New Series Tells American History in Color

The Parade of Brothers march in New York City in the early 20th century. (Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel)
The Parade of Brothers march in New York City in the early 20th century. (Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel)

History has been a key part of the Smithsonian Channel’s identity and a brand new series promises viewers a presentation of many iconic moments in U.S. history as never before seen — using artistry and cutting-edge technology to transform black-and-white films and photographs.

“We are constantly researching, and looking for new stories and new ways to tell them,” said John Cavanagh, the executive producer of Smithsonian’s new series, “America in Color.”

The five-part series premiered July 2 and the next installment is set to air Sunday, July 9 at 8 p.m.

Producers aid the series will take viewers from prohibition and the Jazz Age to the moon landing and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. It includes many of the greatest, most significant events of the 20th century that have only been experienced in the black and white footage available at the time.

“History, of course, is cyclical and I absolutely think there are themes that will resonate in America today,” Cavanagh said. “In some cases we sought those out and in other cases they just emerged naturally as we followed the footage to find the best stories to tell. There are definitely things that will feel relevant like the resurgent KKK marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925, or environmental disasters like the Mississippi flood or the Dust Bowl, and the political response to them.”

The very first scene in the series is a terrorist attack in New York City — the 1920 bombing of the JP Morgan bank on Wall Street that killed 38.

“America is a young country, and we tend to look forwards, not back,” Cavanagh said. “I think revisiting our history like this will surprise some people and I know it surprised me at times.”

Produced by Arrow Media and Smithsonian Networks, the “America in Color” series will air one episode per week, each tackling different decades from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Fascinating footage of illegal drinking in speakeasies during the 1920s and rare home movies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression are just some of the iconic moments captured in the series.

Producers said that filmmakers meticulously researched original colors to confirm the correct tones from each era and used source materials from obscure archives and forgotten family vaults.

“When we saw the amazing quality, the latest 4K restoration and colorization techniques could bring some of this older archival footage, it just seemed like the perfect time to attempt something on this scale,” Cavanagh said. “The chance to tell epic 20th century stories in a new way was always going to be too good to pass up.”

Among the many highlights, the 1950s depicts racial unrest that divided the country.

In the South, extremely rare footage takes viewers to the trial of the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury.

One-hundred days later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, for which she’s arrested and fined. In Alabama, Gov. Orval Faubus closes schools rather than enroll the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students.

The 1960s part of the series, reveal seldom-seen stills of a fire-bombed bus in Alabama which illustrate the violent resistance that met “Freedom Riders,” while recently restored footage shows Governor George Wallace vowing “segregation forever.”

The episode also features recently discovered footage of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering a speech at Stanford University, and Walter Cronkite’s live TV announcement of the assassination of President Kennedy, presented in color for the first time.

It also shows home movies of the Woodstock Festival and protests against the Vietnam War, many of which have never been seen.

“I’m always amazed at how absorbing the colorization makes it,” he said. “You find yourself paying such close attention that you notice little details — the color and texture of cars or clothing for example — that the images really envelop you, and bring you into these moments in history.”

The overall goal was to make a series that immersed viewers in key moments in American history, he said.

“We tried to choose a variety of stories, big and small, that would capture the range of American experience each decade, and by showing it in color, to transform events that can often seem gray and distant into something more immediate and tangible to help people see our history in a new light,” Cavanagh said.

“America in Color” airs Sundays on the Smithsonian Channel.

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About Stacy Brown 263 Articles
I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.
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