Film in the United States
Film in the United States
Film in the United States
Motion pictures and large numbers of African Americans arrived in American cities simultaneously in the late nineteenth century. Black Americans came to cities in flight from the southern peonage that had replaced the institution of slavery after the Civil War. Their Great Migration in turn coincided with a similar migration from Europe. Movies, in their "primitive" days, when techniques of cutting and editing as a means of conveying a narrative had not yet been perfected, became the first medium of mass communications for the poor, teeming populations that filled northeastern cities toward the end of the nineteenth century.
Movies had played the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895, and in the following year opened at Koster and Bial's music hall in New York. Strikingly, in these early years African Americans often appeared on the screen in unmediated, unedited form and therefore devoid of some of the worst stereotypes with which they had been maligned by decades of southern novels, advertising logos, and popular songs. A shot of, for example, black soldiers watering their horses or dockers coaling a ship appeared on the screen untrammeled by the pejorative images of the past.
These topical vignettes were the result of a rage for news of events in the corners of the world. Thomas Edison filmed life in the Caribbean; others caught black "buffalo soldiers" on their way to the Spanish-American War, tribal ceremonies in Africa, and Theodore Roosevelt on safari.
Gradually after the turn of the century, the medium changed, both technically and economically. As the prospects for a profitable future opened up, producers began to cultivate more sophisticated techniques that allowed them to edit scenes into narratives along the lines set down by novelists and dramatists. The trend pointed toward a future cinema that would play to middle-class rather than poor audiences, in picture palaces rather than storefront nickelodeons, and at length rather than in the brief snippets with which the medium had begun its life.
For African Americans this meant a resumption of many conventions inherited from the nineteenth-century melodramatic, comic, and musical stage. Indeed, in 1903 William S. Porter brought Uncle Tom's Cabin to the screen, complete with overambitious attempts at spectacle—cakewalks, pursuits across ice floes, and even a race between miniature steamboats. Tom himself was more a figure drawn from the sentimental stage than Harriet Beecher Stowe's staunch hero.
Other restorations of familiar racial material gradually dominated the screen just as the medium began to emerge from a primitive, limited visual rhetoric. In A Bucket of Cream Ale (1904), a stock, obstreperous black-faced servant appeared; The Fights of Nations (1907) featured a razor fight; and comedies about chicken thieving and life in "coontown" became routine. From 1911 through 1915 movies sentimentalized the Civil War during the five years of its semicentennial. Rarely was there an opportunity for a genuine black portrayal to show through in A Slave's Devotion (1913), Old Mammy's Secret Code (1913), or For the Cause of the South (1914). Typical of the era was D. W. Griffith's His Trust (1911) and its sequel, a tale of the Civil War in which a slave is first entrusted with managing his master's estate while the latter is away fighting and then, after the master dies a hero's death, gives his own "savings" toward sending the master's daughter to finishing school so that she may meet and marry someone in her class.
It was at this moment that African Americans took their first steps toward an indigenous cinema. Local black entrepreneurs in Lexington, Kentucky, as early as the first decade of the century booked all-black films in their theaters. By 1912, William Foster in Kansas made The Railroad Porter with a black audience as his target. About the same time in Florida, James Weldon Johnson wrote two scripts for a company bent upon making films with an African-American angle.
Unfortunately for small-time entrepreneurs, the economic setting of moviemaking had begun to rationalize into competing oligopolies, even "trusts," in which everfewer sellers drove out competition for customers, who gradually included more demanding middle-class, urbane tastemakers. Edison's Motion Picture Patents Trust, for example, formed a pool of patents through which it hoped to control the entire nation's film output by licensing the use of cameras and projectors. In such a richly capitalized economic field, African Americans only a half century removed from slavery had little chance.
