Black film has not been blessed with a critical tradition, merely celebrants or traducers, worshippers or infidels. For reliable knowledge, systematic standards of appreciation, and methodical criticism, only a few recent historical essays will serve the interested observer. At that, much of the literature still is tinged with plagiarism, preciousness, and cheerleading. Present-day students of film are necessarily the leading edge of an eventually more sophisticated criticism.
During the heyday of independent black filmmaking only a few theatrical critics in the northeastern metropolitan Negro press took an interest in race movies. The NAACP and other organizations with middle-class constituencies stood apart, neither endorsing black films, nor using them as the occasions for fund-raising benefits. Many professional black actors found the films regressive and ineptly done, and therefore turned to Hollywood films as a standard of professional success. Thus, in the formative years after 1916, this lack of middle-class and professional attention to race movies discouraged the growth of a written critical tradition. The few Afro-American newspapers that broke the silence usually had a vested interest in the films, either because their film and theater critics also served as theatrical bookers, their papers sought advertising revenue from theater owners, they built greater newsstand sales that accrued from covering premieres, or, as in the case of the Pittsburgh Courier, a marriage of convenience with a film company.
Not only did film criticism begin late, but most of it consisted of editorials directed against white movies about Negroes. The first black film criticism appeared in the August, 1929, issue of Close Up, a little magazine founded in Switzerland by Kenneth MacPherson, Winifred Bryher, and other American expatriates, whose aesthetic interests included the future of Negroes in films. Their authors included Afro-Americans, Marxist critics such as Harry Allan Potamkin, and the aesthetes themselves, who put together a little film called Borderline (1930), starring Paul and Eslanda Goode Robeson. An atmospheric fable about the impact of racism on two Negroes in a Swiss village, it was designed to illustrate their belief in the need for a black cinema. The issue, coming as it did on the eve of Hollywood's release of Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah!, signaled a rush of comment on motion pictures in such serials as the Urban League's Opportunity, the NAACP's Crisis, the fan magazine Photoplay, the radical Liberator, and the New York Times. This outpouring not only marked the beginning of criticism of black film, but in its merging of aesthetics and social import, outstripped most of the criticism of the succeeding decade.
A mid-Depression revival of black imagery on the Hollywood screen inspired not only a rejuvenation of race movies but a resumption of criticism; unfortunately for black independents, however, the approach was heavily paved with liberal progressivism. Only William Harrison's "The Negro and the Cinema," in the distinguished British journal Sight and Sound (1939) and James Asendio's brief piece in International Photographer (1940), held out hope for a unique black film tradition.
The 1940s' critics, caught up as they were in the spirit of Allied war aims with their veiled promise of an end to colonialism and racism, turned away from black films to Hollywood movies full of tales of racial integration and good race relations. The best of them followed the line of Alain Locke's and Sterling Brown's appreciative essay on Hollywood's use of black folklore in Hallelujah! and Hearts in Dixie: they searched each new movie for fresh signs of progress. Locke and Brown, along with other black intellectuals and Oscar DePriest, the black Chicago congressman, had regarded these two Hollywood musicals as landmarks of a sort, clearly breaking fresh ground, but also to be regarded warily for fear of their eventually pointing backward to the ruts of the Southern past.
The critics of the 1940s carried the two black scholars a step further by calling for a Hollywood cinema that would change American attitudes by destroying the race-linking of Negroes to a few narrowly conceived vices, and by opening up the screen to treatment of Negroes "like everybody else." The result, in the view of Lawrence Reddick, the best spokesman of this libertarian point of view, would be a decent and civil cinema that would improve race relations and pave the way for an egalitarian future free of the constraints of traditional racism.
