“It's a very nice honor to be included in the list of 100 Great Stories. The other 99 stories are impressive,” said Saltzman. “Black on Black was the first TV documentary to show what life was like for an African-American living in an urban ghetto in the mid-1960s. It was the first time average people had a chance to tell their story to a wide audience. At the time of the documentary, there were few African Americans on television, much less everyman and woman.”
The documentary premiered on CBS three years after the 1965 Watts Riots, a handful of violent days that, according to Saltzman, shocked and confused the nation. He recalls having proposed the idea several times to the CBS news director and, until the riots, had the idea turned down every time. Due to the lack of coverage and presence of African Americans on television and in the media, the riots, as well as his documentary, took the public by surprise.
The groundbreaking documentary, filled with in-depth interviews from African American Angelenos about everything from urban culture and music to hairstyles and daily life, defined Saltzman’s career for the next decade. The former associate dean was one of the first documentary filmmakers to produce, write and report on social issues. According to USC Annenberg Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, in less than a decade, Saltzman produced six innovative and impactful documentaries, winning more than 50 awards. Years prior to Columbia University’s 100 Great Stories recognition, Black on Black received the Edward R. Murrow Award, the first NAACP image award and a regional Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
“I judged the success of the documentary not on how many awards it won or how good the critical notices were, but on its acceptance in the black community,” described Saltzman at the 40th anniversary screening of Black on Black. “One of the greatest complements I received was when a senior African American woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said she thought in her lifetime she would never see folks on television.”
Based on the recognition that has persisted after four and a half decades, Saltzman believes Black on Black will be current as a historical document of its time for as long as people are interested in history. In celebration of Columbia Journalism School’s centennial, 100 Great Stories honors a compilation of 100 stories reported, investigated, written, produced, filmed, edited, photographed, anchored or Tweeted by Columbia graduates.
According to the centennial website, the stories selected demonstrate the historic sweep of Columbia journalists’ work and their curiosity, courage, compassion, diversity, persistence and versatility.