Then in 1915, D. W. Griffith—after years spent learning filmmaking and extending its range into techniques unforeseen in the primitive years—released his Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation. An evocative combination of conventional racial attitudes, a celebration of the Civil War and of the forbearance of the white South during Reconstruction, and a genuinely avant-garde piece of filmmaking, The Birth of a Nation galvanized African Americans and their white allies into a nationwide protest campaign. At issue were two major factors: first, its depiction of Reconstruction as a tale of black cupidity, corruption, and vindictiveness toward the prostrate white South, and second, the unprecedented nationwide advertising campaign, which further heightened the film's impact. It was this combination that nettled blacks. Most literate Americans believed the account of Reconstruction as portrayed therein, complete with its venal freedmen who did the bidding of scalawags and carpetbaggers (Woodrow Wilson had retold it in his multivolume history of the nation), but the couching of it in a blaring ad campaign and in an emotionally charged movie made the difference.
The NAACP fruitlessly conducted a national campaign against the movie, demanding cuts of scenes that "slandered" blacks, advocating strict legal codes against maligning races and groups, and instigating a plan to make its own movie, to be titled Lincoln's Dream. But despite the protesters' best efforts, by the end of 1915 The Birth of a Nation could be seen almost anywhere its makers wished, and Lincoln's Dream foundered for want of an "angel."
Nonetheless, the struggle against Griffith's film confirmed a number of African Americans in their embracing of a strategy of making movies alternative to those of the mainstream. Even Booker T. Washington, the famous founder of Tuskegee Institute and a reputed accommodationist in racial matters, took up the idea of making black movies. At first he feared that the makers of The Birth of a Nation might profit from the notoriety that would follow from a vigorous black protest, but soon, through his secretary Emmett J. Scott, he committed resources to a film eventually titled The Birth of a Race.
The Birth of a Race
Washington and Scott's movie seemed to possess everything: the endorsement of national worthies of the Republican Party; a script that traced the progress of humankind, while allocating a prominent place in it for African Americans; and a panel of rich angels led by Julius Rosenwald, a Sears and Roebuck vice president. But things fell apart. First, Washington died on November 15, 1915. Then, acting on rumors of unscrupulous practices among the project's Chicago fund-raisers, Rosenwald and other prestigious figures withdrew. And finally, with the onset of World War I, the thrust of the already episodic movie veered wildly from a pacifist theme to its ideological opposite—a justification of the American entry into the war. Thus, after almost three years of scrabbling for money, shooting in Tampa, and cutting through the thicket of cross-purposed story lines, the project changed. And yet the completed movie reached a level of accomplishment never previously attained by black moviemakers. They had actually completed a feature-length film, albeit one burdened by seemingly endless title frames that slowed its pace and shouldered aside its African-American premise in favor of militaristic themes.
The Lincoln Company
Moreover, readers of the black press noticed. Indeed, one man in particular, a postman in Omaha named George P. Johnson, saw the film as more than a grand flop. Together with his brother Noble Johnson, a contract player at Universal, he assembled a circle of black investors in Los Angeles into the Lincoln Company. From 1916 to 1922 they turned out an impressive string of films (of which only a fragment survives), all of them celebrations of the black aspiration embedded in one of the company's titles: The Realization of a Negro's Ambition.
Indeed, aspiration was emblazoned on the Johnsons' battleflags. It marked or guided everything they made, whether tales of black "buffalo soldiers" fighting Mexican insurrectes along the border or go-getters scoring successes in capitalist circles that few blacks would have had access to in the reality of American life. The Johnsons' rivals during the booming 1920s not only followed their example but extended its reach. Among these were the Frederick Douglass Company (with its Republican namesake on its letterhead), Sidney P. Dones's Democracy Company, and regional operations such as Gate City in Kansas, Ker-Mar in Baltimore, and Norman in Jacksonville and later Boley, Oklahoma. In the pages of the African-American press appeared dozens of announcements of additional companies, most of which did not survive long enough to see their first film to the screen.
