A “Wish” Becomes Reality
Say you’re a scriptwriter, and you’re asking yourself: What’s the best way to improve race relations?
However important the question is now, it was even more crucial in 1960, when The Twilight Zone was still new to the airwaves and Jim Crow laws, discrimination and segregation were, shamefully, still the order of the day in much of the U.S.
One obvious answer: Write about the problem. Illustrate the ugly face of racism. Nervous producers didn’t like it one bit, but Rod Serling took this route when he based the pre-Zone teleplay “A Town Has Turned to Dust” on the Emmett Till case. The results, in the right hands, make quite a mark.
But there’s another way to improve race relations, one that Serling also tried when he wrote “The Big Tall Wish” for TZ’s first season.
The story concerns a down-and-out boxer named Bolie Jackson, and a little boy who idolizes him — and who’s willing to conjure up a little magic to help Bolie win his next bout.
Long-time fans don’t need a recap, and I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. The point is this: It features a cast that’s nearly all black.
Big deal, you say? Today, sure. But that was near-revolutionary in 1960. More importantly, they starred in an episode that had nothing to do with race relations. You could have had white actors in the identical parts, and you’d hardly have to change a word of it.
But through casting alone, Serling was making an important statement about race. As he put it at the time:
Television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of the sin of omission. Hungry for talent, desperate for the so-called ‘new face,’ constantly searching for a transfusion of new blood, it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides under its nose. This is the Negro actor.
In short, Serling was showing white audiences, not just telling them, that black actors should simply be accepted as normally and naturally as white actors. Why should it make any difference what color the cast is? We’re all human. We all share many of the same problems. “The Big Tall Wish” helped further this important point in a remarkably effective, yet non-confrontational way. It was an outstretched hand of understanding, not a fist clenched in hate.
Small wonder that The Twilight Zone won the annual Unity Award for “Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations” in 1961. As author Martin Grams notes in his book “The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic,” two years later CBS adopted a policy that called on producers to incorporate more black actors into their productions.
True racial harmony may indeed remain a “big tall wish.” But over 50 years ago, Rod Serling helped TV take a big step toward making that wish come true.
For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter,Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!