It’s A Fine Start, TCM, But You Can Do Much More To Highlight Black Lives In Hollywood

Billie Holiday stars (as a maid?!) opposite Dorothy Perkins in New Orleans, a film that hadn't been shown on TCM before.

Billie Holiday stars (as a maid?!) opposite Dorothy Perkins in New Orleans, a film that hadn’t been shown on TCM before. Photo credit: United Artists

EDIT: Since this article was posted, I had an off-the-record conversation about some of the changes that have taken place at TCM and will take place in the future. As a fan of the channel, I’m glad to hear the channel is aware of its shortcomings and are adamant about becoming more inclusive for all classic movie fans.

Original post is as follows:

It might not be completely evident on this site, but a large part of my film background is in vintage film. Where better for me to watch classic films than Turner Classic Movies, otherwise known as TCM?

But as a classic film fan of color, I know there’s a whole history that is routinely left out when folks talk about the Golden Age of Hollywood. That glaring oversight is consistently apparent on TCM, where there are more months dedicated to Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Cary Grant than there are to Dorothy Dandridge or Harry Belafonte. The fact that Sidney Poitier is the only Black star TCM shows with any regularity outside of Black History Month proves that the network has a problem with tackling Hollywood’s Black stars.

The recent protests surrounding the death of George Floyd have put every industry on alert. Everyone who has a Black audience has had to reckon with their public image in some way. TCM is among those, and they have released a blog post highlighting how they plan on rectifying their oversights.

To quote the network directly:

Turner Classic Movies stands with our Black colleagues, talent, storytellers and fans — and all affected by senseless violence and social oppression, because we believe Black Lives Matter. Our parent company, WarnerMedia, is supporting these organizations that work to advance social justice: 

  • Color Of Change 
  • Equal Justice Initiative 
  • The National Action Network 
  • The National Urban League 
  • NAACP Legal Defense Fund 
  • National Center for Civil and Human Rights 

WarnerMedia is expanding its content innovation program OneFifty with an additional $500k to seed issue-focused creative ideas from communities who often go unheard. We are proud to be part of an organization committed to change. We know words and social posts alone are not enough, and we pledge to hold ourselves accountable and take meaningful action.

“One of the ways TCM is doing that is by amplifying the work of Black voices,” the article continues, with a list following of the films set for June, including A Man Called Adam starring Sammy Davis Jr., Ossie Davis and Cisely Tyson and Louis Armstrong, director Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, Odds Against Tomorrow starring Harry Belafonte, New Orleans starring Billie Holiday, director Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, and history-making out Black lesbian director Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, among others.

But while there are many films the full list that haven’t ever been highlighted on TCM before, there are also some repeats that TCM have already shown, such as Diana Ross’ turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues and Sidney Poitier’s career-making film, Blackboard Jungle.

Sidney Poitier stars in Blackboard Jungle, which will air on TCM this month.
Sidney Poitier stars in Blackboard Jungle, which will air on TCM this month. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

While important, the latter films are ones that should be familiar to TCM’s viewing audience already, an audience that I’m assuming is mostly white, judging by the commercials advertising TCM’s cruises and Hollywood functions. It’s a safe bet to show those films, since they give white audiences touchstones they’re familiar with, such as seeing the familiar faces of Ross and Poitier, who also happen to be two of a handful of Black celebrities many white people turn to when tasked to name a famous Black person they admire.

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There are some challenging items among the list, such as Black Orpheus, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, Shadows and Black Girl. These films, along with The Watermelon Woman, are what TCM should commit to showing more of–films that take white and non-Black audiences out of their comfort zones and implant them in stories that broaden their horizons, challenge them, and incite them into action. Along with this, TCM should replay many of the films they only reserve for Black History Month, films like Cabin in the Sky, for instance, or Imitation of Life (the ’30s original and the ’50s remake).

