When the subject is race, people shut up. They don’t want to talk about it, especially in mixed company. Few seem willing to speak openly or candidly, for fear of being called a racist. And as a result, questions and answers, issues and problems, simply don’t get discussed thoroughly and honestly in America today.
Instead, ignorance festers, fear grows, stereotypes persist, segregation increases.
Experiment in Black and White is a groundbreaking documentary project designed to help change all that.
Experiment in Black and White brings five Black and five White Chicago-area residents (all strangers to one another) together for one week, sequestering them inside a home. They live, eat, sleep, socialize, and debate race-related issues with one another.
They leave their jobs and their families behind, all with the same goal: to break down barriers, to work through their prejudices and biases, and to better educate both themselves (and the hundreds of thousands of people who would end up watching the project). The participants are selected with the assistance of race relations experts.
The group is given daily assignments and tasks, designed and facilitated in part by professors from the University of Illinois, Northwestern, DePaul, and other schools. They converse about everything from slavery reparations and racial profiling, to affirmative action and the use of the ‘n’ word. There are discussions about discrimination and crime, language and behavior, and cultural and sociological perceptions. The conversations are eye opening, provocative, and sometimes controversial. Yet they’re also rational, meaningful, and substantive.
In the end, much of what is expressed publicly by these participants often echoes the views of the general public–opinions and feelings many people may voice privately but fear or resist saying aloud because of the potential repercussions in our politically correct culture. In Experiment in Black and White, the housemates are refreshingly and sometimes stunningly honest. There is no tiptoeing around any issue whatsoever. Though all arrive ready to defend their strong opinions, they’re also willing to change them if convinced otherwise.
Some issues are definitely unresolved, but it’s safe to say that everyone involved in this project gains a better understanding of one another. Each person works diligently towards bridging the racial divide.
The ten participants of Experiment in Black and White.
Many journalism critics and awards panels lauded the project. The Chicago Sun-Times called it “bold and eye-opening. Rarely has local television news confronted real-life prejudices with as much courage and honesty.”
A judge in the national Scripps Howard Foundation awards contest (in which Experiment in Black and White won the top broadcasting honor for 2001) declared, “It brings to light racial hot points so near the surface that the revelations are both alarming and enlightening.”
Experiment in Black and White was also awarded a national Emmy for Community Service Excellence from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS), a national Edward R. Murrow award for Best Documentary from the Radio and Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), a National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) award for Best Documentary, and a national American Scene Award from the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). The project also won regional Best Documentary awards from the Associated Press, the Chicago Press Veterans Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.
A year later, in 2002, a sequel of sorts was produced to equal acclaim: Experiment: Gay and Straight. After its local television debut, it was accepted into and shown at 22 international film festivals.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the project, eight of the ten original participants agreed to take part in an in-depth Q&A in 2021, to reflect on the lasting impact of the project in general, and on their lives. In addition, the entire documentary and two reunions with the participants have been combined into a streaming video and made available, for free, to the public for the very first time.
The original Experiment in Black and White electrified TV screens, and its message is clearly needed once again. Every day there are new reports of a growing, race-related divide in the United States. The Reporters Inc. believes that this Experiment deserves to be revisited and re-made.
The Reporters Inc. has held discussions about producing a new version of Experiment in Black and White with American Public Television and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as local PBS stations from Maryland to Houston. All have expressed interest, and a desire, to broadcast an updated re-make.
A new Experiment in Black and White promises to be a fresh voice and an intriguing alternative to the typical and often divisive race-related reporting that saturates the media today. Please contact us at 612-333-3180 or at if you’d like to help us make this project happen.
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