Blacks Britannica
Racism in public TV

by Joel Dreyfuss

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 4-5
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

There is a significant if unflattering lesson about the state of American public television in the fact that it is more often criticized for what it excludes than for what it does. The recent controversy about BLACKS BRITANNICA, a one-hour documentary filmed for the weekly series, WORLD, once again exposes some of the failures of public television. The incident is also useful in examining the problems of race and perspective that plague much of the media in this country.

BLACKS BRITANNICA is a relentless and engrossing indictment of racism toward black immigrants to England, told from an obvious Marxist perspective. The film argues that discrimination in England is based on economics and fueled by opportunists across the entire spectrum of British politics. Told through the eyes and words of a cross-section of blacks, David Koff's film uses interviews, stock footage, and scenes of street life and violence to show how blacks in England are trapped at the bottom of an economic and political system which shows little compassion or concern about their fate. Rapid editing, overlapping dialogue and cinema verité all build to an emotional and violent climax, whose conclusion is underscored by a reggae band's call for revolution. As Koff puts it, the film "reflects the increasingly militant response within the black community to the continuing attacks upon it, both by the fascist elements on the street and by the state itself." An official of the British Information Service in Washington called the film "dangerous" and asked for equal time. New York Times critic John O'Connor said the film not only documents the growing militancy, "but, quite clearly, the structure and tone endorse it."

The program was originally scheduled to air on July 13, 1978, but the showing was postponed so that WORLD's executive producer David Fanning could make some changes. "I never had any dispute with the central premise of the film or with its contents," Fanning said at the time. He argued that the changes were intended to make it more understandable to the American public. But later, Fanning told Newsweek: "I was concerned with the film's endorsement of a Marxist viewpoint."

Koff insists that two separate films now exist: his version and Fanning's. Fanning rearranged some of the sequences in the original version and removed about three minutes of footage including a sequence where British cops used black figures in target practice. The Koff film opened with an interview with black sociologist Cohn Prescod that became the matrix of the documentary:

"If one weren't wary of talking about conspiracy, because in all parts of this country… it's clear that at top national level, and certainly at local level, the state has moved to manipulate blacks in any way it wanted to."

Koff's version goes on to show how urban renewal has been used to destroy black communities, and how black groups have fought against these measures, organized their own schools and groups. Old British newsreels, in condescending tone, record the arrival of blacks in large numbers during the 1950s. Prescod analyzes the newsreels and points out how immigration was used as a political issue in Britain before we see footage of a broad spectrum of politicians denouncing immigrants and their impact on the country.

Fanning used the newsreel shots to open the film, losing in the process the political irony of the commentator's statements. The comments of the British politicians are then heard, framing the film, as Koff argues, before we hear the blacks' analysis of the issues.

The two endings provide another example of subtle yet important differences. Koff has Prescod on camera summing up:

"Britain, 'mother of the empire,' has had to welcome her children and allow them to settle. Because of racism they have not been allowed to settle in a dignified manner. And because blacks have refused to accept indignity and victimage, Britain is stuck with a rebellious black presence in its center. And there is no way that Britain can get out of this situation. And what the blacks who've been born here are saying is that they intend to obtain their rights, as dignified citizens, here."

There is a cutaway to street scenes as the voice continues:

"We cannot get what we want in capitalist Britain. I'm not one for saying that because we can't get it in capitalist Britain, we go somewhere where we believe there is some 'socialism' or something. Anywhere, any place, any time we can't get it under capitalism, well then, capitalism has to go."

There is a long shot of street fighting between police and a crowd of black youths that ends with the crowd surging around an official car. The car tries to back up, is trapped by the crowd, and the windshield is smashed to the reggae music of Steel Pulse's "Handsworth Revolution." The film ends abruptly, leaving the audience in suspense about the fate of the car's occupant.

The Fanning version moved the violent scene up to an earlier section, effectively reducing its emotional impact on viewers. The edited version is preceded by a statement that "while the film does not include the views of those who disagree with it, we feel it is valuable to hear these voices." This statement, and many of the cuts, help create absence of distance between the film and its subject and Fanning's version ends with Prescod's statement that …"they intend to obtain their rights, as dignified citizens, here," another subtle shift that now makes these words a plea for civil rights.

In watching both versions of BLACKS BRITANNICA, the viewer cannot help experiencing a strong sense of deja-vu. The complaints of blacks in Britain, the confrontations with police, the arbitrary application of the "sus" law, which allows the arrest of people suspected of being about to commit a crime, and the rising tide of black militancy recall the 1960s in the United States, when the racial apocalypse seemed inevitable.

There were small numbers of blacks in Britain as far back as the mid-16th century. Massive numbers passed through British ports during the slave trade, but only a few remained in England to serve as laborers, servants, artisans and courtiers. Because the numbers were so small, there was no substantial racial friction between blacks and whites until World War I. Blacks came in large numbers from the West Indies to fight, but after the end of hostilities depressed economic conditions resulted in pitched battles between black and white seamen. Between the two World Wars, the first laws were passed to restrict black immigrants. Once again, blacks contributed to the British struggle against the Nazis despite numerous discriminatory actions.