Some studios, such as Norman, were conduits for the investments of white "angels" or were in fact white firms. Robert Levy's Reol Studio, for example, was a white-owned company that made films from well-known black classics such as Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods. To some extent this rush of activity merely testified to the wealth that had reached even black strata of urban life during the 1920s. But it also suggested the presence of a maturing film culture, drawing in a sector of the black population that was not only well off enough to buy tickets but also literate enough to read the growing amount of advertising copy, reviews, and show-business gossip that had begun to fill the pages of the African-American press.
The Black Audience
In other words, an audience had been formed by the black migrations to the urban centers of America, both North and South. The names of the theaters signaled the identity of the audience. No Bijous, Criterions, or Paramounts there but rather a Douglass or an Attucks to honor famous heroes, a Lenox, Harlem, or Pekin to provide linkages to increasingly well-known centers of black urban culture. This sort of social, institutional, and cultural density suggested the nature of this newly arrived audience: urban, literate, employed, affiliated in a circle of lodges and clubs, and church members. In short, the audience constituted a thin layer of bourgeoisie to whom movies spoke of aspiration, racial pride, and heroism, and cautioned against the evils of drink and sloth—much like a Booker T. Washington commencement address with pictures.
We can sense these social traits not only from the themes of the movies themselves but also from the critics who wrote about them: D. Ireland Thomas in the Mississippi Valley, Lester Walton of the New York Age, Theophilus Lewis in several papers in the New York area, Billy Rowe in the Pittsburgh Courier, Romeo Daugherty in the Amsterdam News, Fay Jackson for Claude A. Barnett's Associated Negro Press service, and other regulars on the Afro-American chain and even smaller papers. Augmenting their own acute criticism that seemed to be maturing toward a genuine African-American posture toward cinema were the syndicated columnists, who wrote gossipy copy for the Los Angeles Sentinel and the California Eagle —Ruby Berkeley Goodwin, Harry Levette, and Lawrence LaMar.
Micheaux and the Colored Players
Playing to this emerging audience in the 1920s were the elite of "race" film companies, either staunchly black firms such as that of Oscar Micheaux or white firms with a feel for the audience, such as David Starkman's Colored Players in Philadelphia. Micheaux, a peripatetic author who sold his own novels from door to door, entered the movie business in 1919 after a failed negotiation with Lincoln to produce his autobiographical novel The Homesteader. For much of the ensuing quarter century and more, he audaciously if not always artfully reached for effects and messages left untouched by his forebears. In his Body and Soul (1924) he featured the singer Paul Robeson in his only appearance in a race movie. In Within Our Gates (1921) he put his own spin on the infamous Leo Frank murder case in Atlanta. And throughout his career Micheaux played on themes of racial identity, often hinging his plots upon revelations of mixed parentage.
The Colored Players differed from Micheaux's group in that they not only calculatedly played to urban, eastern audiences but seemed to have a capacity for putting every dollar on the screen, with handsomely—even densely—dressed sets and more polished levels of acting. They did Dunbar's A Prince of His Race (1926), a black version of the temperance tract Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), and an original screenplay entitled The Scar of Shame (1927).
More than any other race movie, The Scar of Shame addressed the concerns of the urban black middle class. Although it teased around the theme of color-caste snobbery among African Americans, its most compelling argument was a call to rise above the lot that blacks had been given and to strive for "the finer things" despite adversity. But at the same time, as critic Jane Gaines (1987) has argued, their poor circumstances were given them not by a natural order but by a white-dominated system that blacks knew as the real puppeteer working the strings off camera.
