20th Century African American Cinema Stereotypes & Donald Bogle: A Series

Part Four:  Blaxploitation and the LA School of Independent Filmmakers

John Shaft

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft

‘I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.’
Muhammad Ali

With the Civil Rights Act coming through in 1964 African Americans gained their freedom from discrimination with regards to employment, voting, segregation and discrimination in public venues. However, this didn’t mean that the discrimination ceased. African Americans were still being treated as second-class citizens and people such as Martin Luther King Jr and the members of the Black Panthers were still fighting for anti-racism and equality. By the 1970’s ideas-bankrupt Hollywood was searching for a bandwagon to jump on. Seeing the success of black produced films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss song and Superfly meant a new found enthusiasm for a new commercially viable genre.

Black independent filmmakers recognised the lack of positive representations of African Americans in mainstream cinema and so decided to create their own. This genre was soon coined Blaxploitation.

Blaxploitation films typically featured a heavy content of violence and sexuality. They tended to have two primary settings. In North of America, the normal environment was the infamous ghettos, rife with drug dealers, hit men and pimps. In the South was the familiar setting of the plantation, with themes of slavery and miscegenation. Common themes to all these films were the heavy use of drugs, sex, the afro hairstyle, and crooked and corrupt ‘white’ police officers. The controversy was heightened by the fact that these films were often written and directed by white men, although movies created by African Americans with similar themes have also been labeled as ‘Blaxploitation’ .

Blaxploitation contrasts sharply with the previous decade where African American characters peddled by stars such as Sidney Poitier appealed to a more middle class white demographic. The black heroes in this new genre were a far more aggressive and individual affair and contrasted sharpely with the previous traditionalist constructions of Hollywood. Now African Americans had new black heroes who could defy the establishment and rock the status quo. Indeed they could do all this and still end up with the money, and the woman, despite paying a heavy moral price.

The film that many agree symbolizes the ushering in of Blaxploitation is Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles is a tale of a black male prostitute turned vigilante and is considered by many to be the first true Blaxploitation film, and the film that thrust afrocentric films into the spotlight. However it is very interesting to that Van Peebles does not consider his film to be part of the genre at all, perhaps because he wishes to distance himself from a genre still partly in the pocket of whites.

This film gave a new representation of the African American. Sweetback (played by director Melvin Van Peebles) is a man who sees the corruption within the white run system and fights against it. This is symbolised in the scene in which Sweetback defends an African American youth from getting a beating from two white Police Officers, thus requiring an escape to ‘the border’. This shows Sweetback to be physically strong, morally righteous and independent of the white dominated system. The scene in which Sweetback fights against the police officers is a representation of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, which sprang from the rising political and social consciousness of black people (taking the form of a broadly expressed Black Nationalist impulse at the end of the civil rights movement).

The militant spirit embodied by the film and what gave it the credibility needed to show the African Americans within a positive light. Without this militant spirit, any positive message would probably not have had been successful. With This new representation came with the glamorisation of ‘ghetto life’. According to Donald Bogle:

‘In rejecting the black bourgeoisie, which had seemingly often aided and abetted White America through attempts at cultural assimilation, the new militant separatist black classes sometimes came to identify blackness with the trappings of the ghetto’.

This new representation disestablished the old representations set by actors such as Sidney Poitier by rejecting white society and opting to show the elements that made up life as the majority of African Americans would know it; that of the ghetto. What was most important about the representation of Sweetback was the way in which he fought against the establishment. The violence he faced was returned with equal vivacity. The community around him also aided him as he made his escape highlighting the unity of African American society and culture. Through this, African Americans are being represented as having a rich and caring culture, risking their own personal safety and well-being to aid a known criminal who has done what they believe to be right.

The most important element of this film is the fact that Sweetback escapes at the end. In previous mainstream films, when an African American stands up to a white figure of authority, they are punished or chided in some way. In the motion picture In the Heat of the Night, when Tibbs shows up Gillespie in front of the other police officers, he has no qualms with locking Tibbs up immediately. In Sweetback however, the main character receives no punishment for his supposed ‘crime’. This represented African Americans as having both the physical and mental strength to be capable of such an act, whilst also contradicting the ideologies and white hegemony set by earlier mainstream films.

Another important aspect is that Sweetback is shown to be highly sexually active and promiscuous. He is shown to be what Bogle refers to as a ‘Brutal Black Buck’ representation . Rather than conforming to previous mainstream representations of the Black Buck, Van Peeble’s representation of Sweetback takes the previous illustration and adapts it for his own purpose. So instead of the Buck being a negative representation to both white Americans and African Americans, the African American audiences found a new hero in a black man who stood up to his white oppressors and who did what he felt was right and enjoyable. Thus, instead of becoming an icon of fear for both races, the fear was left just to the White bourgeoisie while the African American working class enjoyed what they saw. This is indicative of the feeling of oppression by African Americans in American society at the time; that they wanted to see somebody stand up for their beliefs (especially within a medium that would reach a large number of people).

