April 1, 1989

Black Journal: A Personal Look Backward

At Your Supermarket, a Chicago chain store operated by the Nation of Islam, St. Clair Bourne (rught) confers with cameraman Ray Lewis

Let me begin by stating the obvious: images in U.S. media—not just images of Blacks, but all images—are highly influenced by the political conditions of the times. Moreover, Black images have not been and still are not con­ trolled by Black producers, and, therefore, these images were created to serve the psychic purposes of those that do control them. Because Europeans originally brought Africans here as slaves to provide service and labor and nothing more, the represen­ tations of these slaves were used to rationalize and reinforce their intended place in society. Thus, racial stereotypes came to symbolize the mental restructuring of the African presence in America.

My own beginning in filmmaking as a member of the production staff of the Black Journal public television series in 1968 is due as much to the social conditions of the times as to my own energy. During those days, there was general active unrest among the African-American population, due to discrimination and treatment as second-class citizens. The Civil Rights Movement, based on the principles of nonviolence and petitions to larger society for justice, was beginning to run its course as the marchers and activists were thwarted by violent resistance and government inaction. In addition, the energy and frustration with the slow rate of fundamental change moved from the rural towns of the South to the inner cities of the major urban centers in the North. Thus, planned and spontaneous rebellions, usually sparked by a symbolic incident but also caused by a long list of unjust conditions, erupted in the cities where there were large Black populations like Detroit, Newark, and the Watts section of Los Angeles.

In addition to being subjected to discrimination, Black people especially resented the lack of acknowl!edged participation in and contributions to U.S. society. A specific complaint was the lack of presence in the electronic media and the negative distortion that took place when we were represented. Therefore, programs, funds, and positions were made available to provide media access for Black images so that Black issues could be addressed. It should be noted that these changes, welcomed by African-Americans because of their belief in the power of the media, were not made out of charity, benevolence or goodwill, but rather were the result of pressure by the revolutionary potential of the Black protest movement, pressure from the people in the streets who disrupted the normal flow of business and demanded in one form or another—some with bricks, others with pencils—a share in social processes as they perceived them.

Executive editor Lou Potter (left) and executive producer William Greaves

It was from these conditions the Black Journal series was created within the tax-supported public television sector. Alvin Perlmutter, a white staff producer at National Educational Television (the pre-Public Broadcasting Service public TV system), conceived of the series idea in April 1968 following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The idea was enthusiastically approved as an overdue response to both the Kerner Commission report on U.S. race relations, which called for the media to "expand and intensify coverage of the Negro community," and to the growing mood for self-determination in Black communities around the country. Perlmutter and Black producer/writer Lou Potter were assigned to develop a format and to secure a staff.

After extensive meetings with both leaders and ordinary folks in Black communities around the country, a public affairs-oriented, magazine-format program was decided upon. Then a staff composed of both NET personnel and others hired specifically for Black Journal was assembled. I was a graduate film student at Columbia University at the time but had been recently suspended due to my involvement in the 1968 Columbia University student takeover. Fresh from the barricades and a night in jail, I was interviewed and hired by NET as an associate producer. At this point, there emerged a basic contradiction that came back to traumatize this effort. The NET public relations department heralded the series in their press releases as programs "by, for and about Black people," but, although two Black on­ camera hosts—independent filmmaker William Greaves and former Chicago radio news reporter Lou House (who later changed his "slave" name to an African name, Wali Sadiq)—were hired, the staff ended up with 12 Blacks out of a staff of 20. More important, Perlmutter, who was white, became the executive producer with editorial control for the series.

The series went into active production in May, had its premiere broadcast in June 1968, and was greeted by both critical acclaim and an unprecedented (for public television) viewer response. The first show's segments consisted of an interview from an Oakland prison with Huey Newton on the future of the Black Panthers, a report on the Poor People's ' Campaign in Washington, D.C., a satirical skit about the use of Blacks in advertisements, an essay on the view of the future by graduating Black college seniors, a profile of a Harlem-based manufacturer of African style clothing, a portrait of a Black jockey, and coverage of a Coretta King address at Harvard University.

Despite the immediate public success of the series, certain questions still had to be addressed: Who was the primary audience? Did this decision affect the content of the program and how? Was the use of largely white film crews a contradiction to the stated goals of Black Journal? Little by little, questions of assignments and editorial points of view became points of dispute among the staff. For example, when a breakdown of the percentage of white-produced shows to Black ­ produced shows was done, it was discovered that the former far outnumbered the latter. Disagreements over editorial politics emerged as well. When a white producer wrote a news piece introduction stating that the Black community supported Israel and disavowed Arab protests over the seizure of land, an argument broke out in the studio during the taping and was quelled only after the narration was rewritten.

