Monday, Feb. 23, 1970        Soul Drama

To the ghetto community, NBC's Julia is a white TV show played in blackface. Hoping to bring some black truth to television, Chicago's public channel, WTTW, this winter is carrying a new series titled Bird of the Iron Feather.*

The show runs for half an hour three nights a week, soap-opera style, but its black producers call it "soul drama." The main distinctions are a disdain for euphemism and a bitter black perspective. Characters refer to each other as "black bastards" and "niggers," "sons of bitches" and "mothers." White employers are parodied behind their backs, and there is recurrent talk of revolution. Rails one black domestic: "Wait till the slave maids and housekeepers take to the streets—and them bitches have to do their own dishes."

The protagonist is a black detective named Jonah Rhodes. He was killed in a riot before the first episode, and the story unreels in flashbacks from his diary. Jonah, at 35, is patriarch of a family of 13, including his troublemaking dropout brother, two deaf-mutes and his aunt and uncle, who are welfare applicants. In the beginning, he attends night law school and tries to make it within the structure. He becomes increasingly militant as he encounters usurious used-car dealers, unscrupulous real estate men and venal cops down at precinct headquarters. The whites, however, come off as no more villainous than the black middle class, especially Jonah's mother-in-law and his rival, an Uncle-Tom sergeant named Vines.

Felt Series. With inverse optimism, WTTW's white program director, Ed Morris, has said cheerily right along: "I think all kinds of people are going to hate it." But as of last week, Chicagoans seemed to welcome a TV series that actually dares to offend. Bird is the highest-rated local production in the station's history. Most of the viewers are blacks, and they obviously feel that Bird strikes home. The Coalition for United Community Action, representing 61 black organizations with 200,000 members, has issued an endorsement, declaring the series "one of the greatest TV documentaries of the century."

The group's description of drama as documentary arose from the fact that Bird is one series that is not phony, but deeply felt. The staff is largely black and inexperienced, and often plots are simplistic. The dialogue is sometimes stilted, the acting amateurish. The production budget (averaging $21,000 per segment) was about one-fifth of what the networks pay for a prime-time show — and looked it.

Even at that comparatively small cost, WTTW ran through its Ford Foundation grant for Bird with only 21 episodes in the can. The foundation has yet to decide whether or not to pay for a continuation of the series or even to subsidize its syndication to other public TV stations. The WTTW board chairman, former Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minow, urges a favorable response. "Whether we like what was created or not," he says, "our function should be to give everyone a chance to express themselves."

*From an 1847 speech in which Black Abolitionist Frederick Douglass described his race as having been "a bird for the hunter's gun, but a bird of iron feathers, unable to fly to freedom."

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,876642,00.html

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