American Cinema Assignment

Answer the following question in a 2 page paper. Primarily, use the attached reading. You may use other resources if you’d like, but do so sparingly. Don’t cite Wikipedia. Use a proper citation style (e.g., Chicago, MLA) of your choice. Write using 1” margins, double spaced, and size 12 Times or Times New Roman font.Mark A. Reid writes in his abstract that his article, “The Black Action Film: The End of the Patiently Enduring Black Hero,” “describes and analyzes the socio-economic and political forces of the 1960s which gave rise to the black action film of the 1970s” (23). For your first paragraph, summarize Reid’s argument: what changes occurred in African American political engagement and consciousness in the 1960s, and what does that have to do with the black action film of the 1970s? Later in his essay, Reid describes John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) as a “black-skinned [replica] of the white heroes of action films” (32). For your second paragraph, use a specific sequence from Shaft (Gordon Parks 1971) to argue either in agreement or disagreement with Reid’s assertion. Use relevant formal terms and sufficient detail to support your analysis.
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The Black Action Film: The End of the Patiently Enduring Black Hero
Author(s): Mark A. Reid
Source: Film History, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter, 1988), pp. 23-36
Published by: Indiana University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814948
Accessed: 11-01-2018 19:02 UTC
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Film History, Volume 2, pp. 23-36
Printed in the USA. All rights reserved
Copyright © 1988 Taylor & Francis
The Black Action Film:
The End of the Patiently
Enduring Black Hero
by Mark A. Reid
trants, the blacks founded the Mississippi Freedom
Abstract This paper describes and analyzes
Democratic Party (MFDP) in defiance of the regular
the socio-economic and political forces of the
Democratic Party.3 The MFDP elected 68
1960s which gave rise to the black action film Mississippi
of
of their members, four of whom were white, to repthe 1970s. In analyzing the reception of these
resent
films by black audiences, the paper argues
them at the 1964 Democratic Convention.
Again, black Mississippians met with white intra
against the notion of a monolithic black audigence, but this time it was not limited to the Sou
ence for black action films. Finally, it suggests
that the production of these films permitted The National Democratic Party refused to
the MFDP delegation. Consequently, “The MF
blacks their largest opportunities to direct
mainstream American films.
BLACK POWER AND URBAN RIOTS
. . . the young black leaders of SNCC, and black r
icals in the country … read the pressure they
been subjected to by the President and the De
crats as conclusive confirmation of their emer
thesis that ‘the system’ was ineradicably permeate
A fro-Americans’ rising impatience with
white inracism….
The MFDP and some of its supporter
transigence and black second-class other
citizenship
words, saw the Democratic Party and lib
produced two major results in the lategenerally,
1960s: racial
white or black, no longer as the hope
violence and black cultural nationalism. Earlier,
solution, but as part of the problem.”4
Afro-Americans and liberal whites had sought to dis- By 1967, and as a logical result of the frustrat
mantle racial segregation in America through nonattempts to gain first-class citizenship for bla
violent protest, a tactic used to make whites recognize
many black grassroot organizations became more
the immorality of racially discriminatory practices
gressive in their tactics. Stokeley Carmichael,
and, thereby, change these practices.’
later became an advocate of retaliatory violence,
elected chairman of SNCC in 1966. At the 1966 ConAlthough young black students initially used passive resistance in the form of sit-ins, eat-ins, and voter
gress of Racial Equality (CORE) convention, the
registration drives, experiences such as those of the
membership formally repudiated nonviolence and
Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee
endorsed the slogan “Black Power.”5
(SNCC) in its voter registration drive in Mississippi in In October of 1966 the Black Panther Party for
1962 discouraged them from continuing non-violent
Self Defense (BPP) was founded. According to Retactics.2 In the fall of 1963, SNCC helped organize ginald
a
Major, “The Panthers were a logical developvoter registration drive in Mississippi. When Missisment of earlier black revolutionary programs, particsippi authorities refused to recognize the black regisularly those of Robert Williams, the [Black] Muslims,
23
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Mark A. Reid
course, was not the first time blacks had advocated
Malcolm X, and the more activist civil rights organizations such as SNCC.”6
cultural nationalism.
