The agenda is set by the formula.
—Erik Barnouw, in conversation.
For the purposes of this study, "black film" may be defined as those motion pictures made for theater distribution that have a black producer, director, and writer, or black performers; that speak to black audiences or, incidentally, to white audiences possessed of preternatural curiosity, attentiveness, or sensibility toward racial matters; and that emerge from self-conscious intentions, whether artistic or political, to illuminate the Afro-American experience. In the latter part of this century, this definition might be expanded to include major motion pictures and other projects made for television, as well as films that, despite foreign origins in, say, Africa, speak to Afro-American concerns.
If we were to bring this definition to a fine pinpoint, we should argue forever over who has the right to dance on the head of the pin. The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded in 1916, always used a white cameraman; Oscar Micheaux, especially after depression-induced bankruptcy, accepted "white" financing; Variety frequently evaluated so-called race movies, thereby possibly influencing their makers. Thus almost every black film, from production through distribution, was affected by whites.
Black film taken in its narrowest sense then consists of only a tiny body of work seen by a coterie of black moviegoers, then consigned to an early death in dusty storerooms, not to be seen again until brought to light in"white" repositories like the Library of Congress.
By this standard the best single example of black film seen as pure product—produced by blacks, for blacks, and with an ambition to advance the image or the cause of the race—is the fragmented evangelistic film of Eloise Gist, the traveling black preacher. She ranged over the South during the Great Depression, spreading her revivalist faith through motion pictures shot only for the specific narrow purpose defined by her own faith and spirit. Nowhere from script to screen did any white hand intrude, or any white eye observe. Neither white financing in the beginning nor white appreciation at the end affected her pristine black fundamentalism. Her films were naive, technically primitive, literal depictions of black Southern religious folklore that brought faith to life, much as an illuminated manuscript gave visual life to Christian lore in the Middle Ages.
But the entire body of such black film could be seen in a single day's session at a Steenbeck viewer. Our definition of black film must necessarily be broader so as to include the work of those self-conscious black artists who were at least as interested in the beauty of the medium as in the effectiveness of the message; the black filmmaker whose work emerged from the conventional channels of production that were lined with white money, advice, and control, even down to "final cut" approval; and finally, though rarely, film produced by white filmmakers whose work attracted the attention, if not always the unconditional praise, of black moviegoers and critics.
A broader compass also allows us to avoid the trap of claiming too much black control of certain films. In recent years many critics, inspired by the heady atmosphere of pursuit and discovery of old and presumably lost black film, have made exaggerated, unwarranted claims of certain instances of monolithic black control of the filmmaking process.
In the late 1920s, for example, the Colored Players Company of Philadelphia turned out a reputedly good film version of a famous black novel; a curiously tragic black revival of the old temperance tract, Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), starring the eminentblack actor, Charles Gilpin, in his only screen appearance; and, most significant, The Scar of Shame (1927), an evocative, sometimes delicate drama of color caste distinctions within Afro-American circles. The recent discovery of this last film resulted in a round of showings to both black and white students, and a rash of essays saluting its presumably black originators, the creative force who looked over the shoulders of the obviously Italian technicians cited inthe credits. And yet, a few moments of cursory research revealed that from top to bottom, the Colored Players were actually white, save for their front man, Sherman "Uncle Dud" Dudley, an old black vaudevillian who had dreams of a black Hollywood on the outskirts of Washington.
Perhaps because of the hazards inherent in drawing fine distinctions, black critics have avoided the task of constructing a black cinema aesthetic, at least until recently. Addison Gayle's otherwise admirable The Black Aesthetic (1971), for example, does not include a single sample of cinema comment. The little criticism that appears often splinters into two camps differing in focus: the one literary, the other political. The opposing sides in this argument either demand that art be a weapon against racism, or feel that art is neither bullet nor ballot. In any case, the debate has done little to help define the outlines of a black aesthetic or of black genre film.
At the center of this controvery is the "twoness" of American racial life. The term was coined by W.E.B. DuBois, the premier black intellectual of the twentieth century. It describes the anomaly of American racial arrangements, which segregate black from white, discriminate along racial lines, and yet oblige Afro-Americans to assimilate the values of white America. If films reflect the belief and behavior systems of society, we must expect that they will express these realities.
Thus, given the persistence of American racial codes, it does not seem possible, except in a unique case like Eloise Gist's film, that either a black or white filmmaker could produce a film that in some way did not suffer alteration of tone, plot, theme, pace, or character, and even benefitted from, the occasional interracial collaboration. For example, the presumably black The Scar of Shame was produced by a film crew that was largely white. Two years later, in 1929, King Vidor's MGM opus, Hallelujah!, an appreciative styling of black rural folk religion, profited from the advice of Harold Garrison, a black crew member, as well as from a panel of black Southern preachers, who gave counsel while the company shot on location along the Mississippi. The veteran black actor, Clarence Muse, performed a similar function on the set of Fox's Hearts in Dixie (1929) and in other Hollywood films, one of which he and Langston Hughes wrote for Sol Lesser.
But it was in the area of financing where blacks and whites really came together, even outside the realm of Hollywood. Even the most independent producers of race movies—those films made for exclusively black audiences between 1916 and 1956—relied on white sources of capital, distributors, bookers, and exhibitors. Life on the movie set was not significantly different from American life at large. Whites bossed and blacks labored, with only a little bargaining room between them.
After the film was in the can, blacks and whites still shared power over thefate of the product. From the earliest days of filmmaking at the beginning of the century, censors' scissors shaped film imagery and themes. But the Negro minister who sat on Chicago's board of censors was a rarity, so over the years, blacks tended to accommodate the wishes of white censors. In 1924 a black independent filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, reshaped his Body and Soul to suit the New York state film censor. As late as 1970, Melvin Van Peebles, the most celebrated of recent black filmmakers, was outraged by the censorious and delimiting "X" ratinggiven his Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song by the white Motion Picture Association of America, a stigma that denied him access to a prospective black adolescent audience. Also by the 1970s, much documentary film was conditioned by its sponsorship and support by the public television network, with its charter obligation to reach all segments of the national audience. Moreover, "white" film sometimes took on a black hue as a result of favorable black responses,such as Congressman Oscar DePriest's endorsement of Hallelujah! in 1929 and James P. Murray's praise of Michael Roemer's Nothing But a Man (1964) in Black Creation, a magazine of Afro-American arts.
A glance at American racial history reinforces this broadened view of black cinema. In the past black creativity has been at its most clearly "black" in those endeavors into which blacks were most segregated from white influence—work songs, gospel songs, spirituals, and theological rhetoric. Even in these accomplishments, however, an occasional white European echo may be heard. But if James Agee is correct when he insists that black art is at its most tainted, and even corrupt, when it is exposed to white praise, we must also see that blacks in racially integrated circumstances have been equally creative. Their work, a syncretism of Africa and Europe, is given shape, substance, and meaning by both traditions. Thus blacks in the arts—architecture, symphonic music, nonrepre-sentational painting, and even fiction—work in European forms and conventions while preserving trace elements of Afro-American culture.
The game of basketball is an illustrative case of differing racial styles of expression within a system of formal rules and conventions. A form of competitive choreography based on rules laid out at a white YMCA college in Massachusetts, the game is leavened by contrasting styles of white and black play, the former deliberate and long-range, the latter, shaped by childhood training in constricted playgrounds, fast-paced and close-range. But both are basketball.
If black intellectuals ever hoped to break from the constraints of American racial segregation, then Hollywood liberalism with its sentimental faith in progress, goodness, and individual worth provided a strong incentive that kept many blacks pressing toward eventual racial integration. Nevertheless, this same racial liberalism held out unrealistic hopes that diverted black filmmakers away from racial independence, sometimes by enabling them to join the major studios, sometimes by imitating Hollywood genres. Particularly after 1920 as Hollywood was becoming a world cinema capital, black screen roles increased in quantity and sometimes quality.
Year after year Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927), Hallelujah!, Hearts in Dixie, The Green Pastures (1936), Slave Ship (1937), So Red the Rose (1935), Beggars of Life (1928), Crash Dive (1943), Sahara (1943), Bataan (1943), Pinky (1949), Stormy Weather (1943), Cabin in the Sky ( 1943), Raisin in the Sun (1961), Lilies of the Field (1963), The Defiant Ones (1958), and Sounder (1972) promised an ever hopeful future. Much like a happy ending, progress at least seemed possible on the screen if not in real life. Unfortunately, few pictures left Afro-Americans with a completely satisfying portrait of American life, for even so-called problem pictures and message movies of the 1940s did not offer an agenda for eventual social change. Nevertheless, as the films reinforced hope, they diverted black attention away from the goal ofan independent black cinema.
It is this dual aspect of movies that forces us to view film through some critical prism that takes into account the interracial teamwork that goes into filmmaking. The team is rarely all black, and even when blacks predominate, they often come from different economic or regional backgrounds. Black film must be seen as a genre, then, for what it says and how it is said, rather than who is saying it.
Like the French semiological critics who borrow from the science of structural linguistics, we shall seek to define black genre film through social and anthropological rather than aesthetic factors. In this light, films are different from those fine arts in which the artist and his audience share a fund of common knowledge and experience. Rather, films bridge the gap between producer and mass audience, not through shared arcane tastes, but because a team of filmmakers shares a knowledge of genre formulas, more than an artistic tradition, with its audience.
Furthermore, genre films, like folktales and tribal lore, may transmit social meanings beyond the conscious intention of the filmmaker, as well as meaning brought by the audience's own social and cultural history. Moreover, the likelihood of attracting a mass audience is further assured because such films emerged from a history that followed "the novel's way" of telling popular and easily followed stories.
In this popular sense, a shot is a sentence in a tale, as well as a value-laden poetic image. The shot-as-visual-sentence is at the heart of genre film. Shots, like sentences and unlike words, are infinite in number, and therefore unlimited in what they convey and how they are perceived by the audience. The filmmaker composes the shot, constructs the space and the figures in it (and their size), and manipulates these elements as symbols for an audience whose own cultural conditioning limits and directs perceptions.
Thus filmmakers and audiences share a few intensely powerful symbols set in an easily followed narrative form that defines the genre. In many gangster films, the action necessarily opens on wet streets and darkened alleys with the hero, muffled in a trenchcoat, alone in the shadows, set apart from both cops and crooks, upholding a personal code that neither understands. In skilled hands, such repeated, codified images take on meanings larger than themselves and become powerful icons that need few words to explain them. Indeed, they become unintelligible only when the images are cluttered and the ambience is broken by extraneous materials.
When images are repeated and codified into a formula which is presented as a narrative, the resulting genre film permits instant communication between maker and audience. In the case of black film, the basic formula, by emphasizing one or another of its parts, permits expansion into subgenres that are variations on the basic traits. The viewer may see the black genre exemplified in social drama, cautionary tales, musicals, documentaries, religious tracts, and romances featuring both urbane and pastoral heroes.
Nevertheless, the subgenres share a common fund of integrated caste marks that identify the larger genre. Black genre films emerge from a segregated point of view, even when treating "white" themes, and rely on an appropriate repertoire of symbols. These might include a folk idiom such as black religion, an urbane jive idiom evolved from the lives of jazzmen, or the aloof mask of behavior that might be called aesthetique du cool . These idioms then form the perimeters of black social manners expressed both externally, to whites, and internally. Like so many black experiences that receive too much white attention, these modes may become less genuine as they become the subjects of show business routines, in the same way that some gospel music becomes flashy and secular removed from the church and hyped for the stage. The symbolic content of black genre film is given moral urgency by a tone of advocacy rather than, say, a reportorial style. Because genre film conveys shared experiences, some of which may not have touched all of the audience with equal impact, the films may employ the literary device of anatomy as a means of understanding the whole of black life through the depiction of its parts. Genre film acts as a ritual celebrating a myth, that is, a value-impregnated tale that is truer than mere truth. Movies made for black genre audiences may range from black versions of Horatio Alger's success stories to Southern Baptist fundamentalism. Finally, the black genre rests on heroic figures, either urban or pastoral, each reflecting a different focus of black experience. The urban hero, for example, corresponds roughly to the romantic white westerner, greater than his adversaries only in degree, never mythically greater in quality. A revenge motive is often at the core of his being. He either struggles against it, redeemed and improved by the experience, or he surrenders to it, thereby avenging the pain of history, but at the price of lost innocence.
Although whites may see every black hero as a picaroon, a separation between urban and rural types is clear. The hero's response to the opportunity for revenge often marks him either as a pastoral or a picaresque hero. Much like the western loner, the pastoral hero stands apart from society, secure in his own identity and values; unlike the white westerner, however, he uses the family as his anchor. He is in Northrop Frye's "low mimetic mode" of heroism, superior to neither milieu nor men. He wins not by prevailing but by enduring. The urban picaresque hero, on the other hand, is alone, moved to vengeance, prone to violence modulated only by Shaft's cool professionalism or Sweetback's hope for eventual revolution. Not since Stepin Fetchit has there been a truly ironic black hero, inferior to both men and milieu, but nevertheless surviving by his wits, like Bre'r Rabbit, the African trickster removed to southern America.
Genre film can easily become exploitation film, through which tastes are teased but no deeper needs are met. While genre film tends to treat things as they are and avoids the trap of advocating them, exploitation film sensationalizes them. Genre film merely speaks from a segregated point of view; exploitation film prefers it. Black genre film ritualizes the myth of winning; exploitation film, at its worst, merely celebrates and dramatizes revenge as though it were a form of winning.
Black genre film celebrates aesthetique du cool, the outward detachment, composed choreographic strides, and self-possessed, enigmatic mask over inner urgency that have been admired in both Africa and Afro-America. In contrast, so-called "blaxploitation" film trumps aesthetique du cool into mere sneering and bravado. The black genre chooses hyperbole as a mode of celebrating the combination of triumph over adversity, fellow feeling, and moral superiority of the oppressed, known most recently as "soul"; "blaxploitation" film only bleats in shrill imitation. The anatomy of black life in black genre film is an instrument of communication to the group by the group, exemplified by the black CIA agents in The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), who share their nostalgia for the details of black college life, fraternal orders, and sports; "blaxploitation" film redundantly depicts only what has been done to blacks, not by them. Individual anatomical details also establish credibility, for example, when the same agents reminisce about the Penn Relays, a sporting event that only a few blacks would remember as the famed "Negro Olympics" of the 1930s and 1940s. In this sense, black genre film is like the black magazine that runs soul food recipes, or the black student newspaper that features a glossary of black argot—they are treatises for the uninitiated on the uses and beauties derived from cultivating a black identity.
Despite rivalry from exploiters, black genre film has survived for half a century, a most remarkable feat in view of the fact that cultural artifacts of an industrial society are often short-lived. To adapt Bronislaw Malinowski, black genre films have, like good tribal lore, expressed, enhanced, and codified belief; safeguarded and enforced group values; offered practical rules of conduct; and vouched for the efficacy of tribal ritual and gods. No other genre, except perhaps the American western, spoke so directly to the meaning and importance of shared values embraced by its audience.