Bruno started our class by introducing Oscar Micheaux, an African-American film director who produced race films. He was not a mainstream filmmaker but is considered one of the most successful African-American filmmaker of the first half of the twentieth century. Within Our Gates (1920) was Micheaux’s second silent film and was often considered to be the response of Birth of a Nation (1915). We watched the excerpt of the movie, which began with a lynching scene followed by a scene where a white male attempts to rape a black female. The movie depicted the unfair treatment that black people experience and became controversial and banned in some cities. Hence, Micheaux stopped making racially bold films in his later career.
Then, we watched some parts of Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), showing somewhat a unrealistic case where a black male is in good position. We saw the scene when Dr. John, an African American physician, asks for the acceptance of engagement with Joey, an upper class white female, to her parents. The scene portrays the discomfort of Joey’s parents and Dr. John’s educative manner in the conversation. We commented that the director tried to illustrate the good image of the blacks by not making Dr. John fight for the marriage but instead ask politely in a sophisticated way. Not only Dr. John’s manner but also his having no relationship with the black community was also unrealistic and quite un-agreeable according to the cultural and social atmosphere of 1960s.
We shifted our focus to Melvin van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). We talked about how contrasting Dr. John and Sweetback were in that Dr. John is devoid of sexual interaction whereas Sweetback’s life is very much intact with sex. The depiction of sex is more like a rape than an act of love in this film and this is exemplified in the very first scene where Sweetback loses his virginity to a prostitute and himself later becoming a sex slave. However, although he possesses the qualities of strong male figure, such as physically masculine body and sexual activeness, Sweetback does not seem have any power as he does not enjoy sex and the entry of his manhood was prostitution. Even his name, Sweetback, is the remnant of the rape, showing his whole identity is shaped around sex. Moreover, we only see women seeking Sweetback for sex and no other reason which also implies that Sweetback serves no purpose other than sex, making him deprived of any human feature.
We then discussed about the following question: What constitutes a black film? The first response we made is that it has to be made by a black community just as the Sweetback movie started in the black community. Building onto that, we said that the narrative or the point of view must reflect the black community and its sentiment. Therefore, we concluded that the filmmaker should be a person who is closely related to the black community. However, we then questioned whether minority individual can make art that can be successful and agreed that the director must compromise between what he/she desires to depict and what the audience expects to see.
The blacks in this movie were depicted merely as tools to help whites solve their problems. We then talked about how the perception of black people have changed throughout time and how they have made so much progress in film industry, giving Tyler Perry, who was named the most profitable filmmaker in 2011, as an example. However, we also pointed out that Tyler Perry is not mainstream but very stereotypical, making films that only have entertainment value. We concluded that the black people are still in the position that helps out white people and that although time has passed the content remains the same.