The article frames Hollywood cinema as a closed system, in which black people are not only portrayed in a manner that is stereotypical, dehumanizing, two dimensional, but also exploited professionally while victimized by the parameters of a Caucasian-centric industry and national culture. “The rise of this ideologically conservative cycle of production came to be known as the cinema of recuperation,” in which Black people were portrayed as stereotypical caricatures subtly “refashioned and resurfaced” in Hollywood films for three consecutive decades beginning in the late 1960s.
“Blaxploition” or “black exploitation” began with the films: Rocky (1976), “which featured an implied racial contest and the triumph of the ethnic white working class”, and Star Wars (1977), “with a white versus black allegory that celebrated the recovery of a patriarchy and a technological militarism,” as two pivotal box-office successes of the 1970s.
While the 1980s experienced a rather contradictory occurrence for black cinema: when Eddie Murphy entered the scene, as Hollywood’s most popular black actor and ticket selling enticement for white America. Eddie Murphy also provided a source of racial and class tension in the films he starred. His blackness confronted the issue of “white exclusion, but not so far as commenting on white domination or [white] privilege.” And though he became a box-office smash, the disadvantage of “such a one-dimensional blackness is reduced to the white environment.” Murphy’s over-abundant sex drive in 48 Hrs. (1982), and for example, the depiction of the black characters in Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) as sexual Neanderthals like bullies, not to mention, the black woman throughout dominant cinema, as a representation of the oversexed, or “even the sexually indeterminate construction of Whoopi Goldberg’s character,” prove this point of one-dimensionally written black characters. America’s attraction to Murphy however, is due to “his paradoxical-positioning at the top of the ever-shifting entertainment business while raising the contradictions of America’s ongoing, mostly repressed, discourse on race,” while the Reaganite 1980s still could not dwell on challenging issues of social inequality, and most unquestionably: applied social revolution.
Only eight movies actually had blacks in starring roles out of the hundred plus films produced in 1982. What was just as disappointing and illuminating, out of the hundred plus films, not one featured even one black woman. “By 1983, frustration had built to the point that the two black members on the Screen Actor’s Guild Wages and Working Conditions Committee quit in protest of the guild’s refusal even to consider a minority hiring system based on fixed numerical goals.” For better or for worse, consequentially, the 1980s witnessed a huge resurfacing of cinematic imagery from Hollywood’s pre-civil rights past, surmounting to a cinematic style of “appropriation and representation of African Americans that might be best described as neominstrelsy.” Black music was appropriated as well for the purpose of cinematic exoticism.
Interestingly, Hollywood’s cinema of recuperation paradoxically corresponded with the country’s broader social efforts to reinvigorate America’s ever-hopeful ideologies, historically derived from the nation’s founding principles and self-determination for the pursuit of happiness, liberty, and justice for all. But, dominant cinema nevertheless maintained its “narrative formulas, images, and strategies of containment,” repressing and devaluing African Americans through cinematic representation until the end of the 1980s.
Because Directors Robert Altman, Stanly Kubrick, and Arthur Penn, “re-established [this] thematically and formally conservative, linear, illusionist style called the cinema of recuperation,” Hollywood’s effect on the film industry caused its return to producing big-budget films that could not allot for a reconfiguration of the black image. To blame the film industry however, would be a misinformed judgment, as the people of Hollywood had no choice but to conservatively respond to the racial climate in America at the time. On the other hand, continuously fostering this racist reality by creating films that portrayed black people inaccurately, it’s difficult to discern which came first: the chicken or the egg, as media is an extremely powerful social agent and catalyst. Most Hollywood corporations had been “absorbed into mega-media conglomerates with diversified media interests,” to the point that filmmaking lost sight of its artistic reasoning, and the industry saw cinema as an investment for a refined product, essentially manufactured to compete in the augmenting “media-integrated, global, mass entertainment market.”
American culture no longer accepted from Hollywood the broad scope of experimental and countercultural films as a way of stimulating the nation with progressive and alternative ideas and images.
The subtlest yet most popular form of subjugation black people underwent during cinema of recuperation was what the article calls “biracial buddy films of the 1980s.” The appeal for the film industry was profit. Black people playing sidekicks provide white viewers non-threatening comfort: “these alien, exotic, noncompetitive, desexualized contrasts to the reigning ‘norm’ of whiteness.”
Three decades saw relentless protest that did not yield positive results for African Americans in the industry. Due to a perceptive interpretation of American culture, Hollywood concluded its most profitable means to proceed were “in ignoring the demands of minorities for fair representation and rebuilding its older practices and paradigms.” When it cost on average between twelve and fifteen million dollars to produce a feature film—expecting three time the amount put down in order to procure a profit—it’s strategically economic to understand to the concern for “social justice or the sensitive depiction of marginalized communities” could not have been a priority to the blooming mega-billion dollar industry.
If Hollywood did anything “right,” the article churns, it was the industry’s “blatantly racist, sexist, and homophobic practices” that helped foster the “Blaxploitation boom… helping shape a politically self-conscious critical black audience aware of its commercial power and hungry for new cinematic representations of a diverse range of African American subjects and issues on the big screen.” As Carol Cooper bluntly puts it, “no collective unconscious in the world has been as comprehensively shat upon as that of the black American.”