Category Archives: Week 6: (2/28): Blaxploitation and its Cinematic Respondents

Bruno’s Recitation 2/29/12 (Section 7)

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.


Bruno’s Recitation 2/29 3:30pm

Bruno started out class by mentioning that before Blaxploitation there were no African American mainstream filmmakers. But in the 1920s-1940s Micheaux was a prolific African American director, though not very highly thought of, however he is often studied and important in the context of film history. Bruno passed around an anthology of African American filmmakers that featured Micheaux. He also mentioned other sources of information if the class is interested.

Bruno then showed a clip from Micheaux’s second film called “Within Our Gates” and asked the class for their response.  The class very enthusiastically remained silent. This clip showed an attempted rape scene in which a white man raped a black woman.  Bruno explained that this was in direct response to a scene in the film “Birth of A Nation” in which a black male servant is shown raping a white woman. “Within Our Gates” was banned, and as a result, was Micheaux’s final racially driven film. After Micheaux, there were no African Americans being portrayed or even taking a part in the film creative process until Hollywood exploited blacks to make money and bring in a niche audience in what became known as Blaxploitation.

Next it was time for Sam to present Guerrero’s article on Blaxploitation and the context that gave fertile ground for the use of Blaxploitation as a marketing strategy. In the mid sixties there was the collapse of the Hollywood production code which led to graphic violence and nudity. Also in the 1960s, a whole generation of people experienced disillusionment and wanted to see broader topics at the movies.   Blaxploitation reached its highest point from 1971-1973. “Sweet Sweetback’s” came out at this time.

In terms of the influence of Blaxploitation, on films in general, Sam mentioned that music played a big role. Featured actors in films were many times musicians that composed the film’s score. In “Sweet Sweetback’s” the lead actor was also the director and wrote the score. Sam also mentions a film for which Curtis Mayfield did the soundtrack. It was considered a funk masterpiece, but was originally conceived for the film. The other way that Blaxploitation influenced films in general was through the emergence of other race- based genres. 1973, the height of Blaxploitation, was also the year that a popular Kung Fu film came out, “Enter the Dragon” which starred Bruce Lee and which followed many of the tropes of Blaxploitation. There is a black character named Williams who is a Blaxploitation type. Sam described a very violent scene that highlights drug use, which was a big part of Blaxploitation and culture in the 60s and 70s.

Sam returned to talking about music and talked about Jimmy Cliff from Jamaica who was a huge Reggae star. He made a movie in 1972 called “The Harder They Come.” It is interesting because all the characters in the movie are black including the authorities. Cliff plays a reggae gangster who becomes a Robin Hood-type outlaw. Because of this, his records start to sell. Sam also mentions that this film features an enormous awareness of media and self promotion or self image for the time period.

Finally, Sam talked about a film by Jean Luc Goddard called “One Plus One.” Half of it is like the Rolling Stones in a recording studio and the other part is an old car park which has been taken over by Black Panthers who kidnap white women. He talked about the film not being as comedic as Blaxploitation. This film is more serious and examines political overtones; violence was an increasing option in real life politics, as supported by Malcolm X. Sam ended his presentation and we applauded him vigorously.

Bruno said Sam’s presentation showed how Blaxploitation is not the only exploitation happening in Hollywood. Exploitation in Hollywood became a continuous marketing strategy. We spoke more about Guerrero’s article, particularly the conditions that allowed Blaxploitation to appear and flourish. Firstly, Hollywood was going through a financial crisis and Blaxploitation films were cheap to make, without regard for production value. Secondly, there was a general increase in black consciousness in society because of the Civil Rights movement. However, once Hollywood came out of its financial hole, producers no longer thought it was worthwhile producing films for black audiences. It did not help matters that many of these pictures were very controversial in their depictions of black people.

Next, Bruno brought up “the Sydney Poitier type” – an asexual male who is rich, well-educated, very polite, and who does not really complicate racial representation in itself. Bruno played a clip from “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” Guerrero talks about how this film is too simplistic to really be talking about interracial marriage. The clip was a scene in which the parents of the white girl, Poitier’s love interest, are proud that their daughter is not racist. But at the same time are afraid that she will marry a “colored” man even if he is a smart, wealthy, well educated doctor. Bruno asked, “how racial is the film? What kind of racial tension is depicted here?” Kelsey, who had coincidentally just seen the movie that morning, described several scenes that the class had not seen. She argued that the director takes a tone of cynicism towards the audience, not expecting the audience to be as liberal as the people the movie portrays.

Bruno next explains the asexual part of the Poitier type – that Poitier’s character has no sexual intonations. He’s getting married to a girl but there is no intention to make love to her. This is in contrast to “Sweet Sweetback’s” which starts with a graphic sex scene.  The stereotype of the asexual black man is transformed into a very sexualized character who is empowered through sex. This manly depiction is denied to Poitier. There is a critic who talks about “the Sydney Poitier syndrome” which to him is the black character who is helping white men solve white men problems. It’s not about race at all at the end with this film. It’s about the triumph of the Katherine Hepburn character who makes everybody make peace with the fact that there will be an interracial marriage between her daughter and Poitier’s character. She is the good guy at the end of the film. Bruno related this to the recent film “The Help” which was also not really about black people but white people’s reactions to black people. So we discussed what makes a black film and what the benefits are of Black representation on film. Bruno pointed out that these questions can extend to any minority group of people or subjugated group. We still feel these absences in visibility today in Hollywood films. A criticism that Poitier got was that he was too white-washed.

