February 4, 2021
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
1 Hr., 20 Mins.
arly on in Color Adjustment (1992), Marlon Riggs’ astute documentary about the representation of Black people on television, actress Diahann Carroll, who broke ground in the 1960s with Julia, a sitcom that featured her in a non-stereotypical role as the title character, recalls what TV representation looked like when she was growing up. When she was a little girl, she remembers, her mother wouldn’t let her watch
Amos ‘n’ Andy, a long-running sitcom that, after debuting as a radio program in 1944, moved to television in 1951 and starred the Black comedians Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams. (On the radio, the characters were voiced by two white actors who also co-wrote episodes.) Carroll said that later in life she recognized Childress and Williams as gifted performers. But when she was a girl, her mother made her aware that despite their acting skill, the characters they played bolstered the stereotype of the bumbling working-class Black man, filtered through the white gaze. Storylines often made light of the barriers Black people in America faced. Carroll wasn’t allowed to watch a show that was, at the time, the most popular series in which Black people starred.
Color Adjustment is Riggs’ follow-up to 1987’s Ethnic Notions, a documentary that examined how Black people in the U.S. were stereotyped and caricatured in the pre-broadcast era. Beginning around the 1930s — one of the first discussed works is Amos ‘n’ Andy — the 1992 film thoughtfully inspects how representation on TV evolved as the medium became more ubiquitous over time. The recurring conclusion in Color Adjustment, in sync with Carroll’s mother in the early 1950s, is that representation alone isn’t good enough. And even "good" representation, when buttressed by a medium that must pander to the mainstream (i.e., a white-dominant mainstream) to be commercially successful, doesn’t make it impervious to criticism or perpetuating harms.
Carroll herself experienced blowback from Julia. Her character was created in part with the interests of middle-class white America in mind — with an element of “she’s (i.e., Black people) just like us (i.e., white people)!” Carroll remembers being called an Oreo by critics — black on the outside but white on the inside. Julia broke barriers, but its scrubbed-clean apoliticism (instated by creator Hal Kanter) also meant it felt to many viewers more attached to fantasy than honesty. "At the moment we're presenting the white Negro. And he has very little Negroness,” Carroll observed in 1968 of the show — a quote reiterated in the documentary. In the 1960s and still today, representation was so meager that there was an additional burden on Black actors to embody “universalities” — something that white performers, whose representation has never not been excessively superfluous, have never had to contend with in entertainment.
Color Adjustment might feel like a starting point for some viewers, or a reiteration of already-long-understood truths. Many will likely have already thought about much of the criticism the movie offers and the insights provided by talking heads. When one interviewee points out that TV always feels “behind” in its portrayal of then-modern society because it always has to complement the sensibilities of the nation’s majority to be commercially successful, it’s not so much an illumination as it is a confirmation of what is already implicitly understood.
What remains striking, though, is Riggs’ synthesis of five-plus decades of television history in a way that feels intimate and considered, rather than in a rush to cover several bases. And his use of actors who were part of some of the programs being highlighted as talking heads — Carroll of Julia (1968-71), Esther Rolle of Good Times (1974-79), Tim Reid of Frank's Place (1987-88) — is a prudent choice. It’s a compelling, persuasive piece of criticism — and, like all criticism should, encourages the viewer to refrain from passively consuming something just because it’s being handed over for free. It wants you to criticize things you even above all enjoy. What is it lacking, and how could its better qualities be bettered? Which social falsities does television work to reinforce, even unwittingly? We consider what has changed since Color Adjustment was released. A-