Reddick, the curator of the A. A. Schomburg Collection of Afro-Americana in the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, must be counted as the first black critic who applied scholarly standards to his work. Largely because of the Schomburg's judicious collecting of clippings on Negro show business, Reddick was able to survey almost on a daily basis the black contribution to American popular art. His essay in a 1944 issue of the Journal of Negro Education appeared in the heat of the mid-war riots in Harlem, just after the wartime bargaining between NAACP leaders and the Hollywood studio chiefs. These meetings led him to hope for an integrated future, so imminent that it could be plotted in seven neat steps. For him, therefore, "the strategy of working for better treatment of the Negro, accordingly, must be worked out in terms of the profit motive of the industry and not through Jim Crow black movies." Thus, in the end, Reddick and his generation left little room for the growth of an independent black film industry. Nevertheless, their work was instrumental in defining standards of excellence, even if tainted with too much insistence on "positive images."
In the next few years, a number of young critics emerged to refine Reddick's sociology of film art. More than any other generation of writers on black themes, they hammered the point that segregation on racial lines created barriers of ignorance that perpetuated the creation of racial stereotypes, each to serve as a deeper wedge between two races, whom history had separated, but whom liberalism could bring together. They regularly appeared in the black press, the New York Times, and the Marxist press, and by the end of the wartime decade and the decade of integration that they had helped bring about, they began to appear in books and in scholarly quarterlies. If they did little to serve black film, they at least effectively called for a restructuring of Hollywood priorities.
Curiously, the critic who came to be accepted as the beau idéal of the period was Peter Noble, a young Englishman. Noble's The Negro in Films (1948) provided footnotes for a later generation of self-conscious black critics, whose potted surveys accepted as gospel his often impressionistic data and naive generalizations. Nevertheless, he gave some attention to black filmmakers, at least in his filmography, which was larger than any published before 1948.
Even less founded on empirical data, and marred by an unquestioning faith in Marxist dialectics was V. J. Jerome's The Negro in Hollywood Films (1950). Nevertheless, Jerome, too, kept alive the concept of a black cinema by using the inadequacies of Hollywood's postwar crop of racial themes, presented as social problems, as occasion to call for a doctrinaire Marxist black nationalist solution to "the Negro question." His indictment of soft liberalism for its inability to move to the conclusions necessitated by the exposure of racism called attention to the continuing need for a black independent cinema. Jerome's close analysis of Hollywood's message movies still merits attention for its finely focused eye for social detail. In contrast to Jose Yglesias, his able contemporary on the Daily Worker, Jerome could convey argument without precasting it in rigid Marxist terms.
In the 1950s, such diverse critics as Ralph Ellison, Gerald Weales, James Baldwin, and the shamefully neglected Albert Johnson, wrote pointedly, and often without apparent immediate impact, on the need for a black cinema in the face of Hollywood's failure to move beyond the Negro as an isolated figure in a white landscape. If the integratioriist era did not seem ripe for a careful definition of black cinema, at least the inadequacies of integrationist cinema did not go unnoticed. Moreover, unlike some generalists of the war years, these critics focused their attention on specific, and often highly praised, liberal films such as Intruder in the Dust, Carmen Jones, and Island in the Sun. More than at any time since Close Up, black critics intruded on a white critical preserve, this time in magazines of larger, more sophisticated readership such as Commentary and Film Quarterly. Baldwin and Ellison brought their intelligence to the problems of evaluating individual films–though with unfortunate infrequency–while Johnson, especially in his durable "Beige, Brown or Black" in Film Quarterly (1959), and Martin Dworkin in his two long essays in the Progressive (1959-1960), surveyed the shifting styles of the entire period.
But by the early 1960s, with Hollywood in a state of flux, independent production migrating abroad, and black filmmaking stifled by Hollywood's misreading of Sidney Poitier's successful career, no systematic school of historical or critical principles emerged. Careful chronicling of the narrative history of black filmmaking devoid of analysis or theory, agreement on a few broad liberal principles of social change and their reflection on the screen, and a faith in the eventual racial integration of American life seemed enough. Critics seemed content to reach a liberal consensus made possible by avoiding probing controversies beneath the surface of progress.
