Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power

Christine Acham,
Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power.
University of Minnesota Press. 2004.
ISBN: 0 8166 4432 2 $18.95 (pb)
ISBN: 0 8166 4431 4 $24.95 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

Historicizing popular culture as Christine Acham does in Revolution Televised is a more difficult proposition than it seems. On the one hand, critical analyses of highly accessible cultural phenomena are inherently interesting to a fairly wide audience, and an important undertaking in a postmodern milieu so dominated by the entertainment industry. On the other hand, these projects inexorably come up against the problem of elucidating that entity, including the doctrines or ideologies that influence key decisions, and the personalities of those who make them.

Those who might prefer the term “culture industry” come from orthodoxy that leads them to write off popular culture outright as dehumanizing, manipulative and profit-driven spectacles. Such a perspective has been prematurely jettisoned these days because of its perceived oversimplicity, but the strength of that metanarrative also discourages deeper examinations of a vast amount of cultural material whose production and reception are often more complicated processes than Theodor Adorno would concede. Popular culture is a nexus of innumerable ideological discourses, and within it we often find instances of individual agency.

Many studies of popular culture adopt only a finite number of methods in the attempt to address the behemoth of the entertainment industry. One of them is the artist-versus-industry trope that pits individual, political or radical artistic expression against powerful commercial forces more interested in appealing to wider audiences than in innovation or social change. Another involves reading cultural texts against political or social events occurring simultaneously – a straightforward process of contextualization that lends historical significance to those texts while effectively bypassing detailed consideration of the mass media industry.

In her book on African American television programming in the 1970s, Acham settles on a historical narrative that integrates the two. She states her wish to challenge notions of television as a “vast wasteland” and highlights individual African American comedic performers during the decade who found various ways within the medium to subvert the very hegemony that regulates their work”(3). To measure these ideological subversions, she takes as a baseline the mainstream integrationist and uplift philosophy most readily accepted by white producers and white audiences. In finding these strains of a “resistant culture” within shows that might seem to perpetuate negative African American stereotypes, Acham sets out to rescue these artists and their works from various forms of academic, elitist or bourgeois dismissal. Within those parameters, Acham succeeds in illuminating some seminal African American television shows, and Revolution Televised can readily serve as an introductory reading for a wide range of topics in television and African American history.

Nevertheless, one wonders if Acham’s methodology leaves her book too open to criticism from more than one quarter. For instance, she writes of a need for racially oriented critiques to progress beyond a positive/negative dichotomy, where positive depictions of African Americans are lauded and negative stereotypes are condemned. Among the reasons for that is the fallacy that African Americans can be taken as a monolithic community. Acham joins other critics in pointing out that depending on context or performative nuance, playing up or according to type can be a rebellious gesture instead of a regressive one. It is a valid assertion.

But the irony is that while the author rightfully refutes the tendency to simplify African Americans and black culture, she makes similar assumptions about the white establishment that presumably runs Hollywood’s television industry. All too often, the antagonist forces acting against the artists she examines are summarily represented by nameless and faceless beings (i.e. white individuals) referred to only by institutional labels like “NBC,” “the network” or “censors.” While I do not deny the existence of institutional racism that innovative or radical art struggles mightily against, it is also simplistic to suppose – implicitly but distinctly in this case – that creative, casting or scheduling decisions are made predominantly due to overarching racial bias on the part of a monolithic white establishment. In addition, for a project that begins with a resolution to resist sweeping designations of television as a “vast wasteland” unworthy of critical study, the book’s attitude towards the machinations of the broadcasting industry appears guilty of a similar act of oversimplification.

The argument either causes or is an effect of a bibliography decidedly limited to published interviews, biographies and affectionate paeans, which often and predictably weave sentimental tales of artists as struggling geniuses overcoming persecution in the name of artistic vision or social conscience. Acham also relies heavily on the popular press for references. While these sources provide an accepted template of public discourse and reception, unlike the trade press, they are generally superficial in discussing mode of production. True, one is not likely to find racist smoking guns as it were, in the pages of Variety, nor should the trade press be relied upon for absolute truths. But apart from a chapter on the public television news magazine, Black Journal, Acham’s promise to consider “industry factors” (3) is unevenly applied within the book.