The issue came to a head when 11 Black members of the production staff demanded that the white executive producer be replaced by a Black executive producer, citing the ET press statement that Black Journal was produced "by, for and about Black people." When the NET management refused to appoint Lou Potter, the series' managing editor, as the executive producer, the 11 went out on strike in protest and made the incident public in a press conference.

In an article printed in Variety, NET's management claimed that its intention was ''to promote from within the unit and to increase the Black com­ position of the unit as quickly as staff members were ready for advancement." Wire services, trade papers, and mainstream media columnists wrote extensively about the strike, and within a week NET agreed to the demands. Greaves, the show's host, became the new executive producer. Perlmutter became a consultant with no editorial power. Potter was given the new position of executive editor and the option of working on other NET projects, and most of the other white producers were phased out to return to other NET commitments. (Phil Burton remained as the sole white producer and did several excellent pieces.)

After this traumatic experience, several changes took place. The spirit of the Black Journal staff took on an added commitment to "the people," but also, because of the well-publicized struggle around the control of the show, we gained support from leaders of the national Black community. Furthermore, we gained a sizeable white audience who wanted to see what all the noise had been about. Interestingly, the overall white reaction was not as antagonistic as we expected, primarily because we didn't use our airtime denouncing white racism (that it existed was given) but rather documenting, exploring, and articulating African-American political, economic, and cultural issues. With only one hour per month of Black Journal programming competing with the infinite hours of "White Journals," we thought that we shouldn't waste time ranting against whites, because our mission was to supply Black people with valuable information and analysis. Another important change that occurred after the strike was staff editor Madeline Anderson 's promotion to producer, the staff's first Black woman producer. Although there had been a white female producer and Black women had served as production assistants, editors, and researchers, there had never been a Black female producer at NET.

In our editorial meetings, executive producer Greaves laid out the editorial guidelines that came to distinguish and unify our content. Black Journal, he stated, should: 1. define the Black reality of any potential film situation, 2. identify the causes of any problems in that situation, and 3. document attempts to resolve those problems, whether successful or not. In this way, Greaves believed, each short documentary would be a teaching tool on how Black people could work to resolve common problems. Films about important cultural, political, and educa­ tional figures should document their existence within a society whose history almost always excluded them. Greaves knew what we younger staff members didn't: this filmmaking opportunity would not last but the films would.

Because of the unique national position of Black Journal within the media landscape during 1968 to 1971, we undertook several projects to improve so-called "minority" (what we called Third World) participation.

Even our own producers on the series relied on largely white crews because there were extremely few Third World freelance technicians, due to the difficulty of finding work regularly and th us gaining experience and skill. The Black Journal Film Workshop was created to fill this void. Word soon got around that a 10-week crash course in basic film production was being offered and that accomplished graduates could possibly get camera crew assignments. The instructors were both Black and white technicians who volunteered their time to teach the new recruits. This created a pool of Third World techni­ cians who began to work on not only Black Journal documentaries but, armed with sample reels, began to get work on other productions as well. Ultimately, Peggy Pinn, staff production coordinator, quit that post, raised money for staff and equipment, and managed the Film Workshop for five years, training hundreds of Third World technicians, many of whom still work in the film and television industries.

Film critic and historian Clyde Taylor has written extensively about contemporary independent filmmaking and the influence of the style of Black Journal on the editorial tone and the documentary images used to define Black issues. Previously, televi­ sion would rarely, if ever, present material from a Black participant's point of view. A white commentator always interpreted for the audience "what those people want," either through narration or an on-camera appearance. This was standard televi­ sion news procedure. At Black Journal we insisted that the people in our films speak for themselves as much as possible and, if narration was used, that the narrator assume a tone of advocacy. There was also a strong cultural identification with Africa, which was a part of the reassertion of the movement's African roots and cultural values: for example, the show's hosts often wore African dress, and African drumming was used as intro music.

At that time—again, because of the political clime—a constituency was created for this new Black programming or as it began to be called, "minority programming." As we saw it, the purpose of "minority programming " in the public affairs sector of television news was clear—to provide the so-called "minorities" with an opportunity to address each other on issues that they considered important. In addition to Black Journal, there was a series called Soul!, an entertainment program that provided a forum for performers who had virtually been ignored by mainstream television. It's hard to imagine in this era of Bill Cosby, but there was a time when one could look long and hard without seeing a Black face on any TV program. Then came Black Journal and an explosion of local public affairs shows aimed at the so-called "minority" audience.

