African American Cinema


As these films were being produced within the Hollywood system, some filmmakers, unwilling to compromise their artistry or ideology, chose to work independently, as too often the Hollywood studios demanded changes in their scripts or denied them final edit power. Others saw entry into the industry as a sell-out, bowing to a capitalist oligarchy that had historically denigrated their communities. Melvin Van Peebles abandoned his deal at Columbia to independently produce, direct, and star in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). The film represented a radical break from Van Peebles's earlier work. Dedicated in the opening credit sequence to "All the brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man," it is a touch-stone example of African American counter cinema, utilizing a loose shooting style, experimental editing, and a discourse rooted in Black Nationalism. Sweetback, played by Van Peebles himself, starts out as a politically naive and uninvolved sex worker who has his consciousness raised and becomes a folk hero. While in police custody, he witnesses the beating of a community activist by the police. Sweetback uses his handcuffs to fight off the two policemen, saving the activist's life, then spends the rest of the movie a wanted man, evading the authorities with the help of the local community. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song , which was produced with a budget of only $500,000, earned more than 10 million dollars, and secured for Van Peebles the sobriquet "Father of Soul Cinema." The film won praise in the United States and Europe, and its success provided the impetus that would lead to the blaxploitation movement.

Ossie Davis, like Van Peebles, would remove himself from the "Hollywood plantation" to work independently. In 1972 he helped create the Third World Film Corporation, a New York–based company that functioned both as a film training center for people of color and a distribution house for their works. Two of Third World's most well known productions are Greased Lightning , starring Richard Pryor (1940–2005), and Claudine (1974), with Diahann Carroll (b. 1935), who garnered an Oscar ® nomination for the lead. With his second film, Kongi's Harvest (1970), Davis became the first African American director to shoot films on the continent of Africa. Adapted from a work by the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), who also played the starring role, the film is set in the Congo and concerns the attempt of an African leader to modernize and unite his nation (made up of different tribes), while at the same time keeping the country's cultural roots intact. Davis's last effort as a director, Countdown at Kusini (1976), was financed by Delta Sigma Theta, the largest African American women's service organization in the United States. Written by Davis and his fellow African American thespian Al Freeman, Jr. (b. 1934), the film, shot in Nigeria, is an anti-neocolonialist action/drama that encouraged coalitions and solidarity between Africans and the Diaspora.

Another actor turned director Ivan Dixon (b. 1931), memorable for his roles in film and television—one of the most notable as the lead in the groundbreaking feature Nothing But a Man (1964)—began directing television shows in 1970. In 1973 he directed the film that took him five years to get off the ground: The Spook Who Sat by the Door , adapted from Sam Greenlee's famous 1969 novel. The funds were raised through private investments—not from corporations or wealthy individuals, but from supporters in African American communities across the country. Despite its initial success, the film was withdrawn in several cities because it was deemed too controversial; its plot involves a former African American CIA agent who uses his knowledge and skills to train guerrilla fighters, building a network across the country to lead a revolution.

In this fashion, African American directors regularly employed established Hollywood genres, such as the action film, western, crime thriller, romance, and spy film, to reveal the contradictions and ideologies on which they were based. The formulaic conventions and iconographies were recoded to work as tools of social criticism. The horror genre was no exception. Ganja and Hess (1973) by the writer Bill Gunn (1934–1989), an experimental vampire film in the mode of art film, is a complex treatise on race, addiction, and assimilation that violates conventional Hollywood norms of linear temporality, characterization, and causation. Despite having won the Critics' Choice prize at Cannes and favorable reviews, the producers withdrew the film from distribution, claiming the writer-turned-director had failed to deliver a commercially viable film.

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