Then in February 1969, Hoyt Fuller published in his annual black history issue of Negro Digest an essay meant to urge critics to examine this neglected Afro-American film history. Unfortunately, the primitive essay on "movies in the ghetto" was taken by many to be an "amen," rather than a timid beginning. Mention was made, for example, of Emmett J. Scott, Booker T. Washington's secretary, and his desire to make black films; yet Scott's papers remain unsifted fifty years later. Only a few articles published since 1969 have examined any of the companies cited in the piece. Instead of its intended modest purpose, it became merely a strip mine from which to cull program notes, footnotes, and in some cases, whole passages.
For three years, the only exception to this rule was Stephen F. Zito's "The Black Film Experience" in Tom Shales's impressionistic book, The American Film Heritage, designed as a showcase of American Film Institute acquisitions. Zito's essay, though sketchy in keeping with the tone of the book, attempted to indicate the close and necessary connection between social intentions and the success of black movies, as opposed to the fruitlessness of seeking some purely artistic ground for analysis. According to Zito, an unlikely combination of a Viennese director "at liberty," a German immigrant searching for something to do between hack works at Columbia Pictures, a black performer working nights on Broadway in Lost in the Stars while earning a few daylight dollars in Miracle in Harlem, were the prime movers and shapers of black genre movies, at least in the 1940s. Their films were frequently uneven victims of caprice, circumstance, and accident, rather than conscious works of art.
Still, no great wave of black film analysis followed Zito's line of attack. Edward Mapp's book of the same era, Blacks in American Films, lacking a critical point of view, makes no mention of Micheaux or his rivals and introduces Leroi Jones's Dutchman as merely "another 1967 film to have a subway car as its setting." Shirley Clarke's films on blacks and Van Peebles's Sweetback all are presented with studied neutrality that skirts the issue of genre.
By 1973 critical and historical writing still held more promise than attainment. Only one major performing figure, Paul Robeson, had been treated in a scholarly article. Only two black companies, the Birth of a Race Company and the Lincoln Company, had been examined across the years of their productive lives. Only a handful of black genre motion pictures had ever been analyzed in full articles –Native Son, Scar of Shame, Sweetback, Up Tight (1968), Nothing But a Man, Book of Numbers. Only a handful of directors have been interviewed in circumstances free of constraints imposed by calls for timeliness or "relevance"–Ossie Davis, Van Peebles, Michael Roemer, St. Clair Bourne, Madeleine Anderson. Only one essay of stature, Pauline Kael's long New Yorker piece, has examined with insight a subgenre, "blaxploitation" pictures.
In Europe a similar myopia prevailed. Blacks in the Cinema: The Changing Image, a British Film Institute pamphlet by Jim Pines that grew into a book, barely mentioned race movies in its filmography, mislabeling at least one of them as a "Hollywood" film, while granting that liberal movies failed because they "couldn't develop beyond the notion of 'equality.' " In French criticism, reviewers have focused mainly on jazz on film.
Then a retrospective of black movies by the Jewish Museum in New York resulted in university campus echoes of interest, culminating in a traveling series produced by Oliver Franklin of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center for Communication Arts and Sciences. Popular pictorial histories began to find room for black films. Eileen Landay's Black Film Stars (1973), although spoiled by its narrow focus on glamorous types, gave a few pages to Micheaux and his contemporaries. Middleton Harris's The Black Book (1974) enhanced its rough scrapbook quality with photographs of race movie posters.
Serious writers began to mature in their analysis of the relationship between white society and emerging black film. Charles D. Peavy's important piece buried in the back of Ray Browne's Popular Culture and the Expanding Consciousness (1973) did more than any other essay to point out the curious relationship between rising black cinema awareness and its white foundations. Thomas Cripps attempted a similar correlation between white television stations and black audiences in the Journal of Popular Culture. James P. Murray, film critic for the Amsterdam News and an editor of Black Creation, sponsored by the New York University Institute of Afro-American Affairs, assembled his thoughts on black cinema consciousness into an awkward but enthusiastic appeal for a search "To Find An Image." The goals of new black cinema, he argued, were to correct white distortions, to reflect black reality, and to create a "positive image." Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, Ossie Davis, William Greaves, and St. Clair Bourne were those who promised a black future for filmmakers.
