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

Silver Streak starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

Silver Streak starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

Part Five:  The Post Blaxploitation Era of Comedy Films

I live in racist America and I’m uneducated, yet a lot of people love me and like what I do, and I can make a living from it. You can’t do much better than that.
Richard Pryor

With the demise of both the Blaxploitation genre and the realism films of the LA School, it was now becoming less and less controversial to have African Americans in starring roles. However, defined stars were needed to compete with the White American stars that attracted audiences, mainly just on the strength of their celebrity status. As such, the studios looked down different avenues of the African American entertainment culture for potential stars. One of the more popular and burgeoning aspects of this culture that appealed to both white American and African American audiences was that of stand-up comedy, with it’s most notable (and controversial) star, Richard Pryor.

Pryor was a renowned celebrity at the time, mostly for his controversial use of the word ‘nigger’. The use of this word was similar to the use of a Buck character in Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song.
As Bogle puts it;

as a bold declaration of war that refuses to make concessions to please a white audience, the film enjoys jerking white-audiences around and unleashing age-old fears.

So Pryor’s use of the word ‘nigger’ is an attempt to both stir up controversy with the audience and to detract from the powerfully negative ramifications of the word. The sheer number of repetitions leads to audiences becoming used to the word.

So it was that Pryor’s fame grew to the extent that he was offered various film roles. One of his more famous roles was as Grover Muldoon in the film Silver Streak . In this film, Gene Wilder’s character witnesses a murder whilst on a train, and teams up with Pryor to evade being killed himself. Pryor’s character turns out to be a criminal, a negative representation spanning back to the silent film era. However, Muldoon is not shown to be a criminal by choice but by necessity. Unlike the African Americans in the Blaxploitation genre, Muldoon does not find the criminal lifestyle glamorous, he merely commits crimes for a higher financial gain then he would find in the oppressive ‘real world’. This can be shown by his willingness to join Wilder back on the train, even though initially he has his doubts, due to the fact that murder is involved. If Muldoon is wary of getting involved with murder, then he must realise that there are limits to how far he will go with his criminal lifestyle. However, this can also show a negative quality within Muldoon’s representation, essentially he is a coward. However, he is only slightly more cowardly than Wilder’s character towards the end of the film.

An interesting part of this film is the scene in which Muldoon ‘blacks up’ Wilders character in an attempt to evade a police checkpoint. This represents the old tradition during early American cinema, in which Jewish performers were used to take the place of African American performers, by ‘blacking up’ . However, in this instance, the roles are reversed. Instead of a white American defining how an African American should act, it is the African American character that defines how they act. This represents African Americans as having their own culture and mannerisms. Instead of suffering for their differences from white Americans, African Americans are now represented to be embracing them by defining their individuality as a race. Essentially, the theme of role reversal is heavily prevalent within this scene. To avoid the police, a white American must disguise himself as an African American, a turnaround of the stereotype of the African American being sought by the police and the white American being law-abiding. Thus the representation of the African American character Muldoon is quite positive. Even though he carries the negative aspect of being a criminal, he is also shown as being quite intelligent, resourceful and morally and ethically honourable. However, it can be seen that the willingness on Muldoon’s part to assist Wilder is reminiscent of the slave mentality. Put this together with the fact that there is a lack of other African Americans in the film, the Pryor is very much acting the part of the ‘slave in his masters world’.

This film was one of the first in what was to be known as the Buddy genre. These films often feature a white and African American male as the two protagonists.
The film Blazing Saddles is one of the most important films of its time with regard to African American representation. A parody of the Western genre, Blazing Saddles revolves around the conflict between the racist ideologies of a small Western town and the new sheriff, who is an African American, put into power in a bid to force the residents of the town out.

Bart, played by Cleavon Little, is one of the few African Americans in this film. As a slave he is shown to be both hard working yet also devious. There is a scene in which the two rival groups of the slaves and the slave drivers exchange both stereotypes and their counterpoints in the form of song. Bart, one of the main singers, acts aloof when asked to sing Camptown Lady. Acting as if he doesn’t know this song, he then breaks into a rendition of a more refined number, whilst the slave drivers look on in anger. In this sense, the African Americans are shown as having more refined tastes than their white masters, whilst also having a higher propensity towards intelligence and courage (which is shown by Bart speaking back to the slave drivers).
Even when confronted by the bigoted ideologies of the townsfolk, Bart remains graceful and polite, whilst also adapting the stereotypes the towns people are used to for his own use. This is shown by the scene in which the townsfolk confront Bart with a possibility of death at his inauguration as Sheriff. As Bart faces the guns of the townsfolk, he calmly pulls out his own pistol, holds it to his own head and proclaims in his best Buck accent “Nobody move or the nigger gets it!”. He then responds to his own threat by acting as one of Bogle’s Tom stereotypes, pleading to the townsfolk for help. The behaviour of Bart in this scene shows the African American as more intelligent and quick thinking than the white American who in this scene and essentially the whole film, are shown as bumbling idiots, prostitutes, bigots, drunks and muscle-bound dopes. This can be coupled with the position of power that the African American is put into, with a white deputy and thus a more senior position than a white American

In this sense, the roles of representation are reversed using the White Americans bigoted ideologies as a starting point. Essentially, the racist preconceptions of the African American are actually transposed upon white American characters. This film is one of the few in the buddy genre that actually have a more positive representation for the African American than for the white American. This is in part due to a white American.

This reversal of representation is not just due to one of the co-writers being black but due in part to the ethnicity of the director, Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is Jewish; a race that has been persecuted for much longer than African Americans and as such, the Jewish social history is one of victimisation and mistreatment. As the Jewish race had reached a level of equality with those white Americans of other religions, Mel Brooks could find it easier to represent other minorities in a positive light and the minorities may feel more comfortable with him as a spokesman than a white American of another religion.

Back to Part Four

Part Six

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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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