This week on Pioneers of Television, the issue of race is addressed by interviewing some of the most important African American, Latino American, and Asian American actors in history and the manner in which they broke the mould of America’s bigoted past on the television screen. On the silver screen, there was black face, yellow face, and red face worn by white actors to marginalize and fictionalize the representation of racial minorities. If you’ve never seen Al Jolson sing about his “Mammy” or even the ape-like depictions of African Americans in animated shorts by our beloved Disney and Warner Bros. companies, I feel it’s an important part of the past to consider. Take a look at “Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat”:
Looking back on these representations, I feel shame and disbelief, yet it teaches such an important lesson on equality for all and the poisonous effects of oppression that the world, unfortunately, continues to face today. Media has come a long way since the short I shared with you from the 1940s and some of it is due in part to the shift in representation of minorities in television. Roles like Ricky Ricardo, played by Desi Arnaz, in I Love Lucy during the 1950s brought a positive Latin American representation to the screen as Ricky was a successful musician (even though he could be particularly awful to Lucy from time to time, but I’ll just view that as 1950s America and the oppression of women).
Another actor featured on the episode tonight is a prominent fixture of social media today, George Takei. Takei brought a positive representation of Asian Americans to the screen in Star Trek: The Original Series as Hikaru Sulu during the 1960s. In the past, Asian Americans were typically represented as the “yellow peril villain” through characters like the evil Dr. Fu Manchu. Takei’s portrayal of a lieutenant shifted this representation, for a brief period of three years, and made a lasting impression on fans by reaching an untouched demographic.
Watch Pioneers of Television tonight on Panhandle PBS at 7PM to learn more about the representation of race on television and how it shaped the roles we see in film and television today. If anything, watch it for Bill Cosby — you can never have too many sweaters. As always, check back for Hilary’s Double Take…