Among recent critics, two anthologists, Richard A. Maynard and Lindsay Patterson, brought together fugitive essays from the past (though never from far enough back to rescue pioneering black newspaper critics, such as Lester Walton, Romeo Daugherty, D. Ireland Thomas, and Floyd Snelson from oblivion). Maynard's The Black Man on Film (1974), a sampling of works on the general topic of racial stereotyping, managed to include in the selection process trenchant pieces such as Ossie Davis's essay on the making of Purlie Victorious; Reddick's anatomy of good cinema race relations; essays on The Birth of a Nation; popular estimates of new black movies; and a rescuing of Baldwin's and Ellison's film essays from undeserved elusiveness.
Patterson's collection was more self-conscious in its search of a "great tradition," and like Murray's book, more directly concerned with advocacy of a new black cinema. His older authors included Locke and Brown, Reddick, a bit from the black issue of Close Up, Harrison's Sight and Sound piece, Albert Johnson, and Asendio, among others. In each case he juxtaposed them opposite recent critics who insisted on a new black cinema, sometimes with weighty argument, sometimes with nothing more than shrill enthusiasm. In an introduction in the form of a note to his son, he openly demonstrated his advocacy by describing his book as "a superb account of the road we've already traveled and are yet to travel, cinematically."
Intended almost as a kind of summary of and a call for a larger corpus of new black film criticism, Black Creation devoted its 1973 winter issue to new black film. Here, too, the ambition was to connect present self-consciousness with past pioneering, through essays which emphasized the need for fresh sources of capital, black film as "a tool for liberation," and by Murray's "futuristic fable" about the heady times that might bring about a new black film industry. The issue began with Pearl Bowser's sketch of the half-hidden past of Noble Johnson, Oscar Micheaux, and Paul Robeson–the elusive great tradition–a wide-eyed, head up "History Lesson: The Boom is Really an Echo."
But great traditions demand great syntheses, which rest on a body of systematic criticism. That task, among critics of black cinema, still remains. Two book-length studies appeared: the former, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films by Donald Bogle, at the crest of the new wave of black interest in the screen; the latter, From Sambo to Super spade : The Black Experience in Motion Pictures by Daniel J. Leab, surfaced at a point of possible summation of the movement toward a black cinema. Nevertheless, each left open the final question of how to deal with a film genre that is proudly more social than artistic, more political than subtle, more given to advocacy than to nuance.
Of the two books, Bogle's came closest to offering a systematic method of criticizing black film while avoiding the intellectual trap of too fine an aestheticism. But, unfortunately for serious students, he turned his eye for pregnant detail on the tricks and quirks that black performers used to enhance, humanize, and enlarge the stereotyped roles given them by Hollywood writers imprisoned by racist history and culture, to the exclusion of a careful, methodic anatomy of the movies.
While it is true for the first time Micheaux's work received a chapter, it was titled merely "The Interlude." Bogle was clearly happiest at the enjoyable task of puncturing the pink bubbles sent aloft by Hollywood studios. There seemed to be no room for a methodic analysis of aberrant film, such as Vidor's, Dudley Murphy's, or Shirley Clarke's, or for the outlaw tradition of race movies.
The black gems which existed amidst the dross of the "blaxploitation" era were seen as qualified successes, or at their worst, as rehashes of old stereotypes. In the case of Van Peebles's Sweetback, Bogle preferred to carefully report the sociology of movie attendance, reviewing, and attitudes, resulting in a safe evaluation of the film as "a striking social document on the nature and attitudes of the new era." Similar films such as Sig Shore's Superfly (1972) were also given judgements that were more moral than methodic. Superfly seemed merely "corruptive." This is not to say that Bogle's useful insights were totally lacking. Fragile and interesting ideas, such as a parallel between Sounder and Hallelujah!, unfold. As a result,Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks remains the first serious effort to update and Afro-Americanize Noble's 1948 work, The Negro in Films.
