African American Cinema


The decade of the 1970s represents a unique period in American film history: it was the first time since the race movies of the silent era that such a high volume of blackthemed films played in commercial theaters, many of them helmed by African American directors. The reception of the early works by Parks, Van Peebles, and Davis, by both critics and popular audiences, resulted in a new acceptance of African American talent in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. Films moved beyond the usual social problems to treat African American communities more broadly, from comedies about everyday life, teen films, and romance to biopics, period films, and action thrillers. Though many noted films that featured black actors and themes, such as Sounder (1972), Claudine (1974), and The Wiz (1978), were not directed by African Americans, a great many of them were. Several of these directors would go on to develop significant careers, lasting decades and expanding into television.

b. Miami, Florida, 20 February 1927

Sidney Poitier remains the most highly recognized African American actor in the history of American cinema. His triumphs on stage, television, and in film countered the typically demeaning stereotypes of African Americans. The first African American superstar, he entered Quigley's "Top Moneymaker's Poll" in 1967, and ascended to number one the following year, beating the popular icons Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and John Wayne. His dramatic characterizations brought dignity, complexity, and depth to African American depictions during one of the most tumultuous periods of social change in US history, the civil rights movement.

Born in Miami to Bahamian parents, Poitier was reared in the Bahamas but returned to the United States in 1943. After a brief stint in the army at age sixteen, he moved to New York, working odd jobs until he discovered an interest in acting. After training at the American Negro Theater, he appeared in several plays, the most noted being Lorraine Hansberry's Tony-nominated A Raisin in the Sun , the first work by a black playwright produced on Broadway. He received a Tony nomination for the role he would reprise in the 1961 film. His film debut was in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's No Way Out (1950).

Despite positive reviews of his performance as a doctor confronted with racism, he struggled for years to land significant roles. He hit his stride in the mid-1950s, gaining momentum with a number of highly touted films. With his role in The Defiant Ones (1958), he became the first African American nominated for an Academy Award ® in a leading role. He would win five years later for Lilies of the Field (1963).

In an acting career that lasted more than fifty-one years, he accumulated numerous accolades, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (1982), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute (1992), the Kennedy Center Honors (1995), and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actor's Guild (1998). In 2002 he was awarded an honorary Oscar ® for his "extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style, and intelligence."

Poitier's success as an actor often eclipsed recognition for his work as a director on nine feature films. One of the first African American directors in Hollywood, he reworked genres such as the western in Buck and the Preacher (1972) to reflect the contribution and struggles of African Americans. In addition to his work in cinema, Poitier has served as a dedicated activist in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and in the US civil rights movement.


As Actor: Blackboard Jungle (1955), Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Lilies of the Field (1963), A Patch of Blue (1965), To Sir with Love (1967), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967); As Director: Buck and the Preacher (1972), A Warm December (1973) Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), Stir Crazy (1980)


Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Poitier, Sidney. Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography . New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

——. This Life . New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.

Frances K. Gateward

The actor Sidney Poitier directed his first Hollywood film in 1972: Buck and the Preacher , a film that would allow him to break out of his usual persona and bring his fellow 1950s star Harry Belafonte back to the screen. This western restored African Americans to the history of the settlement of the West, as it concerned the journey of African American homesteaders from the South to what they imagined as new opportunities after the Civil War. Accosted by white landowners who want to return them to tenant farming, the settlers seek the aid of a wagonmaster, Buck (Poitier), who is assisted by Preacher

Sidney Poitier in Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (1967).

(Belafonte). The film revised the implicit ideology of the all-American genre of the western, providing a critique of US expansionism. Poitier formed his own production company, E and R Productions Corporation, and when in creative control of his films, he insisted that the crew include people of color as technicians. His career as a director spanned eight films, across twenty years.

Michael Schultz (b. 1938) is another important African American director, one of the most prolific of the era. He is most noted for Cooley High (1975), a coming-of-age film set in 1960s Chicago; Car Wash (1976), a "day in the life" film about an ensemble of workers at a Los Angeles car wash; and Greased Lighting (1977), based on the story of Wendell Scott, the first African American stock-car champion. Though his films are considered comedies, they contain moments of profound sadness and despair. For example, the slapstick and verbal play in Car Wash , provided by the pranks and jokes the workers play on each other, reveal an attempt to counter the monotony of their dead-end, working class jobs. Further, the viewer gains access to the workers' outside lives and dreams, made difficult by the social circumstances of their lives.

Gordon Parks followed up The Learning Tree with Shaft (1971), introducing the first African American private detective film and a new treatment of African American masculinity. Considered the first African American film hero, John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree (b. 1942), was the epitome of cool. Equally comfortable in the underworld and the mainstream, he was very popular with the ladies. His persona as a man of action and power is communicated brilliantly at the film's opening, when Shaft emerges from the subway to walk the streets of New York as if he owns them, accompanied by the funky grooves of Isaac Hayes's Oscar ® -winning score.

Parks's son, Gordon Parks Jr. (1934–1979), would continue in his father's tradition, directing some of the most well-received films of the period. His works include Aaron Loves Angela (1975), a tender story about the romance between an African American teen and a Puerto Rican girl living in the slums of New York, and Thomasine and Bushrod (1974), starring Max Julien and Vonetta McGee as a bank-robber couple in the early 1900s. He is best known, however, for Superfly (1972), starring Ron O'Neal (1937–2004). A highly stylized film that made great use of Curtis Mayfield's original music, Superfly highlighted the protagonist's decadent lifestyle as a successful pimp and drug dealer—fashion, cars, jewelry, recreational drug use, and promiscuity. It is perhaps for this reason that this film in particular would be identified with blaxploitation film. Because young people became infatuated with the surface details that overwhelmed the underlying social critique, it was at the center of controversy in the African American community. While middle- and upper-class African Americans saw the film as sensationalist, promoting the lifestyle of the main character, others championed the film for its presentation of an African American protagonist, Youngblood Priest, who stands up to "the Man," and for its treatment of police corruption. Looking deeper into the film, Superfly provides an insightful commentary on the lack of opportunity for African American youth and the ways they may be driven to achieve the American ideal of consumerism. The legal system is presented as corrupt, and through its imagery, the film reveals the devastation the drug trade has wrought on urban communities. It also presents criminality as a dead-end profession, as Priest is working to remove himself from prostitution and drug trafficking.

The new forms of masculinity represented in the films noted above—in which African American men function in narratives to benefit themselves and their communities, rather than the white communities in which they were usually socially isolated in earlier Hollywood films—were accompanied by a different kind of physicality. Previously, actors with large, muscular physiques were seen as threatening, drawing on the

Sidney Poitier with Elizabeth Hartman in the earnest A Patch of Blue (Guy Green, 1965).
stereotypes of the black brute. With former athletes such as Fred Williamson and Jim Brown (b. 1936) becoming actors, and with characters like John Shaft, African American men were no longer sidekicks in action films, supporting the heroism of the white lead actor; they became heroes themselves. Changes were also due African American women, and the desire for more complex female characters was met in films like Mahogany (1975), featuring the singer Diana Ross (b. 1944), who received an Oscar ® nomination for the costume designs she created for the drama. Directed by the Motown music mogul Berry Gordy (b. 1929), the film focused on the development of an impoverished girl who becomes an international fashion model. Five on the Black Hand Side (Oscar Williams, 1973) reflected the ideological tensions between African American middle-class conservatives and more progressive feminist and black nationalist liberals.

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