Smithsonian Magazine - April 2019

In August of 1955, Emmett Till, an African-American boy from Chicago was abducted, beaten, and shot while visiting family in Mississippi. A nation divided by race dug in its feet in the aftermath. While Jet magazine disseminated photographs from the open-casket funeral, showing the full mutilation of the 14-year-old’s corpse, another story played out in the courtroom. That fall, an all-white jury acquitted the two killers, both white, of all charges.

The miscarriage of justice proved a galvanizing point in the Civil Rights Movement. Rod Serling, a 30-year-old rising star in a golden age of dramatic television, watched the events play out in the news. He believed firmly in the burgeoning medium’s power for social justice. “The writer’s role is to be a menacer of the public’s conscience,” Serling later said. “He must have a position, a point of view. He must see the arts as a vehicle of social criticism and he must focus the issues of his time.”

Soon after the trial concluded, Serling, riding off the success of his most well-received teleplay to date, felt compelled write a teleplay around the racism that led to Till’s murder. But the censorship that followed by advertisers and networks, fearful of blowback from white, Southern audiences, forced Serling to rethink his approach. His response, ultimately, was “The Twilight Zone,” the iconic anthology series that spoke truth to the era’s social ills and tackled themes of prejudice, bigotry, nuclear fears, war, among so many others.

Tonight, “The Twilight Zone” enters another dimension led by Jordan Peele. Peele has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most interesting auteurs, using a toolbelt of humor, horror and specificity to explore the human experience, especially through the construct of race. That through line can be found throughout his body of work from the witty sketch-comedy episodes of “Key & Peele” to his latest offering, the box-office record-setting Us. His perspective makes him a natural choice to step in as host and executive producer of the buzzy reboot coming to CBS All Access.

But unlike Serling, Peele will also be able to take the franchise in a direction that the dramatic writer wanted to go but was never able to get past the Cold War censors during the original show’s run from 1959-1964. For all that his Oscar-winning directorial debut Get Out, for instance, shares the DNA of “The Twilight Zone,” Peele’s allegory about black people in white spaces is direct in a way that Serling could never have been. To get on air, the story would have been forced to compromise in some way—camouflaging its intent by setting the story on a distant planet or another time period. Peele commented on that in a recent interview with Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times: “It felt like, if Serling were here, he’d have a lot to say and a lot of new episodes he couldn’t have written back in his time,” he said.

Few examples tell Serling’s struggles better than his attempt to bring the Till tragedy to television. Already, when he first pitched the idea to the advertising agency representing the U.S. Steel Hour, an hour-long anthology series on ABC, Serling was pre-censoring himself. Aware that he’d have to make concessions to get the script on screen, he sold the representatives on a story of a Jewish pawnbroker’s lynching in the South. When the idea was greenlit, Serling worked on that script as well as an adaptation for Broadway, where he knew he would have the freedom to tell Till’s story more directly, centering that plot around a black victim.

But Serling misjudged just how restrictive 1950s television could be. After he mentioned that his script-in-progress was based on the Till murder trial in an interview with the Daily Variety, papers around the country picked up the scoop. Thousands of angry letters and wires from the likes of white supremacist organizations followed, threatening both Steel Hour and ABC, who quickly capitulated and ordered changes to Serling's script. Recounting the incident several years later during an interview with journalist Mike Wallace on the eve of the premiere of “The Twilight Zone,” Serling described it as a systematic dismantling of his story. It was “gone over with a fine-tooth comb by 30 different people,” he said, while he was left to attend “at least two meetings a day for over a week, taking notes as to what had to be changed.” ...
Read full report at Smithsonian Magazine