Their shared purpose was made explicit on 2 May
In 1937, Richard Wright had emphasized the importance of discovering black art in black culture and
Capitol with M-1 rifles, 12-gauge shotguns, .45-calexperience. In his seminal essay “Blueprint For
iber pistols. They were protesting the MulfordNegro
Act, Writing,” he wrote, “In a folklore moulded
which was a bill pending before the state legislature
out of rigorous and inhuman conditions of life …
to restrict the carrying of fire-arms. The Panthers
inthe Negro
achieved his most indigenous and comterpreted this bill as an attempt to disarm theplete
black
expression. Blues, spirituals, and folk tales recommunity, which would then become victim counted
of “ra- from mouth to mouth; the whispered words
cist police agencies throughout the country.” of a black mother to her black daughter on the ways
of men, to confidential wisdom of a black father to
These organizations seemed to indicate a growing
militancy among young blacks.
his black son; the swapping of sex experiences on
streetof
corners from boy to boy in the deepest vernaconcurrent with black activists’ repudiation
nonviolence came a wave of inner-city riots.
Sev-work songs sung under blazing suns-all these
ular;
1967. BPP members entered the California State
eral urban riots occurred in Afro-American commu-
formed channels through which the racial wisdom
flowed.”8
nities between the Watts (Los Angeles) Riot on 9 August 1965 and riots in other cities in spring 1968.Disregarding earlier efforts in nationalism, however, blacks of the sixties saw theirs as a new moveThese riots were nationally telecast. Images of black
ment. Black Arts critic and poet Larry Neal wrote
inner-city life seemed to be formed by the television,
that the movement was an ideology which stressed
which portrayed blacks looting neighborhood stores
the importance of creating art “directed at problems
while buildings burned. Destruction and the destructive seemed to define the Afro-American commuwithin Black America…. with the premise that there
is a well defined Afro-American audience. An audinity. I suspect that both the televised news coverage
of the riots and the militant rhetoric of black armed
resistance intensified white middle-class America’s
opinion of blacks as a violent people.
Most whites did not socialize with blacks nor did
ence that must see itself and the world in terms of its
own interests. The Black Arts Movement represents
the flowering of a cultural nationalism.”9
Earlier, a black independent filmmaker William
their education include courses dealing with AfroFoster had recognized that there was a black audience which was interested in black-oriented art. But
American socio-cultural experiences. Thus, they naNeal argued that the first wave of black independent
ively formulated their ideas about Afro-Americans
filmmakers, such as Foster and other creative artists
from white literature, television, and the movies. In
March 1968, the National Advisory Commission on
of the Negro Renaissance, “did not address …
[themselves] to the mythology and the life styles of
Civil Disorders published its report, which offered
the Black community.”10
educated reasons to explain how white racism proThis new wave of black creative activity, which
duced black inner-city violence. Thus, white Americans were further encouraged to believe that vio- surfaced from the ashes of riot-torn ghettos, relence would characterize black behavior.7
jected art that tried to appeal to white America’s morality. Larry Neal, using the words of Etheridge
Young, inner-city blacks directed their frustraKnight, wrote, “Any Black man who masters the
tions at what they called the (white) “man’s” instituof his particular art form, [but] who adtions, property and laws-“the system.” Sometechnique
of
heres to the white aesthetic, and who directs his work
these blacks stressed making economic and political
toward a white audience is, in one sense, prochanges by armed overthrow of white institutions
testing.”” Neal, like others, felt that “protest” was
and by the creation of strong black institutions.
outdated and ineffectual.
Others, however, emphasized intellectual and
psychological changes by developing black studiesThe Black Arts critics demanded the use of blackoriented criteria to assess the artistic value of creative
programs in institutions of higher education and by
works; they called this process a fundamental prinestablishing black community theaters.
ciple of the black aesthetic.12 As Etheridge Knight
Channeling their anger into the practice of Black
has said, “Unless the Black artist establishes a ‘Black
Art, discussions of black aesthetics, and the development of collectives that continued black creative traAesthetic’ he [or she] will have no future at all. To
accept the white aesthetic is to accept and validate a
ditions, the proponents of black community theaters
that will not allow him [or her] to live. The
emphasized black cultural nationalism. This, society
of
24
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The Black Action Film
Black artist must create new forms … values … and films that appealed to this audience while satisfying a
along with other Black authorities, [s]he must create black aesthetic. The commercial black action films of
new history . . . symbols, myths and . . . must be ac- the 1970s, however, never reached this ideal because
countable for it only to the Black people.”13 they were not independent productions or becau
Having established the fact that there was a young black independent producers relied on major distrib-
black audience receptive to thoughts about violence, utors.
