by David Hudson
Note: This is a revised and revamped version of "SFBFF: Experience and Empowerment."
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Beginnings: A Separate Cinema
We can argue endlessly about whether DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation ought to be praised for its groundbreaking achievements in the evolution of a new cinematic language or condemned for its blatant racism (and, as I've argued before, I say, both, simultaneously), but for everything else it accomplished, it also so alarmed a handful of separate groups of black businessmen that they sprang to action to create films and film production companies to counter the message of what was then, in 1915, America's box office smash.
There had, of course, been films made by both black and white filmmakers before Birth. In fact, five years before, William Foster, an African-American press agent in Chicago, made The Pullman Porter, the first film with a black cast. Foster created the Foster Photoplay Company and went on making shorts with actual African-Americans in them rather than whites in blackface, as was sickeningly common in those days. In Celluloid Mavericks, Greg Merritt celebrates the pioneer: "Foster forged a path towards self-empowerment. In just a few years, race pictures would grow into an important independent industry, though it would be more than half a century before the first African-American directed a studio feature."
What Griffith unwittingly inspired, though, was a wave of black people taking the means of film production and distribution into their own hands. Emmet J. Scott, formerly Booker T. Washington's secretary, rounded up the finances to make the film that eventually became the three-hour-plus The Birth of a Race. In New Jersey, the founding of the Frederick Douglass Film Company can be directly attributed to Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and actor Noble B. Johnson and his brother, George, launched the Lincoln Motion Picture Company "to picture the Negro as he is in his every day, a human being with human inclination, and one of talent and intellect."
With the 20s came the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing of African-American literature and the arts, as well as a surge in the popularity of jazz and - despite (or, maybe, because of) the fact that movie theaters were still segregated - hundreds of new cinemas for African-Americans, around 700 by 1928. It's from this period that we can find the earliest examples of black cinema currently available on DVD. AKrizman, in his extraordinarily helpful review of the "African American Cinema" volume of the Origins of Film Collection, argues that Frank Peregini's Scar of Shame is the best film of the bunch, but also notes of Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates that it "will always have a place in movie history for being the earliest surviving feature directed by a black man. Unfortunately, it has nothing else going for it. Its production values and acting are amateur even by 1920 standards."
And right there is the dilemma inherent in the work of Oscar Micheaux. This grandson of slaves was a one-man movie assembly line, writing the novels his films would be based on and peddling these self-produced, self-directed works from town to town, theater to theater. And yet many would agree with AKrizman. For J. Hoberman, the singularity of Micheaux's work is a double-edged sword, and in Film Comment ("Bad Movies," 1980), he wrote that "Edward Wood may be the Worst, but Oscar Micheaux is the Baddest - with all that that implies." Micheaux does have his defenders. Armond White, writing in Africana.com, reminds us that we have to keep in mind the social context of his films:
Such films as Body and Soul, Birthright and Within Our Gates were made with the audience's political needs - and its emotional appetite - foremost in Micheaux's consciousness.... Although Micheaux was from the Midwest, he pursued the interests of Southern blacks. His movies were informed by the social perspectives that developed in the black American south and then spread northward during the Great Migration.
The Depression pretty much did in the "race movies" as an industry for nearly a decade, but the studios began to take an interest in the market they'd been neglecting. Blacks were cast in stereotypical roles in musicals like Fox's Hearts in Dixie and MGM's Hallelujah, but there was one actor who shook things up with his second major movie role (his first, as it happens, was in Micheaux's Body and Soul): Paul Robeson. Emperor Jones (1933) in particular, about a man who escapes a chain gang to a Caribbean island he eventually takes over, would be held up for decades as a model screen portrayal of an African-American who, even if only for a while, takes control of his own destiny.
But for the most part, throughout the 30s and well into the 40s, blacks were confined to demeaning clichés all but defined by Hattie McDaniel's "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind (1939). The number of movie theaters for black audiences was back up to just over 600 again by 1946 but, as Merritt writes:
By the late forties, most independent race pictures (virtually all of which were produced, directed and distributed by whites) fit into one of two categories: (1) broad, lightweight comedies wherein performers like Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit stand on a sparse set and crack tired jokes, and (2) musical revues where the slimmest of plots are mere excuses for lively musical numbers from legends like Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Some in that second category aren't to be entirely dismissed, of course, and you'll definitely want to scan David Powers's notes taken on a talk Jonathan Rosenbaum gave in 2003 on a collection of noteworthy jazz films.
While the studios carried on producing musicals with all-black casts directed by whites (e.g., Cabin in the Sky, directed by Vincente Minnelli, or Stormy Weather, directed by Andrew Stone, both 1943; the last of these would be Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones in 1954), black filmmakers were increasingly forced to turn to white financiers and turning out series of genre flicks - westerns and gangster films with all-black or mixed casts. Still, by the mid-50s, independent black cinema was all but dead, killed off by rising production costs, television, and most of all, as Merrit points out, integration. Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, and soon enough, Sidney Poitier would become household names, but they were starring in studio productions. Time, then, to consider the testy relationship between African-Americans and Hollywood.
