Bruno began the class by talking about a prominent African American filmmaker named Oscar Micheaux who, although not a well regarded mainstream filmmaker, still directed many films during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. He passed around an anthology book that included Micheaux. From this he segued into a clip from Micheaux’s film Within Our Gates(1920). The clip began with a lynching scene. Then it showed a white man trying to rape a black woman, which was interpreted as a response to the scene in Birth of a Nation(1915) in which black men seek to rape a white woman. After Micheaux there were no more African American filmmakers or films geared towards an African American audience until the Blaxploitation era.
Next Alex gave a reading presentation on Guerrero’s reading, “Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation.” Alex explained how Blaxploitation was primarily caused by the “awakening of Black America” by which the black culture becomes a prominent subject of films during an era between the late 60’s and early 70’s. However, films meant to be geared towards a black audience such as Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner(1967) were criticized for portraying black characters inaccurately. Bruno brought up the “Sydney Poitier” type which was the rich and educated archetype. Black audiences wanted the anger and the sexuality that had so characterized their culture. Films such as these did not speak to the black audience and as a result the subject matter of these films turned to a more radical portrayal.
Films were made with all black casts such as Peeples’ Sweetback, which carried with it a large aspect of unchecked sexuality. Radical films such as these would reflect the “awakening consciousness” of “Black America.” Action crime thrillers dominated and “badass black heroes” became the main protagonist seen in these movies such as Gordon Parks’ Shaft(1971). Alex explained that at the heart of Blaxploitation was this tension between integration and segregation. The shift to a more radical subject matter made it clear that African Americans wanted to remain a separate culture and sphere.
We then began a discussion of audience bias towards what we see on screen and how the portrayal of African Americans on the screen does and doesn’t combat racism and stereotyping. Audience bias was brought to light when someone pointed out how small of an amount of films there are, both past and present, that have an integrated cast in which the juxtaposition between black and white is not addressed as a subject in the film, but merely accepted. In addition, although there are prolific amount of African American actors today, many are still type casted.Thus the stereotype is still propagated in media and distinction and separation continues. One student brought up how Morgan Freeman stated that the first step towards ending racism is to stop talking about it; he stressed that the identification of a human need not include ethnic distinction.
Bruno mentioned Howard Zin who argued against people who were surprised by the cultural shift during the 60’s and 70’s. He believed that it was silly considering that these cultural shifts had been occurring for centuries and that the collective experiences of a culture gradually builds and builds until it explodes in a radical structural shift.
We ended the class by watching a clip of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Bruno referenced Garrell who put forth that the problem with Kramer’s film is that the protagonist is planning on marrying a woman only after ten days. He states the issue is not with the white family’s acceptance of the protagonist because he is too likable. He is rich, educated, respectful, and morally sound. Bruno also mentioned Clifford Mehzen who came up with the “sin syndrome.” This concept is another issue with supposedly “black championing films” in which black characters help white characters solve white problems.