ONCE ON THE VERGE of closing for lack of attendance, central-city theaters are currently doing a booming business with "black movies," a new geare of films featuring blacks in leading roles. They are often--but not always--written and directed by blacks. Most of the films have set box office records, and though Hollywood is straining itself to churn out the product, the black audience's appetite appears to go unsatisfied.
But what appears to be a breakthrough for a people previously excluded from this important medium is instead another cruel hoax played on the black community. Blacks have been let into the movies, but only in roles that perpetuate derogatory stereotypes or create counter-productive myths.
Black community organizations, from the militant CORE to the integrationist NAACP have called the films exploitative, but their objections have not yet been heeded. Feeling a need for further action, several civil rights groups last summer announced the formation of a "Coalition Against Blaxploitation" and a Film Rating Committee that will classify black movies as Superior, Good, Acceptable. Objectionable, or Thoroughly Objectionable.
"We will not tolerate the continued warping of our children's minds with the filth, violence, and cultural lies that are all-pervasive in current productions of so-called black movies," explained Junius Griffin former president of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP and a founder of the new coalition. "The transformation from the stereotyped Stepin Fetchit to Super Nigger on the screen is just another form of cultural genocide."
Even with such harsh words, Griffin states the case mildly. The exploitative process affects blacks long after they leave their local movie houses. Not only do the films promote detrimental political and value orientations, but they also plunder the black community artistically and economically.
The MGM-produced Shaft films are illustrative. John Shaft, a black private detective who enforces the laws that repress much of the black community, is rewarded for his efforts with a fabulous penthouse, beautiful women, and lots of money. Serious black activists who are desperately trying to help the community, however, are portrayed as brash and fumbling idiots who live in coldwater walk-up tenements. The message is clear: be a self-centered hustler and maybe one day you can move to Park Avenue: deal seriously with the struggle for liberation and you are condemned to the ghetto.
Two other offenders are Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back Charleston Blue, which feature Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge as veteran Harlem detectives. In Cotton a modern day Marcus Garvey is unmasked as a charlatan, while in Charleston Blue a dynamic young black photographer who rids the community of heroin turns out to be using it for his own purposes. Black Americans are implicitly instructed that Pan-Africanist leaders are frauds and that blacks who attempt to serve the community have alternative motives. The thrust of these films is that blacks are incapable of solving their own problems and only the all-embracing parental arm of white law can save blacks from themselves.
Super Fly, a movie about a drug pusher who escapes the law, is slickly crafted so that law and order do not triumph in the one instance they should. The film pushes the drug dealer-as-hero. The pusher has the customized Cadillac, the beautiful women, the fancy clothes, all gained by not obeying the law but by peddling death to the community. He's never caught in the end because death dealers (unlike black nationalist leaders and community workers) are allowed to go free.
AMAZINGLY, BLACK ACTOR Ron O'Neal, the star of Super Fly, steadfastly defends his role as being productive and says the movie opposes drug use. "The anti-drug commercials on TV don't do much good because the kids can't relate," he explained last summer. "We showed them just what the pusher's life is like. We showed that although the pusher has money he wants to get out. I get away in the end because it really happens that way. We interviewed lots of coke peddlers and they told us they're walking the streets today because of police corruption." The film's white producer, Sig Shore, adds: "So far as glamorizing the drug scene, if anybody has heard Curtis Mayfield's score, they know that it's all counterpoint to the action that's going on."
But counterpoints provided in theme songs are often lost on the most sophisticated of audiences, and to the millions of blacks around the country there is only one message--Freddy may be dead in the theme song but Ron O'Neal is still cruising around in his Cadillac with all those fine women. Get yourself a hustle brother, it's a lot easier than struggling for freedom.
Along with reactionary ideas, blacks are forcefed a steady diet of demeaning characterizations. Black actresses are literally and figuratively screwed from one reel to the next. The title character in Melinda is a black whore for a white gangster. The women in Super Fly are all prestitutes mindlessly devoted to the drug supplier, while in Cotton Comes to Harlem and Charlston Blue, black women are portrayed as naive, frivolous, or insane. The women in the Shaft films are merely repositories for the super-stud's semen. And as if there aren't enough real monsters to contend with in the ghetto, the king of horror films. American International, has a top grosser in Blacula, a movie that features Shakespearian actor William Marshall as a black vampire.
