Thursday, April 22, 2010

Post-Beulah and Pre-Obama Sitcoms, Part One

Here are few ground rules. This will not be an examination of each and every situation comedy with African-Americans. I also will do my best to strike a middle ground between contemporary attitudes and times gone by.

I was born in 1963. We were one of the few African-American families in Rockland County, NY. I didn't live in fear of the KKK, nor did Nazis terrorize us. However, when someone dumped trash on our property, my father, dumped trash on the neighboring lawns, thus putting a stop to that. So, I know there was a possibility that we weren't exactly welcomed with open arms.

I didn't live in the times that my Cousin Sarah told me about. She worked for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, in the stamps division. A White woman wanted to hang up her coat. So, she not only removed a Black woman's coat from the rack, she wiped her feet on coat she had thrown on the floor.*

So, knowing that I didn't live in such times, I hoped for progress. In "Hollywood Shuffle" the actor portrays the actor that portrays "Batty Boy" is of the mind that a script that he doesn't die in is a good script. That is the only standard that he judges quality. As outlandish as this is, there is, of course, basis in fact. We were dropping like flies on TV and the movies! If we weren't dying, we were carted off to jail.

In comedy, the death of any character outside of a cartoon is usually, well, death, so in comedy, we stood a greater chance of survival and a lower arrest rate. "Beulah" was a comedy about a maid. On radio, she was portrayed, in a marvelous dose of sexism and racism by a White man, Mariln Hurt. When Hurt died, he was replaced by Bob Corley, another White actor. In a fit of sanity, the role of a Black maid was given to a woman of the proper ethnicity, Hattie McDaniel, which made her the first African-American woman to star in a radio comedy. She and Ethel Waters also portrayed Beulah on TV. The issue, was that she was playing a maid. This wouldn't be a problem, save for the fact that it was the ONLY show with a woman of color in the lead. Her boyfriend was a handyman. The message that could be gleaned was that was as high in society we could go. There is no shame in being a maid or a handyman, but if you turn on the TV, how would you feel if you saw someone that looked like you and they were always a maid or a manservant? The NAACP, who had earlier complained that a White man was playing Beulah on radio, to their credit, also took issue with this.

Taking the path of least resistance, Beulah was cancelled. I gather the stance taken was "the coloreds get a show and then they complain about it. Who needs the headache?" I was all set to lay into this show when I looked at a clip on YouTube and what did I see? Well, save the intro, Waters portrayed Beulah with dignity, grace and good comic timing. McQueen's credibility is undercut by her voice, but, all in all, I've seen worse.

It's an easy thing to look back nearly sixty years and look back with disdain and righteous indignation. In context, the clip I saw wasn't so bad.

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