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An 'I Love Lucy' lesson: The elites always misjudge Americans' tolerance

An 'I Love Lucy' lesson: The elites always misjudge Americans' tolerance
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Years ago I was asked to pitch a comic-book idea to a movie producer. This was prior to COVID-19 and BLM, prior to the Trumpiad, prior even to “The Avengers” — the before-time, in other words, more remote than Gettysburg. “Name a title you like, and we’ll talk about it as a movie,” the producer said.  

I cited the character “Luke Cage,” aka “Power Man,” a Marvel superhero who happens to be Black. “No dice,” the producer said. “We can’t do a Black protagonist in a movie like this.” Now, this wasn’t that long ago — the 2000s, not the 1950s. Did this guy not know about Eddie Murphy or Denzel Washington?  

“Hey, I’m not racist,” he said. “I’d love there to be a Black superhero film.” But the Chinese market would never go for it, he said, and neither would Middle America. “It’s a corporate decision.” 

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I was reminded of this incident when researching my book, “The Queen of Tuesday,” which is – among other things – about the once-popular television sitcom “I Love Lucy.” And the truth regarding Lucille Ball is that, because of a “corporate decision” like the one I mentioned above, the most successful show in the history of television was a bell that almost never got a chance to ring. 

In 1950 CBS agreed to give Ball, by then a kind of never-was movie actress, a shot at a TV program. But they also told her that the audience wouldn’t accept an interracial marriage. (That show is so popular, so rooted in American ground, it’s hard to think it was thought objectionable on its face.) She feared her husband, Desi Arnaz, would cheat on her if she weren’t around to watch him closely, according to her autobiography. And so, rather than accept working long hours with the white screen-husband CBS assigned her, Lucille Ball produced, paid for and starred in a number of live performances with Desi in vaudeville theaters across the country.  

Of course, we know what happened next: a show that was watched by the equivalent of 80 million people every week.

It’s not really news to say that we, as a nation, are experiencing a time of broad awakening to the facts of an entrenched inequality. Ever more people are becoming aware of things like the exceedingly high unemployment rate for African Americans, and the limited educational prospects among first-generation immigrant children. Many white Americans simply weren’t aware of these issues before. Not all of the blame for that can be laid on the doorstep of corporate cowardice, of course. But one wonders: Maybe if the elites hadn’t had such a low opinion of the American people, things wouldn’t have been as they were. 

Underestimating the American viewer in terms of diversity in entertainment has long been a losing proposition. In 1954, the producer Alfred Palca’s having cast African American actor Sidney Poitier in his film “Go, Man, Go” was seen as proof Palca was a communist; by 1957 Poitier was Oscar-nominated for best actor, having had his name above the title on a huge film. In 1967 Poitier was the No. 1 box-office draw in the nation.

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According to the New York Times, when ABC aired “Roots” in 1977, the network “had expected a dud,” yet the series’s finale “remains the third highest-rated television episode ever.” It seems audiences for at least 60 years have accepted entertainment that offers genuine depictions: Chadwick Boseman as African king T’Challa, Desi Arnaz as Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo, Shameik Moore as the young spider-person of color Miles Morales, or Poitier as Black detective Virgil Tibbs. All go over big with the public. Box-office history would indicate that audiences can sense when portrayals are apposite — that viewers gravitate toward authenticity more than anything.

Not long after the Hollywood executive told me that there not only would never be a Luke Cage project but never be a Black superhero tentpole movie, you know what happened? “Luke Cage” became a Netflix show, and “Black Panther” grossed more than $1.3 billion worldwide, breaking numerous box-office records; it now sits at No. 3 on the list of all-time highest-grossing films in the U.S., two spots ahead of “Titanic.”

P.T. Barnum famously said something along the lines of “No one ever went broke underestimating the American people.” Well, that movie producer may have.  

Darin Strauss is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle award-winner “Half a Life” (2010). His next book, “The Queen of Tuesday,” will be published Aug. 18 by Random House.