TCM should have more months dedicated to examining the role Hollywood played in the societal subjugation of Black talent, and how many white stars of the day didn’t see such subjugation as their concern. By the same token, TCM should do more to highlight the white stars who did, in fact, step up to the plate and use their starpower for social action, such as Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, while, of course, acknowledging the totality of their lives. Brando’s activism, for instance, could be undercut by Asian Americans’ valid anger with him for perpetuating yellowface in The Teahouse of the August Moon. Sinatra, as I learned by reading Sinatra: The Life by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, did actually do a Blackface routine at least once at one point in his life while entertaining friends–while it wasn’t for cameras, which is the case with many of our Golden Age favorites, it was still a misuse of white privilege.

Mbissine Thérèse Diop stars as Diouana, a Senegalese woman who lives as a maid for a French family. This film will make its TCM debut this month. Photo credit: New Yorker Video
Mbissine Thérèse Diop stars as Diouana, a Senegalese woman who lives as a maid for a French family. This film will make its TCM debut this month. Photo credit: New Yorker Video

To that end, TCM would do well to engage in a town hall of sorts to educate classic film lovers about how ingrained racism was during Hollywood’s Golden Age and society at large, and how those “traditions,” as it were, still have power today. While Blackface was done as a racist gesture to put down Black people, some also did it because it was the popular thing to do. Blackface was so ubiquitous with comedy, that the remnants of minstrel shows can be seen even in vintage cartoons, such as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse.

I also suggest that TCM hire more Black film historians. Granted, the industry for film historians is largely skewed white, and that’s by design, as it is with many industries in America. But Black film historians and film historians of color in general are out there. TCM managed to find one, silent film historian and professor Jacqueline Stewart, who now hosts the network’s Silent Sundays lineup. She’s the first Black host the network has had. Let me restate–the first permanent Black host, because TCM has invited Black filmmakers on before, such as Ava DuVernay, who guest-hosted The Essentials.

If TCM can find Stewart, they can find many more like her who will provide their own points of view on film–not just Black film, but all film. But, most certainly, they will be able to speak to Black classic film viewers in a way white hosts can’t, simply by being there. Classic film viewers of color aren’t represented or even thought of as a possibility, even though many of us have grown up with our parents or grandparents watching old movies with them. Just seeing someone like Stewart on screen could give Black viewers the comfort of knowing there are others like them out there, others who like the same things and have made a career out of it. We need to see that we exist, and can exist in any industry of our choosing, including the industry of “classic film show host.”

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TCM host Jacqueline Stewart photographed on the TCM set on Tuesday & Wednesday, August 20-21, 2019 in Atlanta, Ga. Photo by John Nowak
TCM host Jacqueline Stewart photographed on the TCM set in 2019. Photo credit: John Nowak

I need to be convinced that TCM is ready to tackle this kind of reckoning of Hollywood, though. For the many years I’ve watched TCM, they’ve touted the glitzy side of Hollywood, the side often glorified in the media itself. The bumpers featuring vintage stars or their children talking lovingly about known racists, such as John Wayne, for instance, ignores the totality of the subject being discussed. Of course John Wayne was nice to a white star–that’s because they were white! You would never find an actor of color from the time period saying the same of the man who believed in white imperialism and the degradation of other races.

If TCM is to have an honest discussion about the double-sidedness to Hollywood by highlighting the inequities of the industry, then the network would have to partially rebrand themselves, if not completely rebrand. They wouldn’t be able to fully embrace the glitz without acknowledging the racist and sexist practices that kept Black men and women from fully living out their dreams, and that includes the Black stars that did make it. They would have to put a foot firmly in the present via openly discussing the truth about Hollywood and hiring of more Black presenters for the network, rather than keeping both feet stuck firmly in the past by only talking about the industry’s whitewashing via a sea of white hosts. They will have to acknowledge Blackness belongs in the classic film conversation. Indeed, they will have to acknowledge that Black lives mattered back then as much as they matter today.

To bring it back to this upcoming list of June screenings TCM has for us, I can admit that the list is a start. But showing one month’s worth of films isn’t going to cut it. I am eager to see what other initiatives TCM has up its sleeve to fully invite Black viewers into the fold as well as acknowledge those of us who have stuck with them, even when the network seemed to count us out.

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