Published on July 5th, 2020 | by Taylor Cuddihy0
Color Adjustment – Spotlight on Marlon Riggs (Part 3)
Taylor continues with his retrospective on Marlon Riggs. This week, he examines his documentary Color Adjustment, an examination of black representation on television.
Color Adjustment (1991) finds Marlon Riggs picking up where he left off in Ethnic Notions (1986), which ended with a brief discussion of images of Black life on the American television of the 70s and 80s. Riggs delves more deeply into this subject in Color Adjustment, starting from television’s commercial origins in the 1950s and critically examining popular depictions of Black American life from that era through the 1980s. In doing so Riggs continues his project of using the documentary as a means of offering pointed cultural criticism about the relationship between media portrayals of Black people and the perpetuation of racism in American society, while always foregrounding Black subjectivity and emphasizing the personal impact of media racism.
One of the primary lenses through which Riggs discusses these issues in Color Adjustment is through depictions of the American family. The image of the successful, happy, middle class nuclear family was one of the most common in prime time American television and was especially prominent in the 50s. This classic image of wholesome White suburbia served as an embodiment of the mythical American dream. Color Adjustment makes the case that since Black people, however, were rarely seen on television outside of the usual stereotypes of cheerful domestic workers, they were left out of this picture of the American dream. They were not part of this constructed image of the ideal American family. More and more, American society was becoming more integrated, as landmark court decisions began to break down the system of legal segregation, but onscreen, the film argues, Blacks remained “in their place.”
This disconnect between what was happen socially and what was being depicted on television is a key theme of Color Adjustment, always asking the viewer to consider the relationship between media images and society at large, and to think about what images aren’t being shown as much as the implications of the ones that are. Riggs shows a clip from a 1961 conference of television professionals in which a representative from the FCC argues that television producers need to begin to cater to the “needs” rather than the “whims” of the public. He calls on the television industry to start thinking more about the social responsibility it may have, the power it has in structuring and controlling the vision that American society has of itself.
Color Adjustment makes the case that into the sixties, this question of the social responsibility of television and the disconnect between what was happening in the culture at large and what was being depicted on TV became more pronounced. As the civil rights era continued, millions of Americans were seeing vivid images of brutality against Black people in their homes through news broadcasts. Throughout the 60s America underwent political and social upheaval, as anti-Vietnam War protests, the Black liberation movement, second-wave feminism, and burgeoning gay and trans rights movements continued to expose the nations socio-economic inequalities and widening political divisions. On prime time TV however, the political divisions playing out on the news were largely ignored, instead being dominated by lighthearted, escapist fare, silly comedies depicting wholesome worlds where social problems were rarely addressed openly.
Riggs interviews TV producer Hal Kanter, who discusses how when he was working in TV in 50s and 60s, the mandate he had from the networks was simply to present amusing programs, not to show anything that would confront or agitate viewers. The potential social impact of, for instance, the racial stereotypes of a show like Amos ‘n’ Andy was simply not taken into consideration. However, after witnessing a speech by civil rights activist Roy Wilkins, who called for a fairer representation of Black people in the media, Kanter was convinced to do something to make up for the limitations of past representations of Black people on television. Kanter created the show Julia, starring Diahann Carroll as a successful widowed nurse with a young boy, who lived in an integrated community. The discussion Riggs presents of this show gets into many of the complex issues at play surrounding Black representation and Black identity that Riggs explored in his previous films.
Julia represented a larger shift in the representation of Black people on television in the 1960s, from the old stereotypes of bumbling simpletons and grinning domestic workers to well-dressed, articulate suburban professionals. While this would seem to be an improvement, Riggs brings up some of the issues with these types of images as well. To many in the Black community, Julia was the subject of backlash; where Amos ‘n’ Andy was rebuked for its depiction of buffoonish Blacks in a segregated community, Julia was criticized for being the opposite, a successful black family in an integrated community. The problem was that as a result, Julia was effectively, as narrator Ruby Dee explains, “severed from Black culture and Black society.” Shows like Julia, while not indulging in openly racist stereotypes, still failed to represent the actual lived experiences of Black people in America, especially those living in the inner city, and who felt the brunt of redlining, segregation and racism in their daily lives. Color Adjustment argues that these kinds of shows, which focused on White and Black people working together, offered a vision of America where racial strife was non-existent, where Black advancement and liberation was equated with being accepted by and assimilated into the larger white society, achieving that mythical American dream. White society is therefore not challenged or criticized for the racial inequities it perpetuates but is depicted as the goal for Black people to strive for.
