Gil Noble: The Man Who Told It 'Like It Is'

He was dedicated to preserving black American culture as a journalist, TV host and documentarian.

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"My presence in television is the direct result of the black struggle," Noble wrote in his 1981 memoir, Black Is the Color of My TV Tube. "But for the social upheaval of the '50s and the '60s in America, I believe that I would not now be working in television as a news correspondent, weekend anchorman, producer and host of a one-hour program."

In the wake of the urban revolts in many cities following King's assassination, blacks pressured TV stations for inclusion on the airwaves that supposedly belonged to all of the public. Replacing their weekend morning diet of Tarzan movies, Hour of Power and The Three Stooges, several TV stations scheduled black-oriented public-affairs shows that mainly dealt with local issues, personalities and culture. 

In 1968 Noble began splitting his duties as WABC-TV news reporter and co-host with actor Robert Hooks of Like It Is, a one-hour, weekly magazine show. After changing the title from The Way It Is, the duo scuttled the original rock 'n' roll theme song and persuaded the white managers to hire jazz saxophonist Jackie MacLean, Noble's childhood friend, to compose a jazz theme. Hooks left to star in the crime series N.Y.P.D., and Noble hosted the magazine show under producer Charles Hobson, who oriented the format toward strong black themes and documentaries on significant heroes.

Noble teamed behind the camera with graphic artist and pan-Africanist Elombe Brath; Paul Robeson's granddaughter Susan Robeson, a researcher; and historian-scholar Paul Lee, who, with his brother Sunni Khalid, played a key role in producing some of the early specials focusing on Malcolm X. On camera, Noble rotated notable co-hosts such as Carol Jenkins, Felipe Luciano and Geraldo Rivera.   

When, in the early '80s, the local news shows began infusing chitchat and monkeyshines into the broadcasts, Noble's anchoring duties were reduced because he refused to clown around on air. Relegated to weekends, he was finally assigned full time to produce and host Like It Is by the late '90s. This one-hour weekly show proved to be a platinum setting for Noble's talent as a provocative journalist, video historian and unapologetic "race man."

During some 43 years on the air, Noble used the long-form format of Like It Is to create a treasure trove of exclusive footage on cultural and political leaders such as Paul Robeson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dizzy Gillespie, Marcus Garvey, Max Roach, Harry Belafonte, Sarah Vaughn, jazz pianist Erroll Garner and educator Adelaide Sanford.

Before the invention of VCRs and DVRs, devotees of Malcolm X would reliably skip church on his birthday and assassination weekends in order to watch Noble's updated specials on the national Harlem icon.

In addition to these tall trees and the mountaintops, Noble dared take his cameras to the gritty and desperate bowels of the city. In 1981 he produced an extraordinary exposé on the scourge of heroin addiction gripping Harlem. "An Essay on Drugs" was his stunning TV account of this scabrous netherworld, featuring up-close scenes of street addicts blistered with pus sores surveying one another's necks, groins and underarms for a clear, remaining vein suitable for injecting a syringe of liquefied heroin.

"Like It Is provides more new and valuable information and analysis than all the local news shows on all the local channels put together," wrote Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice in 1982, when the show was seldom the focus of mainstream critics' columns or reviewed for the treasure that it was. Nonetheless, Noble garnered seven Emmys, five honorary doctorates and several lifetime achievement awards, and he was most proud of the more than 650 plaques, citations and crystal-glass prizes the community awarded him over the years.

He did not make his mark without controversy.