Imagine a show so popular that when it’s on, even movie theaters stop films midreel and broadcast it so that audiences won’t stay home. For decades in the first half of the 20th century, that is exactly what The Amos ’n Andy Show was.
During the heyday of radio, it was America’s most-listened-to program. Set in Harlem, the capital of black America, and featuring nearly all black characters, the show was listened to by tens of millions of people every week, long before The Cosby Show became a No. 1 hit. But the radio show was voiced by white actors, and many, including the head of the NAACP, Walter White, hated its depiction of black Americans. When the popular show made the transition to television, black actors were hired, and for the first time, people of color were in starring roles on a show beamed into households across America.
Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who for decades has researched and studied the history of Amos ’n Andy, and Henry Finder, the executive editor of the New Yorker, came to award-winning screenwriter and director Trey Ellis with a story several years ago, leading him to the conclusion that everything he thought he knew about the show, and the actors behind it, was wrong. Both Gates and Finder are executive producers of the screenplay.
The complexity of Amos ’n Andy and its relationship to black America is what Ellis is exploring in a table reading of his new script, Holy Mackerel, which will be performed at the Montalban Theater in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, the evening before the Emmy Awards. The reading, which stars Jesse Williams, Mykelti Williamson and David Alan Grier, among others, is being produced by the Black List, which collects the most important unproduced scripts circulating in Hollywood.
Amos ’n Andy has a complicated history. While certain black elites hated its portrayal of black life, tens of millions of Americans, black and white, tuned in every week to hear about the antics and adventures of Amos, Andy, Kingfish and the gang. By the 1950s, TV was starting to displace radio, and other programs that had started on radio made the successful transition to the small screen. When the show’s producers announced that the program would come to TV, they started a nationwide talent search for black comedy stars, and the idea that black actors, not whites in blackface, would star was itself a revolutionary concept.
Spencer Williams, Tim Moore and Alvin Childress were hired for the roles of a lifetime: They would be starring in what was sure to be America’s next smash hit. Men who had been largely forgotten would now come into the homes of Americans from coast to coast.
But Walter White, head of the NAACP, was having none of it. He started a boycott, not of the immensely popular show—he knew that was fruitless—but of the show’s sponsor, Blatz Beer. Even as the show’s stars and writers were trying to move it away from some of the buffoonery of the radio program’s legacy, White was determined to kill the show because he felt it was hurting the way in which white Americans saw their black fellow citizens.
Trey Ellis describes the moment, in an interview with The Root, as a “clash of these two titanic forces, and in some ways they both were correct.” There were indeed some moments of the TV show that were cringeworthy, but, notes Ellis, the show was also introducing America to a range of black people who included doctors and lawyers, and depicted the black family at a time when no one else was doing so.
While the screenplay is set in the 1950s, Ellis says he loves working with history because of the way “it reflects and vibrates with our present day. That’s what I’m most proud of with this work: that it feels very contemporary.”
Given the discussion over the last two years about #OscarsSoWhite, a look at the history of blacks in Hollywood and on TV seems timely. The reading is scheduled the night before the Emmys to make a specific point, Franklin Leonard, founder of the Black List, told The Root via email.
“Very simply, there is no better date for a reading of a screenplay about race and Hollywood than the night before the Emmys on the weekend after the Oscar races began in earnest at the Toronto, Venice, and Telluride film festivals,” Leonard wrote. “I damn well hope we don't have a need for the hashtag again this year, and not for any reasons related to race. As it has been in the past, the Oscars being so white is not just a failure of racial equality, [it’s] a failure of the academy and the industry's ability to recognize great art and great artists for their own sake.”
When asked, both Leonard and Ellis said they felt that the atmosphere for people of color in Hollywood has been improving, but noted that America has a long way to go before there is something like equality or fair representation on America’s big and small screens or behind the camera.
“How many black women [who] have been nominated for Academy Awards are actually playing maids?” Ellis asks. While the screenwriter notes that a certain kind of black story, usually a tale of redemption, or of the “first black … ” has become more popular, he says he feels that “we have a lot more stories to tell than just the uplifting ones.”
Holy Mackerel is one of those tales. In the end, White’s quest to get Amos ’n Andy off the air worked, and the show lasted just two seasons. But the impact was to erase black-centered shows, and virtually erase black actors, from the small screen for a generation. The stars of the show were vilified as modern-day Uncle Toms for wanting the same opportunities for success that their white counterparts took for granted. It’s a story long forgotten, but intensely instructive, as America continues to struggle with race and representation in popular entertainment.