Flashback To 1981 - "Race And The Movies" (How Much Has Really Changed In 30 Years?)

by Tambay A. Obenson
December 26, 2011 6:34 PM
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I couldn't help but laugh as I watched this 1981 discussion between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on their famous TV show - the conversation centered on, broadly, the *state of blacks in American cinema* at the time, compared to years prior. 

My laughter isn't at them, but rather more to keep from crying, because just about everything they talk about within the 9-minute conversation are all matters we've discussed and debated often here on S&A (and elsewhere), 30 years later!! 

So what does that say about how far we've come?

And even more maddening is that within this 30-year old conversation, they reference the state of the industry 25 years before 1981, with regards to blacks in mainstream cinema, and just how little had changed in that time period as well.

So really, I could rephrase the question and ask just how far we've come in the last 55 years of cinema; how much has really changed for blacks in cinema over that time period through the present day?

Obviously not much because, once again, we're still having many of the same damn conversations about the *state of blacks in American cinema*, decades later.

Long time readers of S&A will know that I like to point these things out from time to time, because, often, we get so caught up in discussions about what's *wrong* with Hollywood where blacks are concerned, we analyze and criticize, without realizing that our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents had very similar conversations about representation (or lack thereof); the end-goal being to emphasize that our words alone haven't, and probably still will not have much of an impact on the dismal state of things. The words must be accompanied with some kind of action to propel things forward. Otherwise, in another 25 years, we'll still be discussing what ails us creatively, and that would be absolutely terrible IMHO.

The below video is part of a 3-piece series titled Race And The Movies, presented by the current incarnation of Ebert's At the Movies.

The other 2 parts give brief summaries of blacks Americans in cinema since the days of Oscar Micheaux, to black Americans in cinema today.

I embedded part 2 below - the conversation between Ebert and Siskel. Click HERE for parts 1 & 3 (And these are white people talking about this stuff):

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  • rgordon | February 5, 2012 2:17 AMReply

    Sorry for coming in so late to this. Agreed, Roger Ebert actually "gets" what he's talking about re: Black Folks, a rare thing among film critics in general and white people in particular. Speaking of which, the one thing that has not changed in all these years is the composition and sensibility of the people who sign the checks in Hollywood. Until we get different people funding mainstream movies, we won't be able to tell different stories.

  • Donella | December 27, 2011 4:22 PMReply

    Thank you for these clips. I watched all three and found the topics explored extremely relevant to the movie industry today. That is an amazing credit to the thoughtful insights and thorough analyses of Siskel & Ebert.

  • Canopy Jones | December 27, 2011 1:42 PMReply

    Thank you or this awesomeness right chea.

  • Cherish | December 27, 2011 11:37 AMReply

    Wow. Everything is cyclical.

    When Siskel mentioned Black American audience demand for "something rougher" and the answer was Sweet Sweetback Badass Song, it reminded of the early 90s, when with the rise of gangsta rap, hood movies starting with Boyz in the Hood were released. Movies like this were declared "more real" and a more authentic portrayal Black life, although black hood movies only represented a subset of the Black community, just like Sweet Sweetback did. Same thing happened on TV. Around this time people were saying how the Cosby Show was unrealistic. Black sitcoms became more urban, a little harder, and more Black-focused. However, even with these more gritty, Black-focused movies and sitcoms coming out, there was a greater variety on air and on screen. For Menace to Society there was Hav Plenty. Family Matters and South Central on tv. And this went on into the 2000s until it seems like there was "burn-out", and Black movies and TV shows of all variety and genres started to disappear, like they did in the early 1980s. Wow. Truly cyclical.

  • George | December 26, 2011 11:39 PMReply

    The Major studios are stuck in a rut right now. Instead of going for diversity to bring forth more original ideas. They've now changed the business model to Sequel, Reboots , and Adaptations. Which has put the business in a horrid period of expensive movies of low creative quality.

    Cable TV is where true progress is right now.

  • Roko | December 26, 2011 11:03 PMReply

    Thats the truth.

  • Nadine | December 26, 2011 10:37 PMReply

    To this day... Roger Ebert is one of the few, Black, White or other, to be clear and fearless in his stance and understanding of race and the movies. Crazy...

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