Daniel J. Leab's From Sambo to Superspade followed Bogle's book and brought to black film criticism the craft of the historian. But Leab, too, skirted the question of method in studying black film, first by finding nearly every black appearance in white film to be no more than puppeteering, and second, even though granting the constraints imposed by cheap budgets, by emphasizing standards of quality rather than meaning when appraising race movies.
Nevertheless, From Sambo to Superspade reached behind the screen to the social and economic forces that shaped the image presented to audiences. Unfortunately, the preoccupation with "image"–the caste mark of many authors who urge a progress toward the "positive"–diverts attention away from methodic standards of judgment and evaluation of black films. But the serious student should not ignore either Bogle's personal vision of black film history or Leab's historical approach.
It would be useless to find the literature wanting, unless an alternative is offered. Among the possibilities is Andrew Tudor's synthesis of the sociology of cinema in Image and Influence. If most forms of culture are sources of identity, aspiration, technique, and escape, he says, then the close observer should be able to understand film as an expression of these urges. Thus the study of the black film genre furthers the degree to which the student follows Herbert Gans's notion that the audience interacts with, and affects, the filmmaker. Therefore a mechanism exists through which either a black or white filmmaker may make a black film based upon his ability to perceive and respond to artistic and mythic needs of an audience.
Unfortunately, perhaps because of the implied manipulation of attitudes, serious students of film have frequently felt uncomfortable applying the technique to other than authoritarian societies, as though it was acceptable for Siegfried Kracauer, David Stewart Hull, and Lotte Eisner, to make this discovery about Nazi German filmmakers but not about American filmmakers. Despite this scholarly holding at arms' length, Tudor's macro-sociology (as he would call it) of film allows the critic to perceive culture patterns in films, and thereby to appreciate both the genre and the society that produced it. As Tudor says of Kracauer, "his real aim is to see the early years of the German cinema as a monologue inte genres represent a kind of rieur giving access to .. almost inaccessible layers of the German mind.' " While Tudor's is a true statement of our goals, we want a keener understanding of the films, rather than the mind.
The matter of style serves as an example. It is common knowledge that German expressionism, with its twilight of lights and darks, expressed moody alienation from the outer civilization that had rejected the German nation as well as National Socialism's inexorable embrace of comforting authoritarianism. What of black film style? A look at any early black film reveals a self-evident segregation from white life. A closer look reveals, whether in a roughly shot Micheaux film or the polished The Scar of Shame, flat and grey interiors lacking visual reference to a world outside the tiny sets, internalized, looking at themselves, without need of a peephole into the white world. Too much may be claimed for stylistic devices that serve as the signature of auteurs. Lewis Milestone's famous truck shots of troops mowed down by machine gunners was no more than a cost-cutting gimmick. In like manner, in race movies the blacks knew they were segregated and so did their occasional white directors, who had a distinct feeling of straying into another world. Thus, cliched one- and two-shots against a gray wall, or parallel cutting to a jivey dance routine in some seedy Negro saloon, were signals of black society in a motion picture frame. To blacks they meant "this movie is about 'us' " and was shot in private. Watts tax, through the use of the Los Angeles Coliseum, and The Spook Who Sat By the Door, with its introductory anatomy of black bourgeois cultural experiences, evoke the same image.
In the same way, certain thematic obsessions reflect the concerns of Afro-American society. "Making it," getting on in society, is a never ending theme, whether via the great leaping, click of the heels as Thalmus Rasulala in Cool Breeze knows he has accomplished what Emmerich and Riemenschneider failed to do in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) version; or in Micheaux's light-skinned women, who will accept a beating from a man who seems a winner, but would die before giving money to a loser.
