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‘America in Color’ is an Impressive and Honest Reminder of the History of the U.S.
July 2, 2017  | By David Hinckley
 

The new Smithsonian series America In Color may be the perfect way to recount history in the social media age, with a crisp, zippy hour covering each decade from the 1920s to the 1960s.

While the basic ground may be familiar in this five-part series, which launches Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, Smithsonian is selling two elements as unique.

Much of the film is rarely seen, and almost all the early black-and-white footage has been colorized.

Seeing President Calvin Coolidge or aviator Charles Lindbergh or Jazz Age flappers in color won’t startle most younger viewers. It will get the attention of the older set.

While colorizing doesn’t add much to the story, neither does it get in the way by feeling gimmicky like the colorization of many vintage movies.   

Sunday’s first episode, logically enough, covers the 1920s, a decade that narrator Liev Schreiber calls “the biggest boom-to-bust story” ever.

For much of the 1920s, this hour explains, America felt like it was on a permanent roll.

Technology was introducing miraculous new devices like vacuum cleaners, electric refrigerators, radio and affordable automobiles. Most people could find a job at a living wage. We had larger-than-life heroes like Lindbergh and Babe Ruth.

Trouble is, much of our apparent prosperity was the result of buying everything from electric ovens to stocks on credit, while at the same time most of us had no savings.  

So when the boom deflated, it was swift and devastating. The legacy of the 1920s was the 1930s, the Great Depression.

Purely as history, parts of the first America In Color episode are fascinating and revealing.

It talks about how black Americans, particularly in the South, were largely excluded from the boom – though they would share in the Depression to come.

It’s chilling to see colorized footage of the 1924 Ku Klux Klan march on Washington, and hear that national Klan membership reached four million. Yes, that’s million.

Accordingly, it’s not surprising to see the scant surviving footage of the once-prosperous black town of Greenwood, OK (left), which was burned to the ground by whites from nearby Tulsa in 1924. Three hundred people were killed. 

The narration doesn’t mention that another prosperous black town, Rosewood in Florida, suffered similar destruction a year earlier.

The lack of reference to Rosewood doesn’t diminish the impact of the Greenwood tragedy. It does illustrate the impossibility of noting all the nuances of an entire decade in slightly under an hour.

Every vignette here, from Henry Ford’s production line to the northern migration of black Southerners to the rise of radio, begs for more detail. Other key stories of the decade, like the immigration struggle, are missing entirely.

America in Color’s greatest impact, and one suspects that Smithsonian knows this, would be inspiring viewers to go look up some of those additional details themselves.

Among other things, that would enable viewers to connect some dots that America in Color has to leave on their own.

The show notes, for instance, that Coolidge believed in maximum freedom for private enterprise and a minimal government presence everywhere. When the Mississippi River overflowed in 1927, creating an 11-state flood that left a fifth of Arkansas under water and hundreds of thousands of people homeless, Coolidge declined to provide any federal aid because he felt that was overstepping the limited role of government.

He also saw regulation of the financial industry as unwarranted government intrusion, which helped leave millions of ordinary people stranded when things imploded in 1929.

What the show does choose to feature is, on the whole, well chosen, with a few good surprises. The impact of the Mississippi flood and the Miami hurricane of 1925, for instance, are too often forgotten.  

The Jazz Age and the start of Prohibition are noted in a rather perfunctory way. But it’s instructive to see footage of the famous 1927 “long count” heavyweight title fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney (right). Tunney’s face, when he’s knocked down, seems to support his claim that he could have gotten up sooner, but took a few extra seconds of rest.

Even if you have a reasonable grasp of American history, which most Americans don’t, America in Color will remind you of more than a few things that helped shape what and where we are today.

 
 
 
 
 
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