For its part, Hollywood in the 1920s rarely departed from conventions it had inherited from southern American racial lore. Its high moments included In Old Kentucky (1926), in which the black romance was in the hands of the enduring clown Stepin Fetchit. In most movies blacks merely lent an atmosphere to the sets: Sam Baker as a burly seaman in Old Ironsides, Carolynne Snowden as an exotic dancer in Erich von Stroheim's Ruritanian romances, and so on. The decade also produced its own obligatory version of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
But with the coming of the cultural crisis wrought by the Great Depression of 1929 and after, blacks and whites shared at least fragments of the same depths of despair and were thrust together in the same bread lines and federal programs such as the Works Project Administration (WPA). In Hollywood the result was a run of socially and artistically interesting black roles and even a couple of tolerable all-black homages to the hard life the race lived in the South: Hallelujah! and Hearts in Dixie (both in 1929).
At the same time, Hollywood had also matured into a corporate system that had rationalized moviemaking into a vertically integrated mode of production, distribution, and exhibition. The result was a manufactured product marked by so many family traits that it could be labeled by some historians "the classic Hollywood movie." Typically, such movies told an uncomplicated tale in which engaging characters embarked on a plot that obliged them to fill some lack, solve a mystery, or complete a quest resulting in a closure that wrapped all the strands into a fulfilling dénouement.
Unavoidably, the African-American roles that filled out these plots owed more to the conventions of the moviemaking system than to the authentic wellsprings of everyday black life. Moreover, supporting this industrial/aesthetic system were the proscriptions set forth by Hollywood's self-censorship system, the Production Code Administration, or "the Hays Office." These dos and don'ts discouraged full black participation in any plot forbidding racial slander or miscegenation, so that almost no African-American "heavy" or villain could appear. Nor could any black person engage in any sort of close relationship other than that of master and servant.
Stepin Fetchit, for example, enjoyed a flourishing career during the Great Depression, but one severely limited in its range. In The World Moves On (1934) he had a rare opportunity to play a soldier in the French army, but only as a consequence of following his master into combat; in Stand Up and Cheer (1934) he joined the rest of the cast in fighting off the effects of the depression but was absent from pivotal scenes that centered on the white principals; and in the middle of the decade he appeared in a brief string of rural fables as a sidekick to Will Rogers's folksy Judge Priest or David Harum. Women had their moments as wise or flippant servants, notably Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life (1934) and Hattie McDaniel in Alice Adams (1935). Such a role eventually won McDaniel the first Oscar ever won by an African American: her "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind (1939). Whenever the script called for a character of mixed heritage, such as Tondelayo in White Cargo or Zia in Sundown, the Hollywood self-censorship system, the Hays Office, pressed the studios toward the cautious choice of casting white actors in the roles.
For African Americans, the combination of an increasingly factorylike Hollywood system and a lingering economic depression provided only scant hope of improved roles. And yet the coming of sound film technology opened a window of opportunity for black performers.
Already, theatrical audiences had been introduced to African-American musical performance in the form of rollicking revues such as the Blackbirds series and Marc Connelly's Pulitzer Prize–winning fable The Green Pastures, which he had drawn from Roark Bradford's book of tales, Ole Man Adam and His Chillun. Fleetingly, two major Hollywood studios—Fox and Metro—had responded with Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah! And both the majors and the independents offered hope for an African-American presence in sound films in the form of a rash of short musical films that lasted well past the decade.
The most famous of these one- or two-reel gems were Bessie Smith and Jimmy Mordecai's St. Louis Blues (1929)—which used not only W. C. Handy's title song but incidental choral arrangements by J. Rosamond Johnson, who, with his brother James Weldon, had written the "Negro National Anthem," "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"—and Duke Ellington's films Black and Tan and The Symphony in Black (1929 and 1935, respectively). Throughout the decade and beyond, stars of the jazz scene—Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and the Nicholas Brothers, among others—appeared in these shorts, which culminated with Lena Horne, the duo pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and the pianist Teddy Wilson in Boogie Woogie Dream (1944). By then such films had attracted the attention of white aesthetes such as the photographer Gjon Mili, who cast Illinois Jacquet, Sid Catlett, Marie Bryant, and others in his Jammin' the Blues (1946), which became a Life magazine Movie of the Week.
