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Critical Mass: Black American cinema: designing a syllabus

February 12,2018 06:44

Maybe irritation is a legitimate reaction to the existence of things such as Black History Month. (Any time you add a leading adjective you risk compartmentalization and ghettoization.) In a more perfect world, black history would be better integrated ...and more »


Maybe irritation is a legitimate reaction to the existence of things such as Black History Month. (Any time you add a leading adjective you risk compartmentalization and ghettoization.) In a more perfect world, black history would be better integrated into the larger narrative. James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston would be known as writers and newspaper columnists wouldn't make a special effort to highlight the contributions of African Americans during February.
But you have to play the game you have, and this is Black History Month, which provides us an occasion to consider the especial contributions of black filmmakers to our culture as we anticipate the release of Ryan Coogler's Black Panther later this month and with Jordan Peele's Get Out and Dee Rees' Mudbound in position for Oscar glory. (Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is the reigning best picture.)
Still, while we might believe we're seeing something of a renaissance among black filmmakers, it's worth considering how we got here and what actually constitutes "black cinema." Are we talking exclusively about the product of black writers and directors, or do we interpret the rubric so liberally that we include films such as The Help or Gone With the Wind (for Hattie McDaniel's best supporting actress Oscar)?
Were I designing a survey course on black cinema, I'd start by screening silent "race" films like Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1919), the oldest surviving film by a black auteur (Micheaux wrote, produced and distributed the film). I'd also show Richard E. Norman's The Flying Ace (1926), an airplane thriller about a fighter pilot who returns home after the war to resume his job as a railroad detective. Like Micheaux, Norman wrote, produced, directed and distributed the film, but he was a white man.
"My father was disheartened about the state of race relations at the time, both in real life and in the movies," Norman's son Richard E. Norman III told Barbara Tepa Lupack for her book Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking (Indiana University Press, 2013). "And he saw an untapped market. So he set out to help give the black community a stronger place on film, behind the cameras and in the theatres."
. . .
The makers of race pictures by and large couldn't afford the technology Hollywood employed to make the movies talk, and most of the studios that produced movies for primarily black audiences went out of business during the Depression. Black performers appeared in Hollywood films, but rarely as major characters (the exception was in musicals, where often black musicians would appear as themselves).
Mostly they showed up as maids (like Hattie McDaniel) or as workers or porters or in some other minor capacity. Often they were uncredited. (McDaniel appeared in more than 300 movies; she received credit for about 80 of them.)
And from 1948 -- when Micheaux directed his last film (the humorless, didactic and three-hour-long The Betrayal, a quasi-remake of his first movie, 1918's The Homesteader) and 1969, when Gordon Parks directed his semi-autobiographical masterpiece The Learning Tree (based on Parks' novel, for which he composed music) there were few if any movies directed by black people released in the United States.
Still, films like John M. Stahl's Imitation of Life (1934), which includes a light-skinned black character who passes for white, and Clarence Brown's Intruder in the Dust (1949), a crime drama based on a Faulkner novel about a prominent black man accused of the murder of a white man, both deserve to be canonized as part of the story of black cinema in this country. (So does Douglas Sirk's 1959 version of Imitation of Life, which was based on the same novel as Stahl's film and is arguably better, if only because it includes a scene with Mahalia Jackson singing.)
You could go really deep with the blaxploitation films of the 1970s -- somewhere someone is probably teaching a course on the oeuvre of Pam Grier -- but for a survey course I'd probably make do with Melvin Van Peebles' seminal Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), which demonstrated the viability of the genre. If we had time I'd throw in Parks' Shaft from the same year, just for Richard Roundtree's indomitable turn as the first black action hero. (Parks' son Gordon Parks Jr. directed Superfly in 1972, another essential entry in the genre that I'd invite students to seek out on their own time.)
I'd spend at least a week on Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977), one of the most acclaimed American films of the last half of the 20th century (and one about which I've written extensively). Burnett made it as his master's thesis at UCLA, and he expected no one beyond his professors and a few peers to see it, so no one bothered to secure the rights to its music. Which means screenings were limited to film festivals and classrooms until about 10 years ago.
Never intended to please casual moviegoers looking for a little escape with popcorn and air conditioning, Killer is a stunning, startling work, a black-and-white slice of life that could be taken for a documentary. It is anchored by the stoic, unmannered performance of Henry Gayle Sanders as Stan, the titular slaughterhouse worker and head of a poor, earnest family struggling to keep it together in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where radical chic politics are a luxury no working person can afford. Low-key and almost completely free of the drama (and the fierceness) of, say, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, this is a film that doesn't tell a story so much as paint a portrait.
. . .
A lot of people will remember 1980's Stir Crazy as a sort-of sequel to 1976's Silver Streak, as it reunited co-stars Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. But do they remember it was directed by Sidney Poitier? I didn't until I began thinking about Poitier's long and distinguished career, which includes acting in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1959, and directing himself, Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte in Uptown Saturday Night (1975).
And he was the first African American to win the Academy Award for best actor for his work in Lilies of the Field (1963). He had arguably the best year of any actor ever in 1967 when he was in To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Any of these films might have a place in the syllabus.
Speaking of Lee, arguably any of his films could fit in this course, and it might be interesting to revisit She's Gotta Have It in the age of #metoo. But Do the Right Thing is undeniably his best film, and there have been times in my life when I would have called it my favorite film. It's a violent, funny and forceful portrait of what happens when bigots and haters in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn get on each other's nerves on the hottest day of the summer. (1992's Malcom X would also be essential viewing.)
Julie Dash's 1991 film Daughters of the Dust was visually quoted by Beyonce in her visual album Lemonade last year, and Cohen Film Group recently issued a gorgeous Blu-ray edition. The first feature film directed by a black woman to be distributed theatrically in the United States, it's set in 1902 on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, and tells the story of three generations of Gullah (also known as Geechee) women as they prepare to migrate to the North.
For contrast we'd take John Singleton's debut film Boyz N the Hood from the same year (although I might prefer Singleton's Rosewood, a film I gave a fairly tepid review when it was released in 1997 but feel differently about now). Boyz follows three young black men (Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut) as they attempt to negotiate the drug-and-gang blighted streets of South Central Los Angeles.
Carl Franklin's period noir Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) features a charismatic performance by Denzel Washington in full movie-star mode as a hard-boiled detective (although Don Cheadle steals the movie as his sadistic sidekick Mouse) weaving through the seldom-depicted black Los Angeles of the 1940s in search of a wayward beauty.
Cheryl Dunye's cult favorite The Watermelon Woman (1996), a meta-fictional quasi-documentary that dives deep into questions of racial and sexual identity and politics, was featured at last year's Kaleidoscope Film Festival in Little Rock. It follows Dunye as she investigates the life of (fictional) actress Fae Richards, a black lesbian who specialized in portraying "mammies" in the 1930s and '40s while at the same time following the progress of Dunye's relationship with her white lover Diana. Research and private life begin to intersect when she discovers that Richards had an affair with one of her white female directors.
Finally, we'd wrap up with the 2017 Oscar winner for best picture, Jenkins' Moonlight, an elliptical, poetic work that examines life in and beyond the streets, and with the film that might just take that honor this year, Jordan Peele's multi-layered and highly enjoyable Get Out.
Needless to say, that won't tell the whole story of American black cinema, but it would be a good start -- something to build on. And a really fun class to take.
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Style on 02/11/2018

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