News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 22, 2013

In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Youths encouraged to ‘visually’ read messages in films, TV programs

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Some people don’t know how to read subtle messages in films and television programs these days.

It’s the messages inside the message that give more meaning to the production, young people learned Monday during the MLK Jr. Youth Summit.

“Learning to read visually is part of your education,” said Vaun Monroe, assistant professor of film and video at Columbia College in Chicago. “Don’t ignore it, and dismiss it.”

Television has become so like background noise in American culture, that people get tuned out to the subtle messages -- such as an absence of strong African-American families depicted in dramas or comedies, or minority role models for children. People might think that just because they see what’s on television, they understand the messages coming at them.

“It’s like people who have been eating their whole lives, and think they are a chef,” Monroe said.

He played a segment of the movie “Boycott” for student groups attending the youth summit at the Booker T. Washington Community Center on South 13th Street. The movie included footage of Rosa Parks, an African-American woman who was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, sparking the year-long Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955 to 1956.

The movie, Monroe explained, used a montage of images to show that an entire community was fighting the racial segregation of Montgomery. And many of the real images in the movie, and the American civil rights movement, were also seen by the world through the then-new medium of television.

“Part of the reason the civil rights fight was so effective is because it was on television,” Monroe told the youngsters, many of whom were born 40 years after the bus boycott.

The film showed abuse by police, such as firehoses used to spray peaceful protesters, or police dogs attacking children.

“Those images were so shocking that people from all around the country and around the world came to help fight the fight,” he said. So, television had an important effect on society by showing the violence that previously had been reported but not always believed.

Monroe translated the impact of television and film to today’s society, asking the youths to more closely examine the television programs they watch now.

“Do those characters look like you?” he asked.

Until the last five years or so, the positive images of people on television have been predominantly white, Monroe said. That has changed some, but it can still be difficult for young people to see positive images of people like themselves.

When one girl pointed out that the movie “The Princess and the Frog” portrayed a brown-skinned princess, Monroe noted that the character was brown for only about 25 percent of the movie. The rest of the time she was a green frog.

He encouraged the youths to see those kind of undercurrents in media, because they are powerful.

“TV and film help shape the society you live in,” he said.

The youths were hard-pressed to come up with positive role models of color on television shows. Even high-profile movie stars such as Denzel Washington have taken to playing violent or corrupt characters. But there is some value in turning a critical eye to TV, because it can also be surprisingly good.

“The conversation that television is a wasteland is not true,” Monroe said. “This is the best TV that anyone has ever had at any time.”

The annual MLK Jr. Youth Summit is organized by the Terre Haute Human Rights Commission. Sponsors this year were Ivy Tech Community College, Hamilton Center Inc., Vigo County School Corp., First Financial Bank, Indiana State University and Terre Haute Savings Bank, with contributions from Pepsi, Baesler’s Market, Walmart south and Walmart east.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.