Week 4: Absence of Women and Limited Black Masculinity in Watts Documentary

     In the December 1965 CBS News Documentary, “Watts – Riots or Revolt?” the absence of black (or white) women reveals the lens with which the producers of the show view the events in Watts and their cause. Through on-air interviews almost exclusively with black men, the documentary contextualizes the Watts community through concerns about masculinity as the foundation of a civil society. The lone interview with a female Watts resident occurs very briefly when Governor Brown speaks to a mother of four about the welfare benefits she receives. The first question he’s shown asking in the clip is “What does your husband do?” She then asserts that she’s caring for the family without a husband and she’d gladly work if she could get a job that could allow her to pay for child care. The clip abruptly cuts to a man standing nearby directing his concerns at the governor, and the issue of employment for Watts women is not discussed again, nor are any female Watts community leaders interviewed within the hour. The presumption from the Governor’s question seems to be that the absence of a male ‘breadwinner’ is at the heart of this woman’s difficulties.
      As Gerald Horne points out, black leaders from the 1930s and 40s, like one of the few female community leaders we read about in Charlotta Bass, had been undercut and severed from Watts by the 1960s, but NOI and other cultural nationalist groups are also noticeably absent from the documentary. Women are largely silenced and absent: I saw two quick shots of a woman looking frightened with her hands up when police have pulled her and others out of the car and another woman whom police told to drop her purse before raising her hands, but neither woman is not heard. Also noticeably silent and absent are any legitimized depictions of black masculinity in contrast to the straight-laced, suit-and-tie, hyperrational masculinity exemplified by the host, Bill Stout. The frustrated mother of four is the only black women heard, and all black men interviewed are either community leaders, academics, and the lone journalist Robert Richardson, and all of these men conform to this narrow conception of a civil, “refined,” almost academic masculinity in dress shirts and pants, mostly in suits and ties. Black men shown are largely either community leaders calling for nonviolence and to keep the streets clear (like Martin Luther King and H.H. Brookins, the reverend who runs the chaotic community meeting in which the boy calls for the riots to continue in white neighborhoods and then speaks to the interviewers after a meeting with the deputy police chief), or, in contrast, individual black men without formal dress expressing largely impotent resentment and frustration (like the man who yearns for the television and other possessions people outside his community possess) or all out hatred bred from petty grievances (like the unidentified young man who describes how he firebombed different stores and hates the Jewish store owners on the block).
      The Watts community is depicted as either civil, rational men who mostly dress and speak like the host, or as disenfranchised, frustrated individual men who lack this agency granted by formal dress and speech. Even those who speak for the community compassionately, like Robert Richardson and the young Rhodes Scholar in law school, still appear in more formal dress to represent and explain the difficulties of their community (with Richardson calling out the only example of disrespect toward black women in Watts with his comment about housewives being mistaken for whores by police). No legitimate black nationalist, class-conscious, or feminist viewpoints are represented, only that of Daniel Moynihan, the white asst. Secretary of Labor who asserts that the “great humiliation of Jim Crow was a brutal assault on the personal integrity of the Negro male,” who took “the brunt of” this humiliation. Moynihan is given the most screen time of anyone other than Police Chief Parker, and his assertion about the economic frustration of the Watts community being felt principly as an emasculation of black men permeates the structure and voices represented in the documentary.

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