it should have been possible to create black action Harold Cruse had warned about the difficult
Figure 1. Melvin Van Peebles (b. 1932), during the production of SWEET SWEETBACK’S
BAADASSSSS SONG (Cinemation, 1971), “the first black action film that attracted large
black-teenage audiences.” Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.
25
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Mark A. Reid
that black cultural nationalists who attempted toVan Peebles rationalized his rejection of “didacti
practice according to a black aesthetic might experidiscourse” films by saying that he wanted to entert
and instruct the black audience whom he calls “Brer”
ence in maintaining their autonomy. He wrote, “The
(“brother”): “If Brer is bored, he’s bored. One of the
political activists will attempt to either suppress or
control the creative elements, and especially the
problems we must face squarely is that to attract the
writers…. The Negro writer, who is nationalistically
mass we have to produce work that not only instructs
but entertains.”17 The large group of “unpoliticized”
oriented, must, at all times, fight within movements
to maintain his creative and critical independence
Brers supported his film at the box-office.
within a reasonable context of the general aims of the
movement.”14
THE MAKING OF A HERO
The validity of Cruse’s warning concerning the
CAIJ,ED SWET’BACK
efforts by black political activists to control black creblack popular audiences were starving
ativity in filmmaking will be discussed later. But itBecause
is
black heroes who were not made for white audien
equally possible to see how white filmmakers and
Van Peebles attempted to supply this need w
major studios control black images either by manipumaking a financial profit.
lating the blacks who create those images or by pro-
ducing their own spurious images. This control canIn creating a new black hero to attract a y
black audience, he drew from white popular cul
be seen in two prototypical black action films that
and from black mythology and folklore. He
major studios distributed or produced during the
some of the heroic elements which white culture had
1970s.
Melvin Van Peebles’s SWEET SWEETBACK’S
popularized in such films as Clint Eastwood westerns.
In those
works, the film heroes tended to be social
BAADASSSSS SONG (Cinemation, 1971) was
a popular black action film that dramatized the
outcasts,
experiinarticulate, single males who are placed in
ences of an inarticulate, black male hustler
called
violent
situations. For example, Eastwood, in HANG
‘EM HIGH
Sweetback who was reared as a sexual performer
in a (U.A., 1968), portrayed an inarticulate
gunfighter
Los Angeles brothel and, as a child, was given
the who survived his own hanging and sought
vengeance
on the nine men who hanged him.
name “Sweetback” by a prostitute who admired
his
Van Peebles also used elements from the mythic
street
hero of urban black folklore-one skilled in
When Sweetback is falsely arrested and taken
from the brothel by two white detectives, the majorperforming sexually, evading the police, and
conflict evolves. While the detectives are taking fighting. Unlike most white heroes of the action film
Sweetback to the police station, they arrest and beat agenre, Sweetback participates in sex to survive, and
young black militant named Moo Moo; Sweetback in- he performs with both white and black women. For
example, when Sweetback is running from the police,
tervenes and brutally beats the detectives.
Consequently, Sweetback must flee the Los An-he is sexually challenged by a former black lover who
sexual skill.
geles police and a sheriff’s posse with bloodhounds.refuses to help him unless he makes love to her.
In addition, he must cross the desert and enter Much later, he and Moo Moo are captured by a white
Mexico before he can gain his safety. The film con- motorcycle gang who deliver them to the gang’s
cludes with a promise of Sweetback’s vengeful re-leader, a husky white female. The leader challenges
Sweetback to a duel and allows him to select his
turn.
SWEETBACK was the first black action film
that
weapon.