Late Race Movies
As for race-movie makers, the times were harder. Of the African Americans only their doyen, Oscar Micheaux, worked through the entire decade of the 1940s, albeit as a client of white capital sources such as Frank Schiffman, manager of the Apollo Theater. Now and again a newcomer such as William D. Alexander's All America firm or George Randol with his Dark Manhattan (1947) entered the field, but race movies too had matured into a system led mainly by white entrepreneurs such as Ted Toddy of Atlanta, Alfred Sack of Dallas, Bert and Jack Goldberg of New York, and Harry and Leo Popkin of Hollywood, whose loose federation was modeled on the classic Hollywood system.
As a result, race movies soon imitated Hollywood genres such as the gangster film and the western. Paradise in Harlem (1940), for example, featured a tale of a black gang bent upon taking over Harlem. The community, led by an actor (Frank Wilson), mounts a jazz version of Othello as a fund-raiser, and the play is so compelling that even gangsters are won over by its seductive beat and a black-themed Shakespeare. Westerns—Two Gun Man from Harlem, Bronze Buckaroo, and Harlem Rides the Range —also borrowed their formulas from Hollywood, particularly their satisfying closures that promised happy lives to the good people of the cast.
The Impact of World War II
No political event affected moviemaking more profoundly than did World War II. Even before the war reached America, Hollywood responded to it by forming an Anti-Nazi League and by cleansing its movies of the worst of racist traits, much as David O. Selznick tried to do when he told his writer to place African Americans "on the right side of the ledger during these Fascist-ridden times" as they began work on Gone with the Wind. Indeed, so successful was he that blacks were divided in their response to the Southern epic for which Hattie McDaniel became the first black ever to win an Oscar. In less splashy movies a similar impact of the war was felt. John Huston and Howard Koch included a strong black law student who stands up to a ne'er-do-well daughter of the southern gentry in their movie of Ellen Glasgow's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel in In This Our Life. And Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) helped to adapt Walter Wanger's Sundown (1941) to fit the changing politics brought on by the war.
The war provided a cultural crisis that weighed upon African Americans in several ways: The Allies' war aims included anticolonialism, the nation needed black soldiers and war workers, and black journalists campaigned to insist on such linkages, as the Pittsburgh Courier did in calling for a "Double V," a simultaneous victory over foreign fascism and domestic racism. Together with the NAACP, liberals within the Office of War Information and the Pentagon joined in a campaign to make appropriate movies. Two new trends resulted: government propaganda such as The Negro Soldier, Wings for This Man, and Teamwork, which asserted a black place in the war effort, and Hollywood films such as Crash Dive, Sahara, Bataan, and Lifeboat, which often integrated the armed forces before the services themselves acted to do so. Along with federal measures such as a Fair Employment Practices Commission, the movies contributed to a new political culture that rein-troduced the issue of racism to the arena of national politics.
After the war filmmakers emerged from their military experience to form a new documentary film culture bent upon making films of liberal advocacy, much as they had done during the war. The NAACP continued to lead this movement by urging wartime agencies to send their surplus films to schools, trade unions, and civil rights groups, constituting audiovisual aids for, as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP said, "educating white people now and in the future." Thus, informational films such as The Negro Soldier entered the civilian marketplace of ideas. In the same period a wartime antiracist tract by Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish became The Brotherhood of Man, an animated cartoon endorsed and distributed by the United Auto Workers. Another film of the era was The Quiet One, an account of a black boy of the streets who enters Wiltwyck School, an agency charged with treating such children. The fact that it enjoyed an unprecedented run in urban theaters perhaps contributed to Hollywood's decision to resume attention to the racial issues it had taken up during the war.
