“We must rid ourselves of the habit, now that we are in the thick of the fight, of minimizing the actions of our fathers or of feigning incomprehension when considering their silence and passivity. They fought as well as they could, with the arms they possessed then.”
- Frantz Fanon “The Wretched of the Earth”
This webisode of Reel Soul takes a look at the “Action” Genre and as it turns out, both of our selections came from the Blaxploitation era. That era of Black film is a complicated one from almost any vantage point one wishes to take. For some, it was a powerful response from a populace informed by both the Black Power movement and the Black Arts Movement, demanding to see themselves represented onscreen. The studio system had collapsed and producers, in a panic to attract moviegoers, took note of the epic box office generated by the Black community in support of Van Peebles “Sweetback”.
Several more films were swiftly put together and produced and though they tended to revolve around depictions of pimps, drug dealers and other inhabitants of the “sporting life” they were immensely popular with Black audiences. This despite the fact that they were mostly written and directed by Caucasian men and almost all of them showcased exaggerated, sometimes cartoonish sexuality and violence (the salt and ketchup of cinema). There were some gems amongst them though, including “Claudine”, “Cooley High” and “Superfly”, a film that, in my opinion, is one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned films in American cinema history. But no matter, a powerful group consisting of the NAACP, The Urban League, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and several Black film professionals formed the Coalition against Blaxploitation and they were ultimately successful in shutting them down.
While watching a documentary titled “Black Hollywood:Blaxploitation and Advancing an Independent Black Cinema” I heard several Black film professionals lamenting the end of that era. While acknowledging some of the problems, they gave voice to another problem: once the Blaxpo era ended, Black folks were largely absent from cinema (both in front of and behind the camera) until Spike Lee and a few years after the New Jack era ushering in another fertile period for Black filmmaking.
My question is, are we now in another Black Exploitation era ? Films like “Precious” are what I call “poverty porn”, the type that Barbara Bush will organize a personal screening of. Or “The Blind Side” with a poster of Sandra Bullock out walking her Negro ( at least he wasn’t magical). Or “The Help” with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer lending their undeniable talent to humanizing yet another Black maid in stories designed to reassure the good white folks of just how far we’ve come since then. And of course there is the peculiar institution of Tyler Perry, the most financially successful Black filmmaker of our time.
What can we learn from studying the Black exploitation era , and if history is repeating itself, are we fighting as well as we can with the arms that we possess ?