What a Surprisingly Progressive Man From U.N.C.L.E. Episode Tells Us About the 1960s
I’ve been rewatching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It’s one of those shows that has its solid fanbase but otherwise has slipped into the mists of time…to the point where you can’t even stream it. (DVD.com has the discs, but otherwise you’ll have to actually rent it). Which is a shame, because it says a lot about the 1960s…and how far we haven’t come since.
The Indian Affairs Affair
(As a note, all episode titles of the show end with the word “Affair.” I’m fairly sure that John Downey was not so subtly homaging this by having every episode title of Leverage end with “Job,” but I’ve never had a chance to ask him).
When this episode showed up on the disc menu, I flinched. It’s been long enough since I watched that I only remember bits and pieces of episodes.
This episode originally aired on April 15, 1966, and we tend not to think of that as a particularly enlightened time in tribal relations. Despite the fact that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. tends to do better with gender than many shows, they really don’t do much with race. I figured it was going to be awful.
So, was it?
A Pleasant Surprise
Everything from now on is a spoiler.
The basic plot of “The Indian Affairs Affair” is that Thrush (The world’s equivalent of SPECTRE or A.I.M.) is building an atomic bomb and need a quiet place to do it.
They attempt to acquire this by extorting a fictional Native American group to let them use their remote desert reservation.
So, the very basic concept of the episode is “Awful white people are trying to steal your land. Again.”
And then the episode makes point, after point, after point.
The Innocent is the Chief’s daughter, Charisma, who has left the reservation to go to college in New York City…where she’s making money by “demonstrating tribal dances.” Which, of course, are an awful combination of belly dancing and stereotypical “Indian” gestures. Because it’s not meant to be authentic tribal dances. It’s a Native American being exploited.
When we first see the bad guy he’s sitting, dressed like a cowboy except for the hat, watching an old western. They have him put his feet up just so you can see the lack of stirrup wear on the boots. Not everyone would even get that.
Kuryakin puts on a terrible wig and an awful disguise to pretend to be a member of the tribe. This completely fools the bad guy because they all look the same to him. He is instantly recognized by everyone else.
Charisma is treated with absolute respect and no differently from any other Innocent by the agents. The bad guy, meanwhile, calls her by the S word and implies she’s a slut.
In other words, “The Indian Affairs Affair” is centered around one basic concept:
Bad people are racist.
Good people are not.
For the 1960s…
How Far Haven’t We Come
And the entire thing got me thinking. Star Trek (which first aired in September, 1966) is also progressive fiction, featuring a Black woman who “isn’t a maid” and often dealing with important issues such as abortion and race (albeit often clumsily). My favorite episode, “Devil In The Dark” is one of the best ways to address contact with an alien so alien you don’t recognize it as alive.
1966 was the year of:
Massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War
The start of desegregation in athletic recruiting
The founding of the National Organization for Women
The Freedom of Information Act.
Race riots in Cleveland, Lansing.
The creation of Kwanzaa.
So, where are we now?
We’re harassing Black athletes for protesting police brutality. Miranda rights have been eroded. Women still don’t have equal pay.
And we’re still having race riots.
At some point we’ve stopped going forward and in some areas gone backwards. The 1960s were a time when it looked like America was going to finally move beyond its past.
We still haven’t.
But we think we have. And I’m as guilty as anyone else, because guess what? I thought that episode was going to be terrible because we’ve “come so far.”
I needed a reminder that we haven’t.