Sweetback, who had been reared in a
attracted large black-teenage audiences. Vanbrothel,
Peeblespragmatically chooses sex. The white gang
leader, like the black prostitute before her, admires
had decided to make a film for the “unpoliticized”
sexual agility. Therefore, she gives
black filmgoer. He “wanted a victorious film. Sweetback’s
A film
Sweetback
and
Moo Moo their freedom. In these
where niggers could walk out standing tall instead of
sexual
feats,
Sweetback
becomes a black urban folk
avoiding each other’s eyes, looking once again like
hero
as
the
dispassionate
stud; that is, he gives his
they’ve had it.”15
two
female
adversaries
sexual
pleasure without
Van Peebles consciously avoided a “politicized”
showing
an
iota
of
self
enjoyment.
His ability to perfilm because he wanted to reach a large already-exform
skillfully
requires
the
discipline
of a soldier inisting audience. He wrote, “The film simply couldn’t
upon killing the enemy; such a performance
be a didactic discourse which would end up tent
playing
cannot
be interpreted as an act of primitive lust nor
(if I could find a distributor) to an empty theater
exas a reflection
of his emotional desire.
cept for ten or twenty aware brothers who would
pat
Like
mythic
urban heroes, Sweetback directs viome on the back and say ‘it tells it like it is.’ “16
26
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The Black Action Film
Figure 2. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG: black urban folkhero as dispassionate stud.
Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.
lence against unjust white authority figures. For exblack writers of earlier periods. Before SWEETample, when Sweetback witnesses the detectivesBACK, American films by white writers had created
beating Moo Moo, he identifies the enemy and vioimages which psychologically, physically and sexually
castrated black men; or, like D. W. Griffith’s THE
lently attacks the two detectives. In a later scene, several white police officers enter Sweetback’s hideout,BIRTH OF A NATION (Epoch, 1915), American
and the hero gives a repeat performance without any
films had depicted black men as brutal primitives
show of personal enjoyment.
who were driven by an innate desire for violence and
sex with white women.
Van Peebles created Sweetback from two impor-
tant heroic formulas. He blended an Anglo-Amer- Van Peebles also rejected the white-oriented
ican mass culture hero-the inarticulate, marginal,
“black-as-martyr” heroes as created by previous
violent, anti-hero such as the one seen in Clint East- writers. In these films which had been popular folwood films-with the mythic street hero of urban
lowing World War II, the black heroes often died in
black folklore-one whose survival tactics are his
ways intended to promote racial integration, or they
were
saved
ability to perform sexually, to fight, and to
evade
theby benevolent whites. The earliest examples of such films appear in a postwar “problem
police.
film” cycle: HOME OF THE BRAVE (U.A., 1949)
He gave his black hero a disinterested and skilled
sexuality as well as a controlled and motivated viodramatizes the problem of integrating a black soldier
named Moss into an all-white army unit. Moss belence, all of which were linked to Sweetback’s escape.
These elements rarely had been presented in earlier
black film heroes.
comes the victim of racial slurs and consequently
suffers a psychological illness from which he is cured
This new black hero contrasted with previous
by a white doctor. INTRUDER IN THE DUST
black male heroes who were created by white(MGM,
and 1949) presents a white southern lawyer who
27
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Mark A. Reid
successfully defends a black southerner falsely with
ac- the film’s imaginative reflection of their reality,
cused of murdering a white man and threatened with
which had been ignored by Hollywood. There had
lynching. NO WAY OUT (20th Century-Fox, 1950)
been too many real martyrs, and white films never
presents a northern black doctor accused of malpracreflected the actual brutality that America had intice which has led to the death of his patient; howflicted upon Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King,
ever, he is cleared by a white hospital administrator.
Malcolm X, and countless young blacks who had died
It was assumed that black martyrdom would
from police beatings, a form of racial lynching.
somehow change the white audience’s opinions about
Many black inner-city youths who had particiintegration; however, no audience reception study pated in the riots were attracted to the heroic aspects
has ever supported this assumption.
of the hero, Sweetback. The film’s portrait of the
Even though white writers of films of the sixties black ghetto and the villains who prey on it seemed to
had introduced stronger black heroes, they often had express the socio-cultural reality understood by many
deprived the heroes of some qualities identified with streetwise young black men who identified with
urban blacks. For example, in the action film IN values outside the rules of the law and the morality of
THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (UA, 1967), Virgil the church.
Van Peebles
Tibbs, a black New York police detective, is not a
victim but he is portrayed …
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