In the 1950s, the flow of black and Asian immigrants became a flood. Seeking better opportunities, escaping the turmoil of nationalism and independence, thousands used the British citizenship granted them by the empire to enter England. As economic pressures grew, the developments were strikingly similar to those in the United States. There were discrimination in housing and employment, violent outbreaks, a disappearance of previous "tolerance."

There have been arguments that WGBN, the most active production center in the public television system, was concerned about offending the corporations that underwrite so many of its programs. I would suggest that the unease of Fanning and others is much less conscious, and at the same time, much more serious than that. BLACK BRITANNICA helps put into focus some aspects of our own racial issues that have been blurred by the fog of neo-conservatism now sweeping the country.

In 1979, discussions of racial progress are made within the strict parameters of statistical information. Advocates of more stringent affirmative action point out the fact that blacks, as a group, earn less than whites; that whites with less education earn more than blacks; and that in fields which guarantee financial security — engineering, medicine and other professions — minorities are underrepresented. White neo-conservatives, who have taken over the mainstream of U.S. political thinking, use the numbers to point out changes for the better: the growth of the black middle class, the numbers of minorities in higher education, etc..

In a sense, this struggle over definitions of progress reflects a more profound struggle for the power to define issues. The abandonment of the civil rights struggle by white liberals in the late 1960s took place at the very moment that blacks were raising the issue of power. In the 1970s, there is no question that blacks have acquired some material comforts denied them in the past. But the power to influence policy, to participate in intellectual debate and essentially to play a role in the shaping of America still eludes them.

The relation of public television (or the film industry) to blacks reflects the phenomenon of powerlessness. The vision of public television as a source of alternative programming has never quite become reality — particularly for the minority groups which have so long been savaged by commercial television. Black demands for representation (during the Black Power era) led to BLACK JOURNAL and SOUL on the PBS system. But lack of funds and absence of institutional commitment led to the shows' demise. At this point only BLACK PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEWS, a low-budget "talking head" show, provides a black input to the public television system.

Arguments have been made that blacks as well as whites benefit from MASTERPIECE THEATER, British imports, and classical music programs. No doubt they do, but the full range of the black cultural experience is not seen on commercial television. Since jazz is rarely seen on the networks, it is natural to assume that public television should fill that gap, but it doesn't. The minority view of the United States is an intriguing, enlightening and necessary perspective, but it isn't on television, commercial or public. The film industry decided a few years ago that "blaxploitation was dead" and a burgeoning industry was stopped cold. Blacks have been conspicuously absent from our most recent box-office blockbusters. In fact, this could be the first time in our history where our fantasies, as expressed in film, are more segregated than our reality.

BLACKS BRITANNICA reminds us that issues of black and white — in the U.S.A., in England, or in southern Africa — are essentially issues of power. The WGBH definition of "objectivity" is as invalid as Ian Smith's definition of majority rule — not because there cannot be some standard definition, but because those most affected are often excluded from the processes that lead to the definition or rule. In the wake of the American Black Power movement, attempts to develop a systematic analysis of race relations were discounted. It was no longer fashionable to talk about "the system" or the impact of "institutions." Yet, we cannot talk intelligently about the treatment of blacks by Hollywood or PBS without examining "the system."

Noam Chomsky, in his latest book, Language and Responsibility, points out how our media is as essentially one-sided as the Soviet press. There is not a single socialist or radical columnist on a major U.S. newspaper or magazine today. We are as bound by "state capitalism" today as Soviet readers are fettered by "state socialism." It is often argued that radicalism failed in the United States because workers were too well off. Actually, the full power of the state has worked to assure the failure of radicalism. What this has done is leave U.S. political debate in a very crowded and windowless room. More and more, our "state capitalism" leaves us unable to understand what is going on in the rest of the world.

BLACKS BRITANNICA is a reminder that there are other ways to see the world, to analyze events and to place them in a context that enlightens and informs us even as we are aware of its political bias. What made the film less palatable for officials at WGBH was that BLACKS BRITANNICA analyzed a subject much too close to home. It did not fit in with the official discussions of income, education and middle-class status that are comfortable for the majority of Americans.

In a memo announcing the inception of WORLD, producer David Fanning said:

"We hope to use film and television to help Americans take off their special American glasses and look at the world through the eyes of others … we would tend to be interested in a film which proposes to explore an international situation in terms of the perceptions of some human beings that we would come to know. Standing in their shoes we would begin to see the world as they see it."

Despite these lofty ideals, David Koff's BLACKS BRITANNICA became an affront to Fanning and WGBH. The station's lawyers have gone to court in this country and in England to block showings of Koff's version. This raises issues of artistic integrity, of the ability of independent filmmakers to gain access to the airwaves and many other legal and moral questions. But most of all the controversy should make us all aware of how power is distributed. There is no guarantee for blacks in Britain, or for powerless groups anywhere, to have their views expressed without modification or censorship in our highly touted system of Western democracy.