The academic year 2014-15 is significant for a number of reasons. Not only does it mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 45th anniversary of the Bunche Center’s founding, but it also features key anniversaries for some important entertainment milestones associated with the Center’s most recent research initiative, the Race and Hollywood Project.
One hundred years ago this academic year, in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation revolutionized Hollywood cinema by introducing many of the editing and storytelling techniques we take for granted today. But its celebration of white supremacy and exaggerated threats of blackness paved the way for the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan as unprecedented numbers of Americans viewed the film and President Woodrow Wilson proudly screened it at the White House for VIPs. Birth of a Nation, of course, also provoked one of the first media campaigns of the nascent NAACP, which immediately recognized the film as a barrier to its goals of racial integration.
Fifty years ago, in 1965, comedian Bill Cosby made history by becoming the first black male to star in a television drama, I Spy. Setting the stage for a succession of integrationist films and television shows during the mid-1960s (e.g., Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking film about interracial romance, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, would follow in 1967), Cosby’s Alexander Scott was a debonair Rhodes Scholar who posed undercover as the tennis trainer of his white partner, Kelly Robinson. NBC’s southern network affiliates were not impressed. Several television stations below the Mason-Dixon Line banned I Spy for showcasing an African American lead.
Thirty years ago, in 1984, Cosby and Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint carefully sketched the upper middle class Huxtables of The Cosby Show in order to “recode blackness,” to provide counter narratives to the popular situation comedies of the 1970s that critics argued equated black life and culture with the ghetto. But The Cosby Show debuted on the eve of President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election and quickly shot to the top of the ratings ¾ just as the nation was turning further to the right. Subsequent research has revealed that white audiences welcomed the fictional black family into their homes every Thursday night as part of a bargain: In exchange for embracing the Huxtables as an American family that just happens to be black, white viewers could feel good about themselves as they voted against affirmative action and other Civil Rights-era policies designed to level the racial playing field.
Last year the Bunche Center released the “2014 Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect”, which chronicled the continuing, severe underrepresentation of minorities in television and film alongside the finding that diversity sells in an increasingly diverse America. Please subscribe to our website (www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu) so that you can follow us and keep up with developments regarding this research. Our work on affirmative action issues also continues this year with a new research project examining UCLA’s racial climate in the aftermath of California Proposition 209, and we have numerous public lectures, book signings and other events scheduled that explore a wide range of hot topics in African American Studies. I look forward to you joining us!
Darnell M. Hunt, PhD
Professor of Sociology
Bunche Center Directors
HUNT, Darnell M. 2001 –
YARBOROUGH, Richard 1997 – 2001
GRIGSBY, III, J. Eugene 1991 – 1996
TUCKER, M. Belinda 1989 – 1991
MITCHELL-KERNAN, Claudia 1976 – 1989
McGEE, Henry 1974 – 1976
MILLER, James 1973 – 1974
SMITH, Arthur L. (Molefi K. Asante) 1970 – 1973
McGEE, Henry 1970
GLASGOW, Douglas G. 1970
OBICHERE, Boniface 1970
SINGLETON, Robert 1969 – 1970