This is a significant part of the critique the film levels at popular depictions of Black America; they rarely take the opportunity to really challenge or criticize wider political and social structures, instead re-affirming the mythical middle class American dream. For instance, the film discusses the incredibly successful miniseries Roots, which told the multigenerational story of a Black family from the age of slavery into the twentieth century. While this was a groundbreaking show in terms of presenting a story of Black lives with multiple prominent Black characters, a rarity in television history, sociologist and media studies scholar Herman Grey argues that the show ultimately didn’t indict the American political and social structures that allow racism to continue. Rather, it indicted certain bad people and forms of brutality, but was ultimately another Black assimilation story, depicting this family as any other immigrant community coming to America to achieve success. This is another story about Blacks adapting to rather than challenging and transforming American culture, instead, as Ruby Dee’s narration argues, “transforming a national disgrace into the triumph of a family and the American dream.”
These kinds of critiques are important for how they challenge the audience to look past the surface when consuming media images. Throughout the film Riggs places text over the clips of the TV shows in discussion that ask, “Is this a positive image?” He encourages the viewer to consider racial issues in the media beyond the simplistic binary questions of “is this a stereotype or not?” or “is this a positive image or not?” This is because even “positive” images can be insidious in their ideological messaging. Grey discusses The Cosby Show in relation to Reagan-ism, the idea that “if you open up opportunities for corporations to make money, opportunity starts to open up.” However, what actually came about as a result of Reagan’s economic policies was a widening of the gap between wealthy and poor Americans, and the continuance of the severe racial wealth gap.
Grey argues that The Cosby Show mediates between this economic polarization with its depiction of a successful Black family, presenting the sense that society is fine, that if you work hard and have the right values and aspirations everything will work out. In his examination of Riggs’ work, Philip Brian Harper claims that this argument oversimplifies the relationship between representation and social fact, noting that it fails to consider ways in which the show may have challenged Reaganist thinking. Whatever one makes of the specific arguments offered by the film about shows like The Cosby Show, Roots, or Good Times, however, what Riggs stresses above all is a critical engagement with media representations in general, encouraging the audience to consider the relationship between representations and the challenging or perpetuating of sociopolitical and economic ideologies.
Riggs largely continues the straightforward expository style he used in Ethnic Notions, but there a couple of distinct touches in this film that stand out. As a means of visualizing the cozy relationship people have with the television images they invite into their homes, Riggs imposes the footage of the TV shows under discussion on to the televisions in still images of people gathered around their sets at home. This technique creates some visual variety among the more standard uses of historical footage and interviews, but also visually represents the omnipresence of television in American life, and encourages the audience to consider the images of those watching TV and how different audiences might respond to these programs in different ways.
There is also one significant difference in how Riggs presents the interview portions of the film. As Harper points out, the film makes similar use of expert interviews with assorted academics and professionals as Ethnic Notions did, this time also interviewing television producers and actors in addition to cultural theorists and critics. However, Color Adjustment “supplements the professional assessment of all the interviewees with their personal reflections on Blacks’ televisual depictions.” This means that interviewees like cultural commentator and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. not only discuss the significance of certain programs, but their own personal responses as viewers of these programs, and specifically as Black viewers. This greater emphasis on the personal experiences of those being interviewed represent a larger foregrounding of Black subjectivity in this film than in Ethnic Notions.
This film, like Tongues Untied, explicitly represents an African-American perspective, with narration by Ruby Dee that “unequivocally references its invocations of a collective ‘we’ to a specifically African American constituency from which the guiding subjectivity of the video itself clearly emerges.”
Riggs gives the final interview of the film to a quote by Herman Grey, who argues that we need to find new ways of representing the true diversity of American life on screen. It is a very significant statement in relation to Riggs own work, as his film Tongues Untied explores the lives of a gay community that would never be seen in primetime television of the era, its mere existence serving as a rebuke to the depictions of Black lives he chronicles here. The films ends with more pointed and direct political critique than Ethnic Notions did, criticizing Reagonomics and pointing out the economic inequality among Black and White society. He undercuts the very idea of middle class values and the American dream as something worthwhile, with the closing narration questioning whether the Black community has “exchanged the myths of pre-television America for new fictions, just as confining, for impossibly rigid, homogenized fantasies of the ideal family and the American dream.” What is the use of keeping such a dream that has been reinforced by decades of television images alive in the first place, the film asks, seeing as it only serves to obscure the messy realities, complexities, and inequalities of American society.
Next week, Riggs continues his critique of American culture with his final film, the posthumously completed Black is…Black Ain’t (1995). Riggs most ambitious project, it attempts to explore no less than the entirety of Black identity itself. We’ll look at how all of the recurring themes that play out across Riggs’ career reach their culmination next week.