In addition to presenting politically regressive ideas and derogatory images, the films also exploit the community economically. As whites have fled to the suburbs, blacks have inherited not only the nation's cities but also its theater seats. White theater owners need a product with which to seduce black audiences, and to a people starved for a black image, anything dark will do. But after the black people file past the ticket window into the theater, their money keeps on travelling. It journeys to a white bank in some place far from the community, where it is not used to improve the community. White producers and theater owners are winning the black audience much as their white cohorrs mine the diamonds from South Africa. Both are ruthless forms of exploitation.
BLACK ACTORS and directors, however, argue that the films economically boost the community because they provide needed jobs for blacks in the movie industry. D'Urville Martin, a black actor who stars in both The Legend of Nigger Charley and The Final Comedown, says: "There was a time when there was no black work, and now that we've got work people are still complaining."
Martin and the other black people involved in the movies fail to grasp the nature of their oppression. Kept around the Hollywood plantation for so long, surviving only on the bit parts the studio masters would throw their way, the black actors and actresses are jumping at the new demeaning major roles like starving slaves after a crust of bread: They view it as their chance to make it, not realizing that by making it on Hollywood's terms they are only tightening the shackles of bondage around their people's minds. One is forced to agree with Griffin when he says: "If not hiring some aspiring young black actor or actress will prevent the kind of cultural genocide that I see, I would much rather see them unemployed."
IN ADDITION TO presenting distorted images of blacks, the actors and actresses are working in films of inferior technical quality. Almost all the black movies are low-budget, fast production numbers that are poorly photographed and edited. In one scene in Cool Breeze a hospital patient is about to receive plasma. As one watches the attendant desperately searching for a place to hang the bottle, one is tempted to suggest that he hang it on the boom mike that is clearly visible throughout the scene.
Some of the more honest participants in the films, like D'Urville Martin, admit the films are low quality. But Martin claims: "Black films are getting better." He attributes the poor quality of the films to a lack of initial capital from the black community. "Some of these people who are criticizing black movies have money to invest in black films," he complained. "But it's impossible to get any money out of them for a black film."
Black money does not always sponsor good black films. Black professionals apparently hungry to make a buck financed a large share of Super Fly. As Griffin explains: "This exploitation does not necessarily stem from the white community. It is impossible now for whitey to exploit blacky unless he has a black broker, and we've got plenty of people out here who are willing to sell out blackness. All they're doing is asking a higher price."
No matter how poor black movies are, they are probably no worse than 75 per cent of the trash Hollywood has continually turned out for the white market. In recent years there has been a steady deterioration in the quality of American films marked by the swift move to exploit new markets soon after they are discovered. After the success of Easy Rider, we were forced to endure countless poor imitations produced in an attempt to drain the maximum amount of dollars out of a new consumer group.
BUT IN THE CASE of the black market the exploitation is compounded, for a people who have starved for a self-image tend to over-identify with slick and flashy characterizations. This has horrifying consequences given the perverted characterizations promoted in black movies. This summer in Chicago, for example, three black youths who were strangers joined up after seeing Shaft's Big Score. Proclaiming themselves to be John Shaft, they pulled a foolhardy robbery that culminated in a dangerous high-speed chase through city street by Chicago police. Two were shot to death after their auto crashed.
The faults in black movies are made more glaring by the quality of at least one of their kind, Sounder. Based on a Newbury Award winning children's book, the movie deals powerfully and honestly with the life of black sharecroppers in the 1930's. Instead of black women parading lasciviously through Fifth Avenue apartments, it features Cicely Tyson as a strong and devoted black mother, Paul Winfield avoids the black superman stereotype as a loving but tough father who is interested only in dignity and a better life for his family. Sounder's success indicates what a black movie can and should be.
Other black movies could begin to match the quality of Sounder, but the white movie producers and their black allies have other aspirations. American International already has Blackenstein under production, and there is talk of yet another Shaft film. White producers justify their efforts by the old rationalization, "We're only giving them what they want." But like heroin and cocaine, whites and some unscrupulous blacks are once again giving the black community what it wants but not what it needs.