'Color Adjustment' surveys TV images of African-Americans

June 15, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

His work is "blasphemous" and represents what's wrong with public television and federal funding for the arts, according to Patrick Buchanan, the failed presidential candidate. Senator Jesse Helms calls it "garbage."

The condemnation of such august cultural critics will probably be enough to recommend filmmaker Marlon Riggs to many viewers. But there are other good reasons to be on hand at 10 tonight when Riggs' latest film, "Color Adjustment," kicks off this year's "P.O.V." series of documentaries by independent filmmakers on MPT (channels 22 and 67).

Riggs' 90-minute look at TV images of African-Americans from "Amos n' Andy" to "The Cosby Show" is not his best work. It's not in the league of last year's "Tongues Untied," a look at gay African-Americans, or his Emmy-award-winning "Ethnic Notions," an examination of stereotypes. But "Color Adjustment" is TV's first real survey of the more important images of race that it has purveyed to millions of viewers over the years. And under Riggs' direction, it becomes a survey with attitude, edge and emotion.

There are several brilliant moments where technique and message are fused to touch the heart and fire the mind with flashes of insight.

"Beulah" was a show about a black maid that aired on ABC from 1950 to '53. Viewers are shown a scene in which Beulah is happily dancing and singing in the kitchen of her white employers. In the middle of the scene, though, Riggs starts a slow-motion series of back-and-forth dissolves from Beulah to images of real-life maids and domestic workers on their knees scrubbing steps. Their faces show no joy -- only exhaustion and sadness. The make-believe, white depiction of life as a maid on TV seems obscene when contrasted with the reality.

The same technique is used in an analysis of "Good Times," a 1970s sitcom on CBS starring Jimmie Walker. Back-and-forth, slow-motion dissolves are again used to forcefully show how Walker's J.J. character was a direct descendant of 19th-century, minstrel-show depictions of African-Americans.

A discussion of "Roots" and Riggs' belief that "positive stories can be equally negative" offers a valuable but seldom voiced criticism of that saga. "Prime time had selectively reframed American history," narrator Ruby Dee says, "transforming a national disgrace [slavery] into an epic triumph of the family and the American Dream."

The big flaws in "Color Adjustment" are that Riggs fails to compare the treatment of African-Americans on TV with that of other ethnicgroups and that he assumes what is on TV represents the attitudes of the majority of Americans.

The relationship between TV and culture is far more complicated than"Color Adjustment" admits. But, despite such flaws in theory, the film does what a documentary is supposed to do: make you see, feel and think.

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