In light of the death of another one of my favorite screen legends, Rudy Ray Moore a.k.a. Dolemite, I decided to write about the direction of black cinema. And by direction, I mean a complete U-turn. The revolutionary era of Blaxploitation may have ended with insistence from groups like the NAACP because of the portrayal of blatant stereotypes, but the genre went beyond stories that glorified pimps and hoodlums. The protagonists also consisted of vengeance seeking heroes and heroines that wanted to rid the city of the bad guys in the most visually stunning way possible. Actors such as Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Pam Grier (Coffy) and Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones) were the only black action stars audiences had over 30 years ago, and their films are just as cool to watch today in the privacy of one's own home.
Take, for instance, Larry Cohen's classic Black Caesar (1973). Copious racial slurs aside, the theme of the black gangster film wasn't different from those that starred James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson: gangsters, and the crooked cops that do business with them, are bad news and should be brought to justice...or at least shot. Tommy Gibbs, played by Fred Williamson, is "Black Caesar" and rises to the top of the crime underworld by killing a lot of corrupt white men and taking what belongs to them. He is a brutish husband to his wife Helen, played by the beautiful Gloria Hendry, and lies to his childhood friend Joe (Philip Roye) about giving the money he acquires back to the black community. Because Tommy got beat up by a bad cop at the beginning of the movie because of a misunderstanding, you want to feel sorry for him; however, this movie is a lesson on where being hellbent on gaining power and revenge will get you: nowhere but down with a bullet lodged somewhere in your mid-section. It should end fatally for our protagonist, but Cohen would have it that Gibbs survives being shot and beaten by a gang of youths to return that same year for a sequel, Hell Up In Harlem (1973). Ah, the magic (and efficiency) of blaxploitation! What also sets this film apart from The Public Enemy, however, was its impressive soundtrack composed and performed by the late, great James Brown. Funk and soul music was a staple of blaxploitation films that blacks could associate with, because the songs had important messages beyond the films they were contained in. Including Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes, funk and soul musicians composed soundtracks for their generation, not just the fiction on the big screen.
There is a bevy of other black films that were made in the '70s and weren't credited as blaxploitation flicks, were meaningful in black cinema history. Black actresses were getting nominated for Best Leading Actress Academy Awards for the first time since Dorothy Dandridge in 1954; Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson in 1972 for Lady Sings the Blues and Sounder, respectively, and Diahann Carroll in 1974 for Claudine. Richard Pryor was gaining notoriety as a raunchy stand-up comedian who wasn't afraid to talk about race relations at length, and has many films to his credit he wrote and/or appeared in that helped him achieve cult status. The same Gloria Hendry that was in Black Caesar landed the role as the first black Bond girl to lock lips with the agent in the film Live and Let Die (1973); granted, the film was heavily influenced by the blaxploitation surge, but it showed that James Bond didn't discriminate when it came to romancing women. The 70's were such a vibrant, crucial time for black cinema. Black people were writers, directors, actors and producers of work that created meaning for an entire generