Black Cinema Part III - the TV age and beyond

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 15, 2010 12:42pm | Post a Comment
This is the first installment in a three part history of early Black Cinema.
To read Part I, covering the independent Race Movie years of the 1910s and '20s, click here
To read Part II, covering the Hollywood Studio years of the 1930s and '40s, click here

In American silent films, minority roles were almost invariably filled by white actors in exaggerated and offensive make-up. Latinos in silent films usually played greasers and bandits; Asian-Americans usually played waiters, tongs and laundrymen; and blacks usually played bellboys, stable hands, maids or simply "buffoons." Not surprisingly, both Asian-Americans and blacks responded by launching their own alternative silent cinemas. But whereas Asian-American Silent Cinema quickly faltered, silent, black "race movies" flourished. In the 1930s and '40s, Hollywood began to phase out the practice of blackface (while continuing the practice of redface and yellowface) and successfully wooed race movies' sizable and thus profitable audience. By the 1950s, with its enormous budgets and star power, Hollywood had effectively co-opted and destroyed the independent Black Cinema known as race movies. The result was that there were far fewer examples of Black Cinema in the decade. In the years that followed, as TV chipped away at film’s dominance, a few black actors began appearing on the small screen in shows like Beulah (1950-1953) and The Amos 'n Andy Show (1951-1953) which, whilst hardly socially progressive, at least offered more acting opportunities for black actors.


Though race movies were done and over with, black actors and filmmakers made some in-roads in Hollywood. In 1952, William Walker was elected as a member the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors, where he served until 1971. At the Guild’s meeting the year Walker joined, he and a pre-darkside Ronald Reagan presented a report titled “More and Better Roles for Negroes in Motion Pictures” from the Negro Employment Committee. Although no real changes came about as a result of it, Walker tirelessly continued to use his position to lobby Hollywood's executives for years. Finally, in 1963, he partnered with the NAACP and successfully negotiated for the SAG’s Theatrical Agreement to include a non-discrimination clause.



Harlem Follies of 1949 and The Jackie Robinson Story (both 1950), The Harlem Globetrotters and Native Son (both 1951), Cry, the Beloved Country (1952), All My Babies, Crazylegs and The Joe Louis Story (all 1953), Burlesque in Harlem and Carmen Jones (both 1954), Carib Gold (1957), St. Louis Blues and Tamango (both 1958), Anna Lucasta, Imitation of Life, Porgy & Bess and Take a Giant Step (all 1959)


Al Freeman Jr   
               Al Freeman Jr.                     Billy Dee Williams                        Billy Preston                         Brock Peters

  Carmen De Lavallade                   Cicely Tyson                           Clarence William III                   Claudia McNeil 

                        Coley Wallace                       Diahann Carroll              Diana Sands                    Geoffrey Holder 

      Haywood Nelson                      Helen Martin                               Hilda Simms                              Ivan Dixon 

             Joe Adams                         Lou Gossett Jr.                     Mahalia Jackson                       Maya Angelou 

        Millie Bruce                  Nichelle Nichols                 Olga James               Ossie Davis             Rosetta LeNoire 

Not pictured are Charles Swain, Fred Moultrie, Georgia Burke, Ike Jones, John Thurston, Marilyn Clark, Miles Clark, Moses LaMarr, P. Jay Sidney, Rosalind Hayes, Ruth Attaway, Stanley Greene, Thelma Oliver, Vince Townsend and Zelda Cleaver.


Prior to the 1960s, Hollywood's preferred showcase for black talent was musicals. However, with the decline in their popularity, the industry continued to feature black characters in "problem films." In Sydney Poitier vehicles, the actor routinely played mainstream African-Americans who were articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking guys, leading to his nickname, "The Ebony Saint." Meanwhile, on TV, a few programs aired that showed black characters in lead roles playing non-stereotypical characters for the first time. On shows like Star Trek, black characters were often featured, although the most prominent was Nyota Uhura, who was given little to do besides show leg. This led to Nichelle Nichols planning to leaving the show until she was urged to stay by a fan named Martin Luther King, Jr.

                 I Spy (1965-1968)                            Julia (1968-1971)                           The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971)

Meanwhile, a couple of French and French-Italian co-productions and American regionals exploited racial tension in a less tempered manner and were shown in the Grindhouse circuit in the US, including: Les tripes au soleil (Checkerboard) - 1959, This Rebel Breed - 1960, Les lâches vivent d'espoir (My Baby is Black) - 1961, Murder in Mississippi - 1965 and The Black Klansman - 1966. 

Nearly all films that dealt with race made in Europe or the US were directed by white directors and made mostly for white audiences. In Africa, Ousmane Sembène's 1966 feature-length debut was the first African film made south of the Sahara, and one which dealt with race in a highly intellectual, artistic and original manner. In the US, it wasn't until Gordon Parks and Melvin van Peebles began making films toward the end of the decade that black American filmmaking resurfaced, with films like one of Van Peebles's French productions, La Permission (1968), Parks's The Learning Tree (1969) and Van Peebles's follow-up, Watermelon Man.

BLACK MOVIES IN THE '60s             


I Passed for White and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), Raisin in the Sun (1961), Gone are the Days (1963), Black Like Me, The Cool World, Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’, Nothing But a Man and One Potato, Two Potato (all 1964), The Black Klansman and A Man Called Adam (both 1966), Dutchman and It Won't Rub Off, Baby (both 1967), For Love of Ivy and Story of a 3 Day Pass (both 1968), The Learning Tree and Slaves (both 1969)


 Barbara Ann Teer  
                Abbey Lincoln                   Barbara Ann Tier                             Bill Cosby                         Della Reese 

            Dick Gregory                       Dionne Warwick                      Dizzy Gillespie                         Don Marshall  

  Gloria Foster 
          Esther Rolle                    Fred Williamson                          Gloria Foster                             Greg Morris  

          Hal Williams                      Isabel Sanford                              Jackée Harry                           Ja'net DuBois  

            Jeff Burton                         Johnny Brown                                                           Julius Harris 

                               Max Julien                                                         Paul Winfield                            Redd Foxx 

       Robert Hooks                 Robert Kya-Hill             Roscoe Lee Brown               Yaphet Kotto         Woodie King Jr.

Not pictured are Gary Bolling, Kyle Johnson, Leonard Parker, Marc Copage, Mark Dymally and Martin Priest

It was due, in large part, to the efforts of Van Peebles, Parks and the growing number of black actors that had careers in the 1970s, Black Cinema would once again flourish under the banner of Blaxploitation. While at first a vibrant genre which produced several quality films, it too would once again be co-opted by Hollywood and white filmmakers who reduced to formulaic action films about pimps and hos. Black Cinema recovered in the 1980s as an independent alternative to Hollywood, with which it successfully co-existed for the first time -- largely, no doubt, because Hollywood for the most part stopped bothering itself with focusing on or casting minorities in substantial roles. Since the '80s, Hollywood's preferred method of examining race has been with "Through Blue Eyes" films (e.g. Ghosts of Mississippi, Schindler's List, Mississippi Burning, Dances with Wolves, Last Samurai, Amistad, Shogun, The Mission, &c), in which members of the oppressors (always white) become accepted by (and then help) the oppressed, who can't help themselves without white assistance. So, although most modern black cinema titles may have a lower profile than examples in the past, rest assured there are a numerous black films being released every week -- just check out Amoeba's enormous and popular Black Cinema section.

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