Black, White and in Color

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Sasha Torres. Black, White, and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003 Pp, xi, 137.( $21.95.) Paper: ISBN 0691016577


Author Sasha Torres examines the relationships between television and black civil rights. The first half of the book deals with the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950’s and early 60’s, with Torres analyzing the movement then and comparing it to representation of blacks later in the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations. By using archival news footage of various civil rights marches and demonstrations, plus early network news documentary shows, Torres makes the argument that television coverage encouraged the ordinary American to identify with the black protestors. Researching the papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Torres shows how King and other movement leaders became media savvy and knew when to invite television coverage. Later in the second half of the book as network news grew and the mood of the country shifted, she examines how news and network entertainment programs portrayed blacks as criminals. To do this Torres uses segments from “L.A. Law” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” which worked the Rodney King incident into storylines on both shows. When discussing these events Torres looks at them through their “liveness,” or incidents that played out live on television and how they affected stereotyping of black participants.

Torres explains that because of Federal Communication Commission rulings in the early days of television, a freeze on new stations left Arkansas, Mississippi and South Carolina completely without television until 1953. (p20) Along with the uneven national coverage by local network affiliates, there existed an odd relationship between the local affiliates and the networks on what was going to get covered. Many affiliates refused to cover or show any programs that dealt with blacks including entertainment shows -- even those produced by the network. As the Civil Rights movement was in its infancy, so was television news. Network news programs sought national events to cover to prove what they could do and southern blacks were seeking a way to get national attention for the movement. It became a complex partnership, according to Torres, which, for a while, benefited both. (p6)

To show this relationship Torres cites several examples where civil right leaders set up both the media and local authorities by antagonizing authorities until tempers flared and cameras were running. National audiences saw people and even children under attack by club-swinging police. In some cases the media itself came under attack. With network news shows running such encounters each night, it soon became evident that the position of southern whites arguing against racial equality was untenable. Racial equality had to be acknowledged as a desirable goal. (p9) However, as the news organization grew and coverage expanded beyond civil rights to Vietnam, civil rights leaders were slow to recognize the change in the political climate and that they were no longer the media’s main ticket.

With the Presidency of Richard Nixon a conservative shift was overtaking the country and race consciousness was seen as undemocratic. This view also helped the conservative right raise the specter of reverse discrimination by blacks against a law-abiding white middle class.(p9) The right’s attack targeting reverse discrimination was a way for the right to take away the moral high ground the blacks had won during the Civil Rights movement.(p10). During the Reagan and Bush administrations, Torres argues the nightly news showed people of color as deviants, who seemed to commit more crime, use more drugs and have more babies and less civic responsibility.(p10) In Torres’ view, television news in the 1990’s seemed to ask viewers to identify with the police against the black citizen. To show this change in viewpoints Torres uses the “liveness” of the Rodney King beating from a news standpoint and entertainment standpoint. The Rodney King beating happened concurrently with the rise of cable television. The playing and replaying of the tape and the riots that followed showed the live capability of television news, especially cable, with its ability to break in and follow events as they happened. Much of the riots that followed, however, were covered by live shots from helicopters and not people on the ground.

Looking at television entertainment Torres examines several story lines in the television show “L.A. Law.” Several major characters are put in similar situations as people involved in the riot. Viewers identify with the mostly white victims and blacks are shown as aggressors. In the show “Doogie Howser, M.D.” a gang member is used as a symbol of race as the riots start and victims are brought in. Again blacks are seen as the criminals and aggressors in the show. Torres makes her point by using some stills from the shows to compare with earlier images of the Civil Rights movement. Torres goes on to examine three movies to show how the movie industry looked at civil rights. The films Torres analyzes are “Malcolm X,” “Ricochet” and “Menace II Society.” The three films have very different views of black civil rights from the black perspective.


Fall 2007 Pat Kelly

Torres makes the right connections with the complex relationship between television and black civil rights. The first half of the book where Torres looks at how television and the Civil Rights movement used each other is excellent. She not only analyzes the situation at the national level, but the local level as well. The whole movement became so media savvy that many times civil rights workers wouldn’t go out to a certain area unless they knew the media would be there is ensure their safety. It would have helped if Torres analyzed how the movement began to fall apart when television coverage diminished. Also, Torres discusses southern Republican politicians running for office at this time who didn’t want to be seen as racist. However, she never shows if they, too, used the media to their advantage or if they even could.

The section on the news and entertainment is also very well done. The tape of Rodney King’s beating was played over and over from so many different angles that maybe the public saw it as wrong, but after seeing it so many times a fatigue factor may have set in. The portion on “L.A. Law” is much better than the one on “Doogie Howser. M.D.” Showing how writers used a real news event and wove it into the series was direct and to the point. Also Torres points out that the only black character on “L.A. Law” is seen trying to help a white homeowner save his house which has caught on fire. The book would have been much tighter if the section on “Doogie Howser, M.D.” had been left out. It seems an odd fit and stretches to make its point. What Torres needed to help her argument was to look at how black television shows treated the King incident. “The Cosby Show” was still on at that time and so was the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

The book was published in 2003 and the movies mentioned at the end show that the stereotyping of blacks continues in the entertainment field. Torres mentioned “Malcolm X” because the movie takes another view of the Civil Rights movement that was directly opposite of King’s nonviolent approach. “Ricochet” is an odd choice because of the redemption theme of the main character fighting back to prove his innocence. “Menace II Society” again falls into the stereotyping that Hollywood does so well. Even though Torres’ book starts to wander off point towards the end, it is still worthwhile reading for those interested in a different view of the civil rights story.

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