Late 50s and 60s: Hollywood's Door Cracks Open
Hollywood scrambled to make up for a lot of lost ground with the Academy Awards ceremony in 2002. Besides handing the top acting awards to Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, there would be an honorary Oscar that night for Sidney Poitier. Which was, after all, his second. In 1964 - a watershed year: the Civil Rights Act and the Nobel Peace Prize for Martin Luther King Jr., following the March on Washington the year before - Poitier became the first African-American to win an Oscar for a lead role for his performance in Lilies of the Field. Starting out on Broadway, Portier segued into a movie career that would be at its strongest from the mid-50s to the mid-60s, a crucial period in race relations to say the least, and in his choice of roles, he didn't shy one bit from hot button issues.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The Defiant Ones (1958) portrayed a white and black man literally chained to each other - a fairly overt image - while Poitier's realistic turns in films such as The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and A Raisin in the Sun (1961) were surely eye-openers to much of America's white middle class who'd grown to expect to see their prejudices confirmed at the movies. Poitier broke the color barrier in comedy (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, 1967), the love story (A Patch of Blue, 1965) and the cop drama (In the Heat of the Night, 1967). We are, of course, still talking about popular movies, where mass impressions are made and public opinion is shaped. These were not all firsts - in 1964, for example, the independent film One Potato, Two Potato brought, with a budget of $230,000, the first interracial marriage to the screen - but Poitier was taking these themes to wide audiences for the first time.
Even so, though he would continue to act, produce and direct in the 70s and stage a few comeback performances in the 90s, the late 60s brought such tumult and change, the world seemed to catapult right on past him. Poitier's emphasis on dignity, such a vital message when he was starting out, didn't jibe too well with the flashy anger that bubbled to the surface in the era of blaxploitation (which we'll get to in a moment).
By 1999, African-Americans were comprising 20 percent of the movie-going public but only 2.4 percent of the Directors Guild of America membership. No blacks at all were given a shot at helming a picture for a studio until 1969 when Gordon Parks wrote, produced and directed The Learning Tree for Warner Bros.
What the studios were interested in, though, was casting a proven African-American draw - usually a comedian - alongside a white partner who'd get the girl. It's a pattern seen from the days of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (in Stir Crazy , for example, directed, interestingly enough, by Poitier) all the way through Men in Black (1997) and its sequel (2002).
Only Eddie Murphy, who started out working the formula, sharing equal billing with Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs. (1982), then wrestled it to the ground with the Beverly Hills Cop series until that white partner was gone and he was pulling in top dollar on his own - before, of course, his career evaporated somehow by the late 90s. But not only hasn't there been a black Hollywood player since with the clout he had at his peak, Murphy can and should be credited with at least attempting to take a risk or two and make the most of that clout with the two films he had the most creative control over, Harlem Nights (1989) and Boomerang (1992). Neither really work, but Boomerang is particularly noteworthy for its cast of affluent African-Americans who take next to no note of their own affluency.
But back to the timeline of African-American independents. It hits a major surge in 1971, the year of both Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft. The short but spectacular era of blaxploitation (chronicled by Sweet director Melvin Van Peebles himself in Classified X and in 2002's Baadasssss Cinema) gave the world a look so distinct it's sure to be revived (and yes, parodied) every so many years. In fact, one recent indie success story, Undercover Brother (2002), is based on a series of webtoons paying both respectful and satirical tribute to the giant 'fros, buxom babes and funky beats of 30 years ago.
Sweet was made for $500,000 (ten percent of which came from Bill Cosby, by the way) and grossed $15 million. The X-rating slapped on it was a boon to Van Peebles who promptly turned it into an advertising slogan: "Rated X by an all-white jury." As for Shaft, it was directed by Gordon Parks himself and was followed up a year later by another flick in the same vein with just as memorable a theme song and directed by his son, Gordon Parks, Jr.: Superfly.
The term "blaxploitation" is still just as controversial as the films were back then. For some, it should only be applied to the flicks churned out by the studios that mimicked the look and storylines of black independent films or even to white-run independent production companies such as Roger Corman's American International Pictures (AIP), which saw very nice returns indeed on Pam Grier vehicles such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). But it was also a two-way street. When AIP scored with Blacula (1972), the reply was Ganja & Hess (1972), a film many argue soars far and above the exploitation flick it was originally meant to be.
And then there are those for whom "blaxploitation" has, over time, become a more generic term handily referring to an overall, on-the-fly style and underworld settings shot through with drugs and revenge and gunfire. Which is why not all blacks embraced them, no matter how empowering their message might be. Black writers, civil rights leaders and the NAACP began to come down hard on these movies, but by the mid-70s - some argue, quite specifically, with the release of Jaws (1975) - they needn't have worried any longer. Urban audiences were tiring of the formulaic plots at just about the same time Hollywood was perfecting its formula for the blockbuster. As blaxploitation waned, so did independent African-American film until the next watershed year, 1986.
Continue to Part Two...