not so lovable here as in Catch Me If You Can or Titanic. In fact, the woman-beating may not be for everyone. Viewer discretion advised. (As I watch this, however, I am reminded of something James Earl Jones once told me during an interview back in the day. "If I play a cop in one film, I want to play a criminal in the next." It's an actor's way, Jones said, of keeping his balance. Perhaps that's why the hero of the sinking-ship saga needed to play something of an antihero in the Allen film one year later.)
Come on, when you think of Calista (who turns 49 today), Brothers and Sisters is not the first thing that comes to mind. She's Ally McBeal, and here's that scene with Lucy Liu that caused a lot of controversy back in the day. Once again, viewer discretion is advised. If you are offended by sexually suggestive content involving two humans of the same gender, you'd best leave this one alone.
Best known for her roles in the films of Ingmar Bergman, this remarkable Swedish actress turns 78 today. She's in The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Ana, Wild Strawberries, and of course, Persona. Here's a clip from that great film, which also stars Liv Ullmann as the famous actress who has lost her ability to speak until the moment depicted in this scene.
Stephen King's Carrie - Then, Now & the Coffee Shop; Vanity Fair Author, Thackery, Completes Barry Lyndon
It was on November 3, 1976, two years after this first novel by Stephen King was published, that the film version starring Sissy Spacek was released in theaters - and the rest, as they say, is history. Here is a look at Carrie, then and now, as well as the coffee-shop prank promoting the new film. Would you believe it's had 47 million hits so far - and counting?
No Fat, No Whip, No Blood Either - The Coffee Shop Prank
In 1844, three years before he began publishing his best known work, Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, finished writing The Luck of Barry Lyndon: A Romance of the Last Century. One hundred, thirty-one years later, in 1975, Stanley Kubrick produced a film version starring Ryan O'Neal and Marissa Berenson, which may very well be one of Kubrick's best films. Some critics call it his "overlooked masterpiece."
Orson Welles' Martian Broadcast, MUhammad Ali's Rumble in the Jungle & Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility - On This Day
It was on this day in 1938 that Orson Welles brought hysterics to an entire nation with his radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. The 8 PM broadcast began with an introduction that made it clear this was a radio presentation of a novel. But after the initial announcement, the production segued to a musical segment where listeners were to be entertained by orchestral music. The thing is, if you missed the introduction and tuned in to CBS while the orchestra was playing, you would not know that this was drama, not news. Welles' entire War of the Worlds broadcast is available on YouTube. But nothing captures the flavor the thing like this delightful clip from Woody Allen's Radio Days.
Ali v. Foreman - The Rumble in the Jungle
For a long time, if you were African-American, the sports arena was where you found a microcosm of black life in the larger world. Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis were not only heroes in their own right but were emblematic of the slow progress "up from slavery." With Muhammad Ali, this sentiment took on additional spin when he was stripped of his world championship boxing title after being accused of dodging the draft during the Vietnam War. George Foreman became the new champ, and seven years after losing his title - not to an actual boxer but to aggregate entities larger than he - Ali was given an opportunity to get it back. The historic match was held on this day in 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire. Promoter Don King called it "The Rumble in the Jungle." Here are two clips, roughly 10 minutes apiece), which show the opening of the fight with all the attendant brouhaha and the climatic 8th round closing.
Jane Austen Publishes Sense and Sensibility
It was on this day in 1811 that an anonymous author known only as "a lady" visited upon the world one of literature's most beloved novels. Isn't it wonderful that her life and work are enjoying such a revival in our own time. Here's a clip from Ang Lee's 2007 film of today's birthday book.
Painter, filmmaker, artist extraordinaire, Julian Schnabel was born this day in 1951. Nominated for an Oscar for his beautiful film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, he also made a terrific film about the African-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, a taste of which is offered here.
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
My Dad did not have much time to take my brothers and me to see many films, what with his job as a dining-car waiter back in the days of separate-but-equal. So when he did, it was a major event. The 1957 version of the famous gunfight with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday was the one we saw. What really happened on this day back in 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, is probably more interesting today as legend than history. But for me, this film is a chance to hang out with my Dad again, though he passed away years ago during my freshman year in college. He did not have much education, but he made sure we all got good ones. And he certainly knew a good movie when he saw one. This one's for you, Dad.
And as long as we're talking fathers and sons, let's say Happy Birthday to novelist, Pat Conroy, born this day in 1946, with this great scene from the movie based on his novel, The Great Santini.
It's true that the video quality of the below clip is not so great, but there's nothing wrong with the audio. A couple of months ago, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, and it is widely known that Martin Luther King, Jr., often found inspiration in music. An opera lover, he was also deeply moved by the voice of Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), and was said to have listened to her sing this song the night before he delivered his immortal Dream speech.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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