"The Big Tall Wish" was the 27th episode of The Twilight Zone, and was first broadcast in April of 1960. It starred Ivan Dixon as boxer Bolie Jackson, Steven Perry as a child named Henry, and Kim Hamilton as Steven Perry's mother, Frances. It was the first Twilight Zone episode to feature a primary cast that was all African-American. For an television show in 1960, this was a very bold decision.
Bolie Jackson is a journeyman boxer who is past his prime and preparing for a fight. He is staying in a boarding house, where he is friends with a young single mother, and her elementary school aged child. The boy tells Bolie about his power of wishing, which Jackson dismisses. Later on, during the boxing match, he loses, but Henry's power of wishing does indeed alter the outcome of the fight. Later on in the story, Bolie confronts Henry about the wish, insisting that magic and wishes aren't real. The story then resets to Bolie defeated in the match, and we see him come home in defeat, with both his dreams and Henry's dashed.
This story could be seen as a pedestrian story about learning to disbelieve the magical stories of childhood is transformed by the disappointments of the real world. But in a story with an African-American cast, it takes on an obvious meaning. Henry's wishes for Bolie aren't just the wish of a child, they are the wishes of a younger generation of African-Americans that they can escape the defeat and degradation they see their elders forced into. And in 1960, the impossibility of wishing seemed a very real thing: it seemed quite likely that there would be no advancement in civil rights for a generation. This was three years before Martin Luther King would make his speech, which like Henry's wishes, was about the power of hope. So the powerful story is even more powerful when we remember it came from a time when equality seemed improbable for the African-American community.
Apart from its message of aspiration, the presentation of African-American characters in this episode is also great. In American television, African-American characters are usually portrayed one of two ways: either as middle-class characters who are black in skin but have no cultural characteristics from the African-American community (in The Cosby Show, most famously) or either as buffoons and criminals. "The Big Tall Wish" depicts African-American characters who are poor, struggling and who talk with slang and black grammar, but who are still honest, hardworking and articulate. It manages to find a realistic middle ground, able to honestly depict the struggles of African-Americans while not portraying them as inferior. It is something that, sixty five years later, is still a rare thing to find in popular media.
This episode is one of the signs that The Twilight Zone was not just an excellent television program that managed to stretch and transform television conventions, but that it has lasting social value as well. I would recommend this as one of the best episodes I have seen so far.