This films success ‘showed there was a paying audience for stories that championed the interests of racial minorities’and from this the genre of Blaxploitation was born. The main factor of Blaxploitation’s genesis was for economical reasons. From the late 1960s, mainstream Hollywood was in economic danger. ‘The major studios were losing between $15 and $145 million leading many studios to face the distinct prospect of bankruptcy’. The Hollywood studios realised that the African American audiences were a vast and untapped source of profit and so quickly adapted the Sweetback formula for their own use. The first of such films to be released was Shaft.

Shaft is the name of the lead character, played by Richard Roundtree, as a private detective who rescues the daughter of a local crime boss from the Mafia. Much as in Sweetback, John Shaft is a sexually promiscuous man who is prone to violence to get his way. Throughout the film, Shaft attacks those people who do not assist him or who attempt to kill him. Shaft is the prodigal Black Buck, out on a rampage of lust and violence no matter who gets in his way. This representation is extremely negative, showing that Shaft, a prime example of an African American male, is a base creature, prone to unnecessary acts of violence. However, this is only part of the whole. The narrative is set out so that Shaft rescues the girl, thus winning out in the end. Again, following the lead set by Sweetback, having an African American win out against the odds, especially considering that those odds included white Americans. Thus Shaft can be seen as having a positive representation. He is physically strong, has strong ties within the African American community (although those ties may be to disreputable figures) and is, in the end, capable of success.

Yet this surface representation is destabilised when one looks behind the scenes of the film. The film Shaft was originally written with a white lead character in mind . As Melvin Van Peebles states:

The film was so successful that everybody jumped on the bandwagon. The original Shaft was a white guy. So when I made all this money, they threw in a couple of “mother fucks”, found a black guy, and made themselves a Black detective. That’s what happened. They took away the political content, the revolutionary aspect, in such a way to be counterrevolutionary. On a profound level, Hollywood was in a bind, they wanted the money but they didn’t want the message.

So the narrative based representation of Shaft is bogus. The main narrative strands (a detective rescuing a kidnapped girl) would have remained constant no matter who played the lead. So rather than being a specific representation for an African American, this aspect is proved null and void. Even more so, this could lead to a new depiction. Shaft can be seen as acting like a white American would do in that situation. The fact that he agrees to rescue the kidnapped girl and that he does would also be the way a white character would behave in this situation. The narrative is that of a generic Detective movie, along the lines of the Sam Spade films such as The Maltese Falcon . Thus, much like Virgil Tibbs, the African American is acting like the white American would. Yet, it cannot be denied that the fact that having an African American lead, as well as a mostly African American cast allowed for them to become represented in popular mainstream cinema. Other than actors such as Poitier, African Americans had had no true representation upon the screen, and now at least a treatment of the actuality of African American culture and society was apparent for audiences of all races.

This was especially true of African American women who had no real actress to represent them upon the screen. This changed, however, with the release of Cleopatra Jones in 1973. Tamara Dobson played Jones, a United States Special Agent assigned to crack down on drug trafficking in the US. From the initial look, Jones is a huge departure from the traditional ‘Mammy’ stereotype. She is young, slim, tall and fashionable and is there to both attract a male demographic and to appeal to the female demographic (in the sense of representation of African American females). What made Cleopatra Jones different from films such as Sweetback and Shaft is that because the genre of Blaxploitation had been suffering from heavy criticism from both African American and white audiences, the films’ sex and glorification of drugs had been toned down . Thus the film is substantially different to those of Jones’ male counterparts. This conforms to the dominant ideology of the time with regards to women. The ruling class of the white male, as well as having negative connotations of African Americans, had negative associations of women as well. Women were seen to be housewives and nothing more, even though this was around the time of the proliferation of the contraceptive pill, and the collapse of the final bastion of female oppression.
However, that is one of very few differences between the films. The majority of the films contents are similar. Once again, the diegetic world is that of the ghetto (among other areas, e.g. Turkey) and the narrative deals with the standard form of good versus evil (and the standard Blaxploitation form of the African American good versus the White evil), in this case The Man is a lesbian woman.

The sexuality of Jones’ nemesis should not be dismissed lightly as it establishes the primary representation of the African American female in this film. The fact that she is a lesbian, means that she is flying in the face of the dominant and established ideology of straightness, propagated by the white male ruling class. Jones beats her in the end of the film because she is enforcing the ideology of the white American. Couple this with the fact that she is working as a Government Agent, it can be seen that Jones, and thus African American women are still dominated by the white American and indeed enjoy their role.

