Smithsonian Channel Exec On the Network’s Commitment to Black-Centric Programming

David Royle, executive vice president of programming and production for the Smithsonian Channel. (Photo: Smithsonian Channel)

Black History Month may be over but the Smithsonian Channel’s commitment to feature programming sharing the African American experience marches on.

“Breath of Freedom,” a new documentary about the experiences black G.I.s had during World War II, is the latest dish on its black-centric menu.

“We look for different stories all over the world and this film came from a conversation with some wonderful German filmmakers who had become fascinated with the relationship between African American G.I.s serving in Germany and the civil rights movement,” explains David Royle, executive vice president of programming and production for the Smithsonian Channel. “It was a story I knew a little bit about but didn’t know well. Those are the sort of the stories that we at the Smithsonian Channel love, the stories that people hadn’t really heard about before.”

Along with “Breath of Freedom,” the network is showcasing “Black Wings,” “Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4” and “MLK: The Assassination Tapes,” all telling the trials and triumphs of black Americans before and during the civil rights movement.

Royle talks with XFINITY about the black-centric programming the Smithsonian Channel offers, the importance of sharing the black American experience and its wish list of black-centric programming.

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Why was it important for the Smithsonian Channel to “Breath of Freedom”?

What’s so interesting about this particular film is that it shows that it was a much more conflicted, complex time than people realize. And to my way of thinking, among the greatest generation who is greater than the African American G.I.s who fought for other people’s freedom and yet was having to struggle themselves with the whole dilemma and also tragedy of not having freedom in their own country.

I think some of the stories seem so outlandish today. When you hear about segregation, people know about having different restrooms and water fountains in the South, but the idea that in the military in World War II, separate dining halls and separate units, and even separate blood banks. It’s just extraordinary and it’s going on at a time when America is going to war partially because of the racism being practiced by Nazi Germany. You think about the intellectual hoops that everyone is jumping through but it’s a bizarre situation. And I think that for today’s generation it’s almost beyond comprehension.

In addition to “Breath of Freedom,” the Smithsonian Channel is offering “Black Wings,” “Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4” and “MLK: The Assassination Tapes.” How do you choose programming?

They all have strong, dramatic stories that convey a meaning that still resonates and they strike an emotional chord. In some cases they are stories that have been neglected or not fully understood. And we like to tell stories where there’s something new to be revealed and uncovering secrets. And this is probably the single most important thing about all of these stories that hold them together: they all are stories about unique personalities. They’re about characters, individuals who have done remarkable things with their lives. In January, Franklin McCain, one of the Greensboro Four, died, and to me one of the reasons we also tell these stories is so that people like Franklin McCain not be forgotten. And one of the things that pleased me immensely is that thousands of people turned out for Mr. McCain’s funeral. And I thought, what a wonderful example of someone being honored and having not been forgotten for the courage that they displayed. It’s another reason we tell these stories, so that the next generation is engaged and gets excited about these stories and knows that there’s a flame to be carried forward.

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Why is important to share the stories featured in “Black Wings”?

“Black Wings” is a wonderful program about African American aviators. Again, this is a group that would defy convention and were told there’s no place for you in the air. But there were extraordinary characters like Bessie Coleman, who not only was a woman but the first black pilot back in 1921. And she was a barnstormer and she would go to the air fairs and she would be out on the wings doing these incredible acrobatics. She died tragically in 1926 in a disastrous accident. “Black Wings” is a story of people like Bessie but also the Tuskegee Airmen who played such a role in showing that black aviators were every bit as courageous and skilled as their counterparts. And they had a big role in the desegregation of the military. And then you have people like Marlon Green who fought for the right for African Americans to become commercial airline pilots. And it’s extraordinary to me that doesn’t get settled until a Supreme Court case in 1963. “Black Wings” is a marvelous story that you’d enjoy no matter what the color or creed of the people in it because it’s about extraordinary personalities doing extraordinary things.

Tell me more about “MLK: The Assassination Tapes.”

That’s another program that’s close to my heart. What’s extraordinary about this film, which is about the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, is that it’s simply based on an actual [archived information.] The filmmaker who is telling the story uses the film of the day, the radio reports, the TV reports and there is no narration but is infused with drama. To me, it feels incredibly fresh and modern. We’re not telling the viewer how to think. You can be thrown back into this period in the 1960s and witness for yourself and take away what meaning you want to from it. The drama, the tragedy, the anger and the overwhelming courage of the civil rights movement at that time.

Does the network have a wish list of black-centric programs it’d like to feature?

In terms of African American history it’s just part of the big tapestry that’s woven of the greater story of America. But it’s a very important part that I think needs to be told more often on American television today. And indeed it’s something that’s very close to the Smithsonian’s heart. As you know, they’re building right now a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall so the story can be told more fully. And we want to be part of telling that story. We’re looking right now at a story about Lead Belly, for instance, the great American blues player, and his music and how musical groups like Nirvana and The Rolling Stones take his songs and carry them forth to a new generation.

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What other diverse or multicultural programming will you offer?

At this stage we don’t always know what’s coming up next. But we’re actually looking at programming that’s about places in America that’s had meaning to the African American community. The best example I can give you right now is about Lead Belly.

The Smithsonian Channel has been around since 2007. Has the network always shared African American stories?

It’s always been an important initiative for us. My personal perception is that we’re in a time in American media where a lot of newspapers and television stations made a point during Black History Month of celebrating African American history and culture. We’ve determined that that won’t be the case. And we put out programming throughout the year, it’s not just once a year. But for Black History Month we made a real point to put strong, powerful programs that are some of our most important programs of the year. “MLK: The Assassination Tapes” won the Peabody Award this year. These are really big, important initiatives that we’re taking and we want to continue to do that.

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Read XFINITY’s interview with Dag Freyer, the filmmaker behind the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, “Breath of Freedom,” here.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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