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Black Film

Brass Tacks

By Lee A. Daniels

THE TEMPLE seems totally out of place there, its awesome gray presence looming over Seaver Street in the heart of Boston's black community. The temple Mishkan Tefila belongs to another era, an era when Roxbury was peopled by the Goldbergs and the Rosenthals--but Roxbury is no longer Jewish, and the awesome granite structure is no longer a temple. It serves a new constituency and a new purpose now: it is the National Center for Afro-American Artists. Last Friday in the auditorium of the Yeshiva, the National Afro-American Center presented its first Black Film Festival.

The physical plant of the Center makes for a gloomy atmosphere. One enters expecting the Center's rehabilitation to have progressed much further than it has, but the dull gray walls of the auditorium and the tarnished brass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling give notice that rehabilitation is still a long from completion.

The film festival was as depressing as its surroundings. In fact, the event's title was a misnomer--there were only three films, all of which were documentaries. None lasted more than fifteen minutes. Whether this particular event qualified as a film festival was not of major concern, however. Its purpose was to establish a precedent, a base on which an authentic black film festival can be founded. But whether that ambition can be realized is a matter of considerable doubt.

St. Clair Bourne, a producer of the National Educational Television program, Black Journal, screened and discussed the three films: "Huey;" "Riot Control;" and one entitled "Newsreel." Actually Bourne, who has a masters' degree from Columbia in TV-filmmaking, was more interested in the significance of the films than in the films themselves.

He stated that they represented the beginnings of a new film form, Black Film. Black Film is not merely filming done by black people. It is, according to Bourne, intrinsically different from "white" film, in tone, in rhythm, and in function.

Pressed to clarify this difference, Bourne's explanation was ambiguous. It goes without saying that Afro-American rhythm, "soul" rhythm, differs from "white" rhythm. Bourne's argument that just as soul rhythm can be heard in music, it can be applied to and seen in film was murky. He readily agreed that his thesis was vague, blaming it on the fact that the concept itself is a new one.

The function of Black Film was perfectly clear: to reflect the attitudes, aspirations, and problems of Afro-Americans, and to offer suggestions for the resolution of black problems. The validity of the other differences mentioned--tone, rhythm et al--is open to question.

THE SUBJECT of the film "Huey" is obvious. A documentary made for the Black Panther Party in Oakland this summer, it was not, and was not understood by the audience to be, an example of Black Film.

"Riot Control," a collage of ads from a police journal promoting riot control weaponry interspersed with still shots of the 1967 Newark revolt, was a warning that further explosions in the ghetto will be met with an escalation of brutal repression. Though effective in presenting its message, it could have been done by a white cameraman sensitive to the subject. The film's rhythm, its irregularity notwithstanding, was not the prototype of a new concept. Its impact upon the audience was electric; but the film hardly represented a new genre of cinematography.

"Newsreel," composed of a non-chronological series of shots having no immediate relationship to each other, was produced by an avant-garde film company of the same name. One scene depicted a memorial service for Malcom X at a Harlem school; the next, a panel discussion in Newark of Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.

Again the rhythm differed from what is usually found in the 16 millimeter market. But that in itself does not mean that a white cameraman could not have filmed it (or that a white audience could not understand it).

On this basis any talk of Black Film might seem ridiculous. A case can be made for the concept, however. Bourne was working within certain restrictions. The films were documentary and impersonal. No person occupied the center stage, and no specific problem was set forth. Thus they failed to meet the definition that Bourne himself (and others) had advanced.

But if Black Film can be seen as an extension of Black Theater, then perhaps its conceptualization can be realized.

Black Theater is theater by, about and directed towards the black community. Black Theater is entertaining (and not simply because drama-in-black-face is the current vogue), and, more importantly, illuminating. As Peter Bailey writes in Newsweek (February 24), ". . . its raison d'etre is cultural nationalism." Its purpose is to further the growth and self-knowledge of the black audience. In today's theater there is more than ever, before a natural empathy between the black playwright and his black audience; there is no need for an exposition of "the problem," the presumption being that the audience, being black, shares certain basic assumptions with the playwright and the characters. He (the black playwright) is concerned with black people's relationships with each other, how they themselves perceive the assets and liabilities of the black experience in America.

Bailey mentions the Lonnie Elder play, "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men," performed by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, as an example of Black Theater. The play explores the material and psychological problems of a black Harlem family. The characters are neither one-dimensional nor stereotyped. Elder develops them into full black human beings: they face and resolve some of the problems raised, leaving others for the audience to ponder.

Black Film could supplement the efforts of Black Theater by filming such plays and making the tapes available to black groups around the country. Bourne himself mentioned just such a project Friday night. He has created a Black Film production company called Chamba (Swahili for "images-of-the-eye"), in part to act as a clearing house for Black Films.

YET, BLACK film-making, if it is to be successful in its own right, must consider the filming of black drama as a point of departure, not as an end in itself. Filming black drama robs drama (as an art form) of most of its impact and, more importantly, limits the cinematic technique to the conventions of the stage. The result is a marginal product containing most of the vices--and few of the virtues--of each.

But Black Film, indeed the entire black cultural movement faces a crucial problem: financing. At present, as Daniel Watts, editor of the Liberator has said, the black cultural revolution is financed almost wholly by white philanthropy. The implications of that fact go deeper than its obvious irony.

As the Movement continues to become more nationalistic, relations between black cultural groups and their white supporters will undoubtedly become increasingly tenuous. Such was made evident Friday night.

The audience was racially-mixed, almost equally so. Most of the whites were obviously patrons of the Center. It was, to a large extent, their money which had made the program possible. The reaction of the blacks in the audience, however, ranged from a self-conscious acknowledgement to cold hostility. The tension was noticeable from the outset.

The white patrons had not expected to see the kind of films that were presented. Many were dismayed by the first film "Riot Control." They were shocked that such weapons were being offered to and bought by police departments for use in the cities. The knowledge made for a certain discomfort for the whites.

The tension became almost tangible when the film "Huey" was shown. While the blacks in the audience erupted in applause at least six different times in response to statements made by the speakers in the film, the whites were noticeably silent and fidgety. As the main speakers in the film were Eldridge Cleaver, Stokeley Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, the source of the applause--and the sentiment implicit in it--was not difficult to discover.

Thus the black cultural revolution is rapidly approaching a crisis. Inexorably becoming more nationalistic, it is almost certain to alienate the white support it is dependent upon. Black artists want to turn to the black community for their full support, but this would necessarily entail a reduction in the movement's momentum. The black community is struggling on too many fronts to concentrate all of its resources in the development of a black cultural consciousness (which, no matter how desirable, is not an immediate prospect).

The ambitions of the Black Film Festival were clearly beyond the reach of the films themselves. Black Film, except as an extension of Black Theater, does not exist; film-making costs being prohibitive, a new genre of black films with any meaningful dimensions presently remains beyond the grasp of most black artists. The more foreboding problem, however, is that in the coming years the black community must find new ways to underwrite and encourage its own cultural movement--even though this will result in a temporary setback in its momentum. Unless the black community can find new ways to bring substantive support to this nascent yet vitally important movement, it will remain without any meaningful roots in the black community. But more compelling, it will atrophy like so many other black endeavors left to the mercy of white philanthropy.

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