However, Jones is also seen as dominant over African American men. It is Jones that comes to the rescue of her boyfriend when his halfway house becomes under threat of closure. In one scene she also chastises Antonio Fargas’ character Doodlebug for living as the pawn of a white American. Jones points to Doodlebug’s white chauffeur, and asks “What next? Two white jockeys on the lawn?” This however is a somewhat hypocritical view for a Government Agent. What is most striking and positive about Jones’ representation is her physical strength. During one of the early scenes she defends herself aptly against a knife-wielding attacker with her ability in the martial arts. This aptitude in Asian forms of self defence show Jones to be both multi-cultural, whilst also having extra ordinary talents. This represents Jones as having reached a higher potential than most of the other African Americans in this film. This depicted Jones as a role model to those female African American audience members. But rather than being a wholly positive representation, the fact remains that Jones is represented as having to use violence to make her way in the world, a rather negative thing for a role model do. Overall though, the representation of African American women that Cleopatra Jones disseminates to the audience is mostly positive, especially when compared to the Mammy characters of earlier cinema.

Blaxploitation as a genre died off a few years after the release of Cleopatra Jones but African American audiences still felt that they weren’t being truly represented upon the screen. Thus, there was what Jim Pines describes as a, ‘resurgence of black independent cinema during the 1970’s [that] represented an important opposition to mainstream Blaxploitation imagery’ . Essentially, the audience had recognised that the imagery contained within Blaxploitation films was not a fair representation, especially considering that the white establishment made the films. As Bogle says:
What became most disturbing was that while these movies appeared to be black (in concept, in outlook, in feel) and while they were feverishly promoted and advertised as such, they actually were no such thing. Many of the new black-oriented films were written, directed, and produced by whites
And so there was a development of realism films that were produced by a new wave of African American filmmakers, known as the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers . These films were inescapably joined to the previous socio-political movements of African American culture, and on of the most important films of this movement was Killer Of Sheep . The narrative centres upon the day-to-day life of Stan, an African American who works at a slaughterhouse, and how he deals with his limited existence. The film is shot on black and white stock using a handheld camera and is filmed on location with mostly diegetic sounds. These elements are borrowed from the Italian neo-realism film movement of the post-war era. This form of realism suffuses the films with an almost documentary form and thus adding verisimilitude to the representations.

The area that Stan lives and works in is run-down; the ghetto is shown as it really is, an area of urban decay, where children play on piles of rubble. Perhaps the most striking is the sense of futility and hope shown throughout the narrative. The job he has is low paying and his family is on the poverty line. One memorable scene has Stan and his friend attempting to buy into the American dream (represented by the automobile) by purchasing a second-hand engine for Stan’s car. The hope that Stan has for now being able to act out the American dream is dashed when the engine falls out of a pick-up truck and is ruined.

This thematic use represents the way in which most African Americans felt at that time: disenfranchised with how American society was treating them. So, the representation of Stan in this film, aided by the documentary form, is that of an average citizen. He is not shown to be physically strong or sexually promiscuous as characters from films of the Blaxploitation genre were. Instead he is shown in a more realistic manner. He has a family and a job and is trying to succeed as best he can despite his rather trying circumstances. This theme of hope is best represented in the final scene of the movie in which Stan forcefully herds sheep into the slaughterhouse with more emotion and determination than he did earlier in the film.

This shows that Stan is determined not to let circumstances get in the way of his attempts to make life better for himself and his family. He would rather keep his dignity than delve into the world of crime and violence that surrounds him. This is a very positive representation that goes against the representations established within the Blaxploitation genre. Blaxploitation films used action as their main theme, and the characters within were proficient with either their fists (Cleopatra Jones) or with firearms (Shaft). Killer of Sheep offers a more realistic representation of African Americans through Stan, his family and the people around them. These characters are shown positively as having the same morals and value systems as most families, thus disestablishing the demonised stereotypes set out by Donald Bogle .

Thus a genre of films was established to represent African Americans, their culture and their society in a realistic and truthful manner. Yet the initial popularity of this genre soon died off. It seemed that African American audiences wanted films that allowed escapism rather than films that reminded audiences of their own social problems.

There was an alternative school of thought especially from the LA School of independent filmmakers producing social realism films such as The Killer of Sheep perhaps in an attempt to restore the balance in the realistic portrayal of African Americans. Direct retaliation of stereotypes that had come through the direct action of the Brutal Black Buck before, but in doing the Black Buck stereotype, itself a negative representation, was reinforced ad infinitum in the Blaxploitation era. The LA school hoped to counteract this through realism, and gritty truth. Both were politically charged and it was clear African Americans were still producing films as a form of protest (as with many films are of course).

Back to Part Three

Part Five

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2 responses to “20th Century African American Cinema Stereotypes & Donald Bogle: A Series

  1. Pingback: 20th Century African American Cinema Stereotypes & Donald Bogle: A Series | TheZenith·

  2. Pingback: 20th Century African American Cinema Stereotypes & Donald Bogle: A Series | TheZenith·

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