Next, Bruno asked the class, what about “Sweet Sweetback’s” was interesting?  One student pointed out that the transformation that the child went through to become a male proved interesting. Another student mentioned the fact that the movie was very fast-paced, filled with jump cuts, crazy music and action scenes. It was upbeat throughout. Bruno asked for student’s reactions to the first scene – why is it relevant? The majority of the class felt very uncomfortable about the first scene and did not want to sit through it again. Despite the vote we did watch the opening segment because one student had missed the lecture in which it was viewed. Bruno summarized the film and then asks our thoughts. He asks us about the style of the movie and the soundtrack. We discussed musical influences. We also discussed the first scene. We talked about whether it was an act of initiation or an act of love.

Most significantly we realized, this scene demonstrates that suddenly black people were empowered by sex as opposed to being asexual. “Sweet Sweetback’s” showed that a film could star “The Black Community.”  (The film was made by an all black crew as well.) We talk about Guerrero’s argument that because of these facts, it is actually too radical to be considered Blaxploitation. The class argued that the lead male in the film is not getting pleasure or power from having sex, that he is having sex because it is his job.

Bruno questioned how the film ties into representation of women – are they objectified? Are they empowered? One student answered that the women in the film are portrayed as sex hungry and hungry for drugs. Bruno questioned if all the women are prostitutes. The class discussed this fervently. We agreed that once you realize sex is a commodity in the film, that you can see this film as depicting the man being raped by society.

Next, we talked about what is it that makes a black film and “Killer Sheep” is summarized. We saw a clip of it in Tuesday night’s lecture. It is a student film from UCLA about a slaughterhouse with jazz music. We talked about if black filmmakers higher black actors? Bruno asked why we call Hollywood films white. Bruno ended the class posing questions about the legacy of black films and why black films are what they are today. These questions included: How else can we have a black film? Should they be based on reality and true events like “Within Our Gates,” which featured lynching? Did Blaxploitation contribute to our society or to Hollywood in a progressive way? Is there is still segregation in the Hollywood community? Students shared their opinions on Blaxploitation and film. We ended class.

Week 6: Blaxploitation and its Cinematic Respondents

Today’s class saw a slight shift in focus, to the development of African-American filmmaking in the 1970s. The overwhelming majority of the films we’ve looked at thus far in the class were made by white males. This, of course, is still the case in today’s Hollywood, experimental, and independent cinema.

It is also important to remember that up until the 1970s, there were no mainstream African-American film directors, and very, very few African-American film stars, with the notable exception of Sidney Poitier, whose career we discussed.

Robert Sklar:

In the period around 1970, when debates over race and gender had become fully articulated not only in words but in social action, it was as if there existed two completely different discourses, one in society, the other in movies. Against the vividness of social actuality the movies were in no position to interpose, and any mediating was up to the moviegoer.

More specifically, we considered the rise and fall of the Blaxploitation genre, and various cinematic responses to that genre. In doing so, we looked at how the cultural and industry conditions of the 1970s opened up the potentiality for an independent black cinema, and once again look at the relationship between independent and mainstream modes of filmmaking. Some of the questions that guided our discussion:

What constitutes a “black” film? Does it merely include an African American director or actors, or must the plot center on the African American community and cultural themes?

How has African American filmmaking been marginalized? Why does it continue to be? Is this a function of the industry, the audience, or both?

What are the potentials for, and limits to, film as a political tool? As a revolutionary platform? As a conscious raising one?

How is African American masculinity depicted in these films? What is the relationship of the individual to the larger community in these films? What is the tension between integration and separation in these films? How does the representation of marginalized or underrepresented communities rebut or confirm the putative universality of film?

This week, we read Howard Zinn’s account of the civil rights movement in order to help contextualize the social and political currents that shape what we’ll see on screen today. One of the recurrent themes in Zinn’s essay is the question of how best to resist an oppressive regime—violently, or non-violently? By assimilating, or by asserting difference?

Ed Guerrero cites three factors that led to the rise of Blaxploitation:

These concoctions were marketed to a basically inner-city, black youth audience in anticipatlon of substantial box office profits. The guiding argument of my discussion is that the Blaxploitation genre emerged out of the dialectal interactions of three broad, overdetermining conditions of possibility. The first and most obvious to observers of the late 1960s scene is that these films were made possible by the rising political and social consciousness of black people (taking the form of a broadly expressed black nationalist impulses at the end of the civil rights movement), which translated into a large black audience thirsting to see their full humanity depicted on the commercial cinema screen. This surge in African American identity politics also led to an outspoken, critical dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s persistent degradation of African Americans in films among black leaders, entertainers, and intellectuals. Ultimately, the mounting pressure of these conditions coincided with the near economic collapse of the film industry at the end of the 1960s. In turn, this forced Hollywood to respond to the rising expectations of African Americans by making black-oriented features in order to solve the film industry’s political and financial problems.


Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971)

We paid special attention to Van Peebles’ methods of independent production (he wrote, produced, directed, edited, and starred in the film) and disruptive formal strategies (optical printing, jump cuts, split screens, sound/music); the depiction of Sweetback’s hyper-libidinal masculinity; and the film’s depictions of the black community.

Also, here’s one of the many Occupy Wall Street videos that have appropriated Van Peebles’ “Love, That’s America,” from his film, Watermelon Man (1970):

Then we took a look at Poitier’s response to Blaxploitation, Uptown Saturday Night (Sidney Poitier, 1974):

…as well as Charles Burnett’s low-budget lost classic about life in Watts, Killer of Sheep (1971):

…and we concluded with Richard Pryor‘s seminal, autobiographical, and decidedly raunchy (as well as being the first theatrically released stand-up film) Live in Concert (1979):

As a bonus, here’s Pryor in 1977 as America’s “First Black President,” from his short-lived Richard Pryor Show: