PART ONE: THE SIXTIES
I guess it comes as no surprise that my areas of interest are Black and diverse genre entertainment. To me the word genre encompasses horror, science fiction, action, adventure and fantasy. I've always believed that Black and diverse entertainment in genre TV series and feature films could easily be just as profitable as traditional Hollywood fare. With the success of Marvel's BLACK PANTHER film this week, I feel my point is proven.
In this blog, I want to chart historical milestones in American TV that paved the way for the entertainment to come.
In 1965, along came the show "I SPY" starring Robert Culp and a young Bill Crosby. They were two buddies who also happened to be spies. The network was seeking to cash in on the success of the James Bond film franchise. They made history in another way. One of the stars was an African American man. The producers didn't want to call attention to race in context of the series. So they didn't.
Two years late, multi-dimensional actress Eartha Kitt stirred things up in 1967 when she became the first Black Catwoman in the third and final season of the "BATMAN" TV series. Winning the role because of her talent and the fact that the producers thought it would be an interesting creative choice, audiences were treated to Kitt's genuine catlike allure. She had an edge that I don't feel had been portrayed on the small screen up until that moment. On top of that you truly felt dread and mortal fear that she might actually dispose of the caped crusader and his boy wonder.
Whereas the previous Catwoman, Julie Newmar, had become a love interest for Batman, Eartha Kitt's Catwoman was not allowed to have a romantic relationship with Batman. I guess the producers felt they had pushed the envelope as far as they could back in those days.
The original "STAR TREK" TV series picked up the diversity mantle in 1968 and went several steps further. The writers basically used the series as a platform to address important issues in American society. I always admired what I considered to be social commentary disguised as science fiction. In my novel "SPOOK: CONFESSIONS OF A PSYCHIC SPY," I use the international world of Cold War espionage blended with science fiction as the backdrop for what is essentially a meditation on racism and race relations that is still applicable today.
My first nod to "Star Trek" comes from the casting of a Black woman in a non-stereotypical role (she wasn't the ship's maid). Nichelle Nichols was cast in a major role as Lieutenant Uhura. Ironically, after the first season, Nichols was going to leave the show to work on Broadway. Martin Luther King Jr. himself approached Nichols and asked her to reconsider staying on the show. MLK told Nichols that, like it or not, she had become a symbol to Black people in America and could teach a generation of African Americans to dream of the stars.
A controversy later arose when writers penned the first televised interracial kiss between Lt. Uhura and the unflappable Captain James Tiberius Kirk. The Network did not run that episode in the South where they feared it would anger White audiences.
Another episode "LET THAT BE YOUR LAST BATTLEFIELD" was a masterful entry in which two different species warred with each other on their home planet. When Captain Kirk couldn't understand what the difference was between the two feuding aliens who stood before him, this brilliant verbal exchange between Kirk and Bele (one of the aliens) occurred: Kirk: "You're black on one side and white on the other." Bele: "I'm black on the right side." Kirk: "I fail to see the significant difference." Bele:"Lokai is white on the right side. All his people are white on the right side." Bela then explained to Kirk how Lokai's kind was inferior because he was white on the right side. The absurdity of Bele's hatred was comparable to a white person hating a Black person or thinking a Black person was inferior to a white person because of the color of his skin. The two warring aliens returned to their homeward to find it destroyed by irrational bigotry in this morality tragedy.
Meanwhile, at around that same time just outside of Pittsburgh, a young filmmaker was making an independent film that would create an entire sub-genre within the genre of horror. His name was George A. Romero. The movie was "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD."
Romero cast a young Black actor named Duane Jones as Ben the hero of the movie. After a night of terror trapped in a farmhouse with a group of scared people - who ended up being their own worst enemies - Ben emerges as the soul survivor only to ironically be shot in the head by a red-neck hunter who mistakes Ben for one of the living dead. The ending served as a scathing commentary on race relations in America at the time.
If you can think of any defining moments in Black genre history in the 60s that I left out, be sure to comment on the blog page.
Also, I will also keep everyone apprised of the status of the projects of mine I have out to Studio companies in Hollywood for consideration.
Next time: A HISTORY OF BLACK GENRE ENTERTAINMENT PART TWO/ THE 70S "THE RISE OF BLAXPLOITATION"