By 1949 Hollywood majors and some independent companies that had sprung up following the war produced peacetime versions of the war movies. The results were mixed. Louis DeRochemont's "message movie" Lost Boundaries focused on a New England village "black" family that had been passing as white, thereby blunting the main point, racial integration; Stanley Kramer's Home of the Brave did somewhat better by introducing a black soldier into an otherwise white platoon; Dore Schary's Intruder in the Dust faithfully rendered William Faulkner's book into film, including its portrayal of African Americans as icons of a sad past who could teach white people the lessons of history; Darryl F. Zanuck's Pinky provided a closure in which a black nurse learns the value of building specifically black social institutions; and Zanuck's No Way Out carried the genre into the 1950s, focusing tightly on a black family and neighborhood and their willingness to defend themselves against the threat of racism.
Taken as a lot, these message movies perpetuated the integrationist ideology that had emerged from the war and gave Sidney Poitier, James Edwards, Juano Hernandez, and others a foothold in Hollywood. Indeed, if anything, Hollywood only repeated itself in the ensuing decade, hobbling efforts to press on. Poitier, for example, after a few good films in the integrationist vein—The Blackboard Jungle (1954), The Defiant Ones (1959), and Lilies of the Field (1963)—was given few challenging scripts. Typical of the era was Alec Waugh's novel Island in the Sun, a book specifically about racial politics in the Caribbean, bought by 20th Century-Fox only to have its most compelling black spokesman written entirely out of the script. Black women fared little better, mainly because they were assigned only a narrow range of exotic figures, such as Dorothy Dandridge's title role in the all-black Carmen Jones (1954).
Not until the era of the civil rights movement—when such events as the Greensboro, North Carolina, student sitins of 1960 became daily fare on national television—would Hollywood try to catch up with the pace of events and TV's treatment of them. Even then, the most socially challenging themes were in movies made outside the Hollywood system, on East Coast locations or even in foreign countries. These included Shirley Clarke's harsh film of Harlem's streets The Cool World (1964); Gene Persson and Anthony Harvey's London-made film of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman (1967); Larry Peerce's cautionary tale about the stresses of interracial marriage, One Potato Two Potato (1965); Marcel Camus's Afro-Brazilian movie of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orfeo Negro (1960); and Michael Roemer's Nothing but a Man (1964), a pastoral film that was named by Black Creation magazine as the "greatest" of black movies.
Parallel to the civil rights movement, Hollywood itself experienced key changes in its institutional structure. Its production system became less vertically integrated and more dependent on sound marketing; federal laws began to require the active recruiting of blacks into studio guilds and unions from which they had been excluded by "grandfather clauses"; the old Hays Office censorship gave way to legal challenges and eventually to a liberalized system of ratings; and television assumed the role of seeking the steady audiences that B movies once had done. All these factors would alter the ways Hollywood treated race, but television had a particular impact.
In the 1960s television shows East Side/West Side, The Store Front Lawyers, Mod Squad, and Julia, social workers, idealistic attorneys, dedicated cops, and self-sacrificing hospital workers struggled on behalf of their clients, often against the social order itself. Television news and documentaries provided a tougher image for Hollywood to strive to emulate. Daily camerawork from southern streets and courtrooms recorded the agony of the region as it resisted African-American challenges to the status quo. The documentaries, whether on commercial or public television, occasionally emerged from black origins, such as William Greave's Black Journal. "TV Is Black Man's Ally," said the Los Angeles Sentinel, while Variety reported a new black stereotype: an "intensely brooding, beautiful black rebel."
Hollywood had little choice but to take the point, particularly since several studios were close to collapse. They stood on the verge of what came to be called the era of blaxploitation films. Black youth flocked to this cycle of jangling, violent, and shrilly political movies. Timidly at first, the majors fell to the task. But first, there were easily digestible crossover movies, such as the pastoral tales Sounder and The Learning Tree (both 1968), the latter an autobiography by the photographer Gordon Parks Sr. Then came the urban, picaresque heroes most often thought of as "blaxploitation" icons, who combined the cynicism of 1940s film noir style with the kinetic yet cool mode of the black streets. The most famous and probably the highest earner of rentals was Parks's MGM film Shaft (1970). The movies that followed, such as Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), constituted calls for direct and sometimes violent retribution against brutal police and exploitative mobsters.
