Television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of the sin of omission… Hungry for talent, desperate for the so-called ‘new face,’ constantly searching for a transfusion of new blood, it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides under its nose. This is the Negro actor. -Rod Serling, 1960
Bolie Jackson is a down and out boxer. You can see the years of fights in the scars on his face. He has a sweet relationship with the son of his landlady, a six-year-old boy named Henry who, despite “sounding like an old man” when he speaks, still believes in the power of magic and wishes. His mother Frances attests to his ability to make wishes come true: when a tenant was late with a rent check and she was running behind on bills, he made a “big, tall wish” and a couple days later, the check was in the mail.
Bolie has a fight coming up that he’s sure to lose. In fact, he does lose, but time stops as Henry stares at the television, making his wish, and the roles reverse. Instead of Bolie being down and counted out on the mat, his opponent is, and everyone celebrates his victory. No one recalls any of the moments preceding the fight, like when Bolie punches a wall and injures his hand after getting into an argument with his asshole agent. Bolie speaks to Henry, who admits that he made the biggest wish ever, and Bolie says there’s no such thing as magic. Henry sobs, begging him to believe, but Bolie simply can’t. So we go back to the fight, Bolie’s back in his original losing position, and everyone is pissed at him. Everyone except for Frances and Henry. Henry, now world weary, says he doesn’t believe in magic and wishes anymore, because neither of them remember the alternate outcome where Bolie emerged victorious. But Bolie tells him that maybe there is such a thing as magic, but that there just aren’t enough folks out there to believe.
This episode works for me on so many levels. The reason I began the article with that quote from Serling was because he felt that black people were getting the shaft in acting roles. Back at that time, in most movies and television, there were mainly two types of roles for black people: offensive stereotypical caricatures and people struggling with racism/fighting for civil rights. (Kind of like today. Black folks often get the shaft in entertainment made by white people. You can be a sassy black woman, you can be a gangster or criminal, you can be a slave or someone struggling for civil rights in a period piece, but where are the roles where black are just, you know, people? Michael K. Williams even made a short about how the color of his skin and the scar on his face has plagued him to be typecast as a crook or slave, rather than a doctor or lawyer.) Rod wanted to show that black people can play any role a white person could play. And when you look at this episode, it’s kind of amazing because Bolie, Frances and Henry could have been played by white actors, Latinx actors, Asian actors, Native American actors, and it wouldn’t have changed the story one bit. Because these characters were just people. They weren’t the color of their skin, they were just human beings trying to get by in the Twilight Zone. Yet at the same time, I can’t imagine anyone performing in this episode besides Ivan Dixon, Stephen Perry and Kim Hamilton and making the kind of impression it did, no matter their race.
Another reason this episode works for me is the sincerity of it all. Some people have criticized it for being too saccharine, but I don’t see it that way. I find everything about it completely genuine. Bolie wears his heart on his sleeve, and his relationship with Henry is such a beautiful focal point of the whole episode. We don’t know the backstory on where Henry’s father is, so he has this sweet and somewhat paternal bond with him. And even though Frances is his landlady, the three of them almost seem to function as a family unit.
This was truly a groundbreaking episode of television that doesn’t get talked about enough. The NAACP commended Serling for the episode, and he was given the Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations. This episode also received the most amount of hate mail from racist assholes, something that Serling was a bit proud of. And while this was the first time he features black actors in prominent roles on the series, it would not be the last.
-The next episode we will be reviewing is Season Four’s “Miniature”, starring Robert Duvall.
-You can watch along on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, but for some reason, only Hulu has season four.