Put together over a number of years, the combination of cool ambience, isolation, aspiration, faith in rackety jazz routines to perk up flagging audiences and to stretch out the length of films to marketable running times, and even the mandatory depiction of a bitter suspicion of out-group antisocial forces (gangs, racketeers, scamartists who populate Ralph Cooper's Manhattan movies as surely as they later would Richard Roundtree's) add up to a relatively fixed pattern of symbols than can, and should, be studied as a genre. As Tudor holds: genres represent a kind of evolution–a " 'survival of the popular.' Bit by bit communicators produce new variations, audiences accept or reject them, they are continued or discarded, and so the genre slowly evolves." In this sense neither MGM nor Gordon Parks made Shaft; he emerged from a subculture whose parents had seen or heard of Ralph Cooper in Dark Manhattan.
But genre must be distinguished from mere exploitation movie. A genre emerges from many films, gradually refined to appeal to a persistent collective taste. Some are good while others are bad, according to standards of aesthetics as well as by the formal, though unarticulated, standards of the genre. John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), for example, may be judged as the finest film ever made of its genre, while failing to measure up to the prevailing standards of dramatic film criticism. The genre demands of its creators a faithfulness to the collective spirit and psychic needs of the audience. On the other hand, the exploitation film derives its identity more from the tastes of a narrow, arcane audience who are appreciative of forbidden pleasures or eccentricities. Such an audience is drawn to, say, "skin flicks" or Yiddish films, each for different reasons, but for common types of pleasure. In this sense, genres are like tribal rituals invoking familiar beauties; exploitations are like satanic rites glimpsing devils. Of course, these broad generalizations can sometimes go too far. Carlos Clarens, for example, argues from assertion rather than persuasive data, that horror films are really expressions of deep-seated "Jungian" collective obsessions.
Thus the argument for the existence of genres speaks to the issues of tone, scene, texture, theme, and message rather than technique. In the black genre, for instance, a segregated point of view, familiar symbols, close anatomical details, and myth offered in cool style provide signs of identity. Filmic devices matter, but are not unique, to the genre. A wide pan shot appears in many movies. In War and Peace (1956), it takes in a ballroom and its doomed dancers; in South Pacific (1958 ), a blue horizon; in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a ridge over which a Cheyenne war party will ride. The kind of shot and its length are merely tools; it is the content that is generic. Of course, some shots lend themselves to certain genres. Why move the company to Monument Valley, only to overuse tight closeups that minimize the sweep of the terrain?
The western genre is about the tensions between society and individual, West and East, wilderness and civilization. Thus the lone gunman, who lives by the Western variant of the antebellum Southern code duello, is important to the genre and so invites the artistic conclusion that he must be shot, reed-slim, and stark against the low hills at the end of the dusty Western street. One step further on, the fact that the genre requires him to shoot it out with his grizzled enemy over a minor point of honor, is more important to the genre than how the scene will be shot, though again, certain shots and rhythms will suggest themselves to a sensitive director. Indeed, the western or any other genre almost forces the use of certain stylized shots, cuts, and rhythms, the line between genre film and cliché being necessarily thin. In the same way, the gangster film's ambience of wet, dark streets and the themes of grasping individualism outside the laws of indifferent "straight" society symbolize a fatalistic adherence to private codes of morals and anomic urban aloneness. Here, too, the film's devices merely service the content.
Finally, that is where the critical literature of the black film genre must go: toward a synthesis of ritual, myth, social meaning, toward those preaesthetic judgments that measure the ability of film genres in Tudor's words, to "dramatize, repeat, and underline an interpretive account of acceptable social order." Furthermore, we must seek black film as a special case of genre film. We are told that genre film has been conservative in its ideology, although black film demands change. But because black filmmakers insist that black heroes win against the system, it can be argued that the black hero symbolizes a wish for things as they are–a permissive society whose libertarian political values allow him a temporary defeat of its elitist racist social system.
Thus, rather than the norms of life, the black genre should be expected to depict deep within its syntagmas, its value-laden images, its allegories, its icons, the outlaw, the obsessed, the deviant, the heroically fantastic. Such a critical future might logically make use of several cultural approaches: the holistic grasp of the central mythic continuities of a culture; the structural-linguistic quest for anthropological meanings of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Christian Metz; or the approach from popular culture with its emphasis on mass audience responses and value-laden formulas.