Other movies in the cycle tried to remake white classics by reinventing them in African-American settings—Cool Breeze (from The Asphalt Jungle ), Blacula (Dracula ), The Lost Man (The Informer ). Some were derived from original material angled toward blacks, such as the cavalry western Soul Soldier.
Still another genre—"crossover" movies—sought a wider sector of the market spectrum in the form of material such as biographies of performers—Billie Holiday, Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter)—who had enjoyed followings among whites.
Yet whatever their uneven merits, the blaxploitation movies lost touch with the market. Their place was taken by Chinese martial-art fables, the work of purveyors such as Raymond Chow and Run Run Shaw, featuring impossibly adept warriors whose revenge motifs touched a nerve in the psyches of black urban youth. Soon the domestic makers of blaxploitation movies lost their market entirely so that African Americans reached the screen only as functionaries in conventional Hollywood features—police, physicians, and the like—or in prestigious, even reverent treatments of classics or successes from other media, such as Eli Landau's movie of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's South African musical Lost in the Stars, Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Story, and E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime.
Black Independent Film
Nonetheless, the era had revealed a previously unmeasured black marketplace that seemed ready for either the raffish or the political. Moreover, the combined impact of a thin wedge of black in the Hollywood guilds, an increase in African Americans' numbers in the university film schools, and the opening of television as a training ground resulted in a greater number of filmmakers and, eventually, a steady flow of independently made black films. Madeleine Anderson's combination of journalism and advocacy; St. Clair Bourne's access to black institutions, as in Let the Church Say Amen; Haile Gerima's syncretism of the pace and rhythms of East African life and the stuff of African-American life, mediated by film school experience, resulting in his Bush Mama; and William Miles's classically styled histories such as Men of Bronze and I Remember Harlem reflected the catholicity of the movement.
In addition to this focused sort of journalism of advocacy, the 1980s also resulted in a black cinema of personal dimensions, represented by Ayoka Chenzira's A Film for Nappy Headed People, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, Kathleen Collins's The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, and Warrington Hudlin's Streetcorner Stories and Black at Yale.
By 1990 one of this generation of filmmakers, Spike Lee, had—most notably because of his flair for self-advertisement and for shrewd dealing with established Hollywood—crossed over into the mainstream system. A product of film school as well as the most famous African-American association of the craft, the Black Filmmakers Foundation, Lee managed to glaze his movies of black life with a certain universalist charm that earned the sort of rentals that kept Hollywood financing coming. Somehow he conveyed the urgency, extremity, and drama of the arcana of black life—courtship, Greek letter societies, neighborhood territoriality, the tensions of interracial marriage—into a crescendo of ringing cashboxes. From She's Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, and Jungle Fever, he moved toward being entrusted with a Holy Grail of black filmmakers, a biography of Malcolm X that had been stalled for almost a quarter of a century by fears that its protagonist's memory and mission would be violated if placed in the wrong hands.
More than at any other moment in African-American film history, Lee's access to black life, classical training, black associations, and commercial theaters promised the continued presence and vision of African Americans in cinema rather than a reprise of the peaks and troughs of faddishness that had marked all previous eras of the medium.
The most insidious threat to their work continued to be that which touched everyone in Hollywood, not only the latest generation of African-American moviemakers: the unyielding fact that Hollywood was a system, a way of doing business that obliged newcomers to learn its conventions and the rules of its game. This was how fads and cycles were made: An innovative spin placed upon a familiar genre revivified it, drew new patrons into the theaters, and inspired a round of sequels and imitators that survived until the next cycle drew attention to itself. After all, even the most dedicated outlaws, Oscar Micheaux and Melvin Van Peebles, either borrowed money from the system or used it to distribute their work. Unavoidably their benefactors expected to shape their products to conform to the codes of conduct by which all movies were made.
