From the early 1960s and into the 1970s, when very few Black people were represented above the line in the television industry, trailblazer Robert L. Goodwin was writing scripts for major shows such as “Bonanza,” “Julia” and “All in the Family.” He became one of the first Black screenwriters in the industry after writing, producing and co-starring in “The Upper Chamber,” a drama about four men on death row contemplating their lives in their final hours. Goodwin’s screenplay, which had largely been forgotten, is being shown for the first time in Los Angeles since 1977 at an event hosted by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The screening will also feature an episode he wrote for the TV series “Insight” called “The Death of Simon Jackson,” which reflects on the life of a fictional black poet.
The event will be introduced by Ina Archer, media conservation and digitization specialist for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, followed by a Q&A with Goodwin’s son, Robert Goodwin Jr.
We spoke with Archer about the archival process and “The Upper Chamber.”
As media conservation and digital archivist for the museum, what are your goals for “lost” works such as “The Upper Chamber”?
The goals are to find and uncover the films to try to understand: what their original look was; how the filmmaker wanted the films to exist; help restore them to that kind of look or sound or style as much as possible; and preserve them so that we have copies of these works to go into perpetuity. By working on and showing this film, we are helping return Robert L. Goodwin to the status that he deserved, to his place in history in the innovation and development of early television and independent filmmaking. And as one of the very few African American screenwriters working in television in the 60s and 70s and going into the 80s, his contributions are really important and need to be more recognized.
Do you know what struggles he may have faced as one of the first Black screenwriters in the television industry?
I’m not sure what his struggles were at the time, but when he breaks away and starts to work on his dream film project, “Black Chariot,” I think you could see the fight he was being brought into or where there were struggles. So it was helpful to have the connections in television that he did have at the time and which established him in a solid career. But at the same time, he wanted to make a film for and supported and funded by the Black community, and I think he had to kind of cut himself away from his work or his lifestyle working as a regular writer in the Hollywood setting. I feel like his scripts, in a way, talk about what his struggles could have been.
Another film that came out in 1968, “Uptight,” has a similar kind of quality about a person who’s caught between a very severe Black organization and just trying to live his own life while also trying to be a moral person.
Are there parallels between “The Upper Chamber” and “The Death of Simon Jackson”? Both portray a sort of limbo between two approaches to Black activism.
In the archive collection of Robert Goodwin, there are lots and lots of script drafts that are both handwritten and typed version. Having read their synopses, I think this kind of struggle of being seen as a full person but also recognized as an African American and the person-in-relation-to-larger-community themes seems to run through a lot of the scripts.
What are your thoughts on “The Upper Chamber”?
I think everything about the video is exemplary. I was like, oh boy — one set, some men in prison — this is going to be a slog. And it’s not at all. It’s really simple, the dialogue is great and the acting is wonderful. You learn a lot about the characters through the dialogue, like family relations and other things affecting them. Then there are these amazing shots that sort of travel into a biblical realm and are really inventive. Maybe that’s some of his theatrical background, but it’s really married well to the technical abilities of the time for a live filming of a television program.
How did the National Museum gain access to “The Upper Chamber”?
The Goodwin family expressed interest in having someone come and look at this collection that they had. Based on Robert L. Goodwin’s resume and his relationship to other early figures, it seemed like a great opportunity to work with the family. They decided to have the collection be acquired by the museum. We’re lucky to get the collection, and I think it’s great that we have a chance for Robert Goodwin to be represented in a national museum.