Consequently, she makes claims like “Robert Townsend’s Parent’Hood and The Bernie Mac show are examples of the attempt of individual black performers and producers to control their images on television.” (175) Such noble intentions are admirable, but they exist independently of, and probably do not supercede, the simple ambition to perform or the basic need to land a lucrative network contract. In another example, she cites the HBO cable channel’s “engagement with blackness” (176) with nary a mention of the network’s more significant desire to carve out an alternative, distinctive programming niche, a fact that is inextricable from HBO’s support of Chris Rock.

In spite of those weaknesses, Acham does write convincingly of how African American artists permeated an unfriendly medium with their brands of social criticism, and how they communicated to African American audiences with seemingly censored or whitewashed performaces. She does this by uncovering a convincing history of selected African American art forms, comedic tradition and vernacular that draws a clear intertextual path to the television programs that ultimately benefit.

She footnotes Don Bogle’s book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, which forwards an almost identical thesis on African American performances in Hollywood cinema and black interpretation of those films. Her model of performance and reception supplements Bogle’s with W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of “double consciousness” and what by now is a requisite reference to Benedict Anderson. One could ask for a more detailed theoretical exposition in this regard, as well as a more patient analysis of the programs in question. For example, in discussing a Richard Pryor skit where the comedian portrayed America’s first black president, Acham’s argument about the fictional appointment of Huey P. Newton as director of the FBI is merely that it acknowledged FBI’s role in targeting the Black Panther Party, and that only that it was humorous for a black audience cognizant of the institution’s role in repressing black political speech. The discussion of the fictional president’s affairs with white women – reflecting Pryor’s own lifestyle – is equally brief. “Pryor converses with the members of the black community who disagree with his lifestyle.” (161) The details of that particular conversation remain untouched.

The fact that the performers she highlights like Redd Foxx, Pryor and Chris Rock have more noteworthy careers as standup comedians bears noting. One senses that if there were an overview of African American comedy history, these comics’ individual personas and styles could then be more properly contextualized and interpreted. That is an approach adopted in most insightful analyses of Jewish comedians, but is not applied here. All comedians belong to a highly exclusive and fraternal community. Rock can be seen in the film Comedian intensely praising the work of Bill Cosby, whose sitcom from the 80s is highlighted here for its integrationist theme and lack of a more radical, confrontational critique. The book generally declines to pursue an inquiry into comedy as an art form or as a very traditional form of social criticism from the margins. The innate commentary on WASP culture in Jewish American comedy demonstrates comedy’s tendency to be such a medium, and African American comedy probably owes more of its character to form than it does to the race of its exponents. For every Richard Pryor, there is Lenny Bruce. And where African American comics toured the Chitlin Circuit, Jewish comedians cut their teeth in the Borscht Belt. The parallels hint at the limitations of Acham’s view that the history should be told as a conflict between radical and mainstream.

Revolution Televised presents a clear enough argument, through a thesis that for its purposes, is proven. Nevertheless, traveling through the author’s narrative opens up several unopened doors, entryways to other topics that we should at the very least be encouraged to explore. Considering industrial history more deeply or African American comedy’s place within America’s humor tradition as a whole will present contradictions that will likely stress the seams of this book’s very neat account. But the picture is not complete without them.

Gerald Sim
University of Iowa, USA.
Created on: Tuesday, 19 July 2005 | Last Updated: 19-Jul-05

About the Author

Gerald Sim

About the Author

Gerald Sim

Gerald Sim is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Florida Atlantic University, where he specializes in American cinema, national cinema and critical theory. He has a recent essay about postcolonial cinema and spatiality in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, and a forthcoming historiographical account of digital cinematography in Projections.View all posts by Gerald Sim →