Spike Lee and his age-cohorts were particularly successful, since many of them had gone to film school where learning the trade meant in many ways learning the Hollywood system. Lee's Malcolm X was a case in point. In order to celebrate, render plausible, and retail his hero and his image, Lee was drawn into the dilemma of not only making a Hollywood "bioepic" but also marketing it as if it were a McDonald's hamburger. The result was remarkably faithful to its Hollywood model: Its protagonist is carried along by his own ambition, revealing slightly clayed feet, as though more a charming flaw than a sin, faces implacable adversaries, is misunderstood by his friends and family, undergoes a revelatory conversion experience, is cast out by his coreligionists for having done it, and finally meets a martyr's death and a last-reel apotheosis. This formula, as stylized as a stanza of haiku poetry, in the hands of Lee was transformed into a vehicle for carrying a particularly reverential yet engaging black political idiom to a crossover audience.
Could Lee's successors and age-mates not only endure but also prevail over their medium? Lee himself fretted over their future: "We seem to be in a rut," he told a black film conference at Yale in the spring of 1992. His concern was directed not so much at the Hollywood establishment but rather to the young African-American filmmakers who had followed him to Hollywood: John Singleton, who at age twenty-three had made Boyz N the Hood; Matty Rich, who while still a teenager had made Straight Out of Brooklyn; and Lee's own cameraman, Ernest Dickerson, who had made Juice; each one of them set in a black ghetto, each centered on a protagonist at risk not so much from forces outside his circle but from within, and each marked by a fatalism that precluded tacking on a classic Hollywood happy ending.
Indeed, forces of daunting economic power seemed to hover over the new black filmmakers even as old-line Hollywood producing companies turned out attractive packages in which black themes and characters held a secure place. First, despite various gestures, the studios had hired woefully few black executives so that every project was pitched to persons uncommitted to its integrity. Second, the topmost owners of the system were more remote than ever, as in the case of the Japanese firm Sony, which owned both Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star. Third, each new film, upon its release, faced a round of rumors of impending violence that would mar its opening. Fourth, some movies drawn from black material seemed lost in the welter of ghetto movies, much as Robert Townsend's chronicle of the careers of a black quintet of pop singers, The Five Heartbeats, sank from view without having reached the audience it deserved. Fifth, some black films, such as Julie Dash's Daughter of the Dust, a rose-tinted history of an African-American family in the Sea Islands of the Carolina low country, were so unique in texture, pace, and coloring that they were played off as esoteric art rather than popular culture. Sixth, Hollywood itself seemed ever more capable of portraying at least some aspects of black life or at least drawing black experiences into closer encounters with white. John Badham's The Hard Way (1992) featured the rapper LL Cool J as an undercover policeman of such depth that the actor felt "honored" to play him. Black critics almost universally admired the quiet depth of Danny Glover's role as a steady, rock-solid tow-truck driver in Grand Canyon (1992). And in the work of Eddie Murphy at Paramount (where he sponsored "fellowships" designed to add to the talent pool of minority writers) and in other movies such as White Men Can't Jump, the absurdities of race and racism in America were portrayed with arch humor.
At its height during the gestation period of Lee's Malcolm X, the trend toward a Hollywood-based African-American cinema seemed problematic and open either to a future of running itself into the ground as the movie-makers of the Super Fly era had done, falling prey to coop-tation by the Hollywood system, or constantly searching out new recruits who might be the answer to Susan Lehman's rhetorical query in her piece in GQ (February 1991): "Who Will Be the Next Spike Lee?"
Although African Americans have been shut out of many of the major film awards over the years, progress was made in 2001 when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Actor respectively. At the 2002 Academy Awards, Sidney Poitier received an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award.
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thomas cripps (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005