As someone who's written about black history my entire life, I thought I knew it all until I started researching the story of Amos 'n Andy. When Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and New Yorker editor Henry Finder approached me about writing a screenplay about the rise and fall of the controversial TV show, I initially winced. Like most of us, I had closed Amos 'n Andy in my "Lock Box of Egregious Black Embarrassments," right there alongside Stepin Fetchit, Uncle Tom and Omarosa.
In fact, everything I thought I knew about "Amos 'n Andy" was wrong. I actually watched the old shows. And I laughed. And I kept laughing. I discovered that Amos 'n' Andy was once one of the most popular TV shows in the country, only to now be one of the most misunderstood or forgotten, driven off the air by a threatened boycott by the NAACP which crippled Black Hollywood for decades. In fact, in 1950, during the Amos 'n Andy years, there were around 500 African-American members of the Screen Actor's Guild. By 1960, there were 25.
It was not what you would call an overnight success. For thirty years before coming to the little screen in the 1950s, Amos 'n Andy was the longest running and most popular radio show in history. The fifteen-minute radio broadcast actually invented week-to-week, serialized storytelling.
It's two white creators, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, did come out of the ugliness of minstrel shows, as did the TV version's superstar, Tim "Kingfish" Moore, however both the radio and television programs were wildly popular with white and black audiences alike. In the 1930s, every Thursday at 7pm, movie theaters would stop their films in mid-reel and wheel out a radio to broadcast the show. Plumbers noticed nobody in America flushed their toilet at 7 but millions did at 7:15. For over twenty years Gosden and Correll were some of the richest and most famous personalities in the world.
Then, in the 1950s, when the show moved to television, of course it needed an all-black cast. The search for the actors became a national frenzy. Truman and Eisenhower even weighed in with suggestions. CBS finally found Tim Moore, Spencer Williams and Alvin Childress, and the show was an instant hit with blacks and whites, and ironically television's most positive representations of the black middle class until the Cosby Show. Amos 'n Andy was the first modern situation comedy - the first filmed on the West Coast and not taped on the East, the first shown to a live audience, the first to have a laugh track, and the first to go into reruns.
The TV show was a portrait in black comic genius, paving the way for the great black comics from Redd Foxx to Sherman Hemsley, from Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock to Dave Chappelle. They struggled, as comics struggle today, with the tension between creating black comedy for "export" or "domestic" consumption. By that I mean, black folks can laugh at a black joke in a different way than many white folks. It was exactly that same tension that drove Dave Chappelle to quit his show and retreat to South Africa. It was that same tension that proved too great for the NAACP and they demanded CBS pull it off the air.
So the brilliant black actors who brought those indelible characters into millions of American homes were suddenly unemployed and unemployable.
My screenplay, Holy Mackerel!, is the true story of the birth of the show, the NAACP's single-minded battle to destroy it, and the devastating effect the controversy had on black comedy for decades.
I've been so honored by the Black List, which celebrates excellent, as-yet unproduced screenplays, with a live reading of my movie in Hollywood this Saturday the 17th, at the Montalban Theater. Mykelti Williamson, David Allen Grier, Jesse Williams, Reno Wilson, Yvette Nicole Brown, Bonnie Somerville, Gregg Henry and others will do me the honor of the live read.
Tickets for HOLY MACKEREL!, live in Hollywood are available online here.