Both of these pioneering programs performed a necessary function quite effectively but were created as a response to an admitted deficiency: to serve an audience that had never been adequately addressed directly before. The programs and their imitators could be called "the first generation of minority programming." If there was a flaw in this first effort, it was a narrowness of vision that could not be avoided at that time. By addressing Blacks about Blacks only, for example, a large part of the viewing audience was excluded, but more importantly, the role of so­ called "minorities " within the total framework of U.S. society and culture was ignored.

The second generation of "minority" programming—based on the premise that in the beginning it had been necessary to affirm our culture—attempted to correct some of these unavoidable limitations. An example of this corrective programming was a PBS program called Interface, which showed the interaction of various cultures in the U.S. by tackling topics based in everyday life. Developed by Black producer/writer Ardie Ivie and hosted by Black Jour­nal graduate Tony Batten, Interface concentrated on ethnic group interactions but also limited itself to a certain aspect of life in the United States, namely, cultural (in the anthropological sense) interaction. At the same time, another program, Black Perspective on the News, took a "hard news " approach and opened its list of guests to all the races, with the understanding that all people in this country can be affected by a variety of newsmakers of all skin colors. However, the news format prevented the viewer from receiving a multidimensional understanding of the issues covered. In short, we still spoke to Blacks but about non-Black issues as well as Black issues.

The next step which should have been taken would have featured Blacks as participants in U.S. society talking about any issue, that is, a view and interpretation of issues based in the so-called "minority" experience but treating issues, trends, and phenomena not necessarily connected to "minority" life. This would bring an un jaded eye to not only in­ stitutions of special interest to "minorities " but also to those institutions that affect everyone as well, for it must be understood that all things in the U.S. affect all people in the U.S. in some way. However, this phase never developed fully, primarily because of the political resurgence of right-wing conservatives, calculated attacks by the Nixon and Reagan administrations to stop and, in fact, roll back the social advances that people have struggled to achieve, and, most important, the lack of Black participation in decision-making within the political and economic process.

The life of Black Journal was closely allied to the Black movement that gave birth to it. And so, as money for social programs began to be cut back in the early seventies, Black Journal's production budget was reduced from $100,000 a program to $50,000 a program by the NET management. To compensate, on­ location documentaries were cut back, more in-studio production was done, and summer reruns were instituted. Appeals were made to foundations, corporations, and community organizations for production funds, but the change in the political agenda affected the ability and/or willingness to contribute to a television series that advocated social change.

As the production funds decreased, it became more difficult to maintain the high standard with which we started, so, little by little, the staff began seeking other avenues for their ideas and talent. Greaves, who had his own production company before he joined the Black Journal staff, resigned. Other producers applied for and got jobs at network news departments. I left in April 1971 to pursue more personal and more stylized film projects. Several months later, Tony Brown became the new executive producer and began experimenting with formats that would attract financial underwriting. After several format changes ranging from a game show to a Carson-type talk show to a variety entertainment show, Brown changed the name of the series to Tony Brown's Journal; he continues as executive producer/host to this day. As one of six staff producers for the series, I spent almost three years traveling around the U.S. making documentaries about various aspects and issues of Black America. It is a lesson that I have never forgotten—that as a filmmaker or film artist, my source comes from the audience that I hope to serve. Of course, my understanding of what this means became more complicated as time went on.

The political swing to the right and the deterioration of the economic system that occurred in the past decade and a half affected Black filmmakers more than their white counterparts. In the Black independent production sector, an area that has always been difficult to sustain, alternative sources like public television, foundation grants, and other special programs have decreased. Furthermore, the dominance of the right­ wing has reduced the range of "producible subjects " and acceptable images. This, in turn, has created a wave of escapist images and stories that distort and/or reinterpret any creative elements that might seriously challenge the worldview of those who control the principle resources. Despite these major obstacles—obstacles that affect all independent producers, not just Black filmmakers—Black history in this country has proven that we have been strong in our cultural expression, and, after all, film and television are indeed that. The social movement that engendered the Black Journal series did achieve some of its aims in terms of racial identity and a recognition of the need for economic and political self-determination. Overall, we are no longer obliged to prove our worth or validity on either the small or large screen. Self-determination is an act of liberation and, in the end, a healthy process. Everyone should have the right and opportunity to see themselves reflected in the cultural expressions and the reporting of current events of the land in which they live. Mainstream television has proven that, up to now at least, it is incapable or unwilling to do that, so it is up to us, the independents, to fill that vacuum.

 

St. Clair Bourne is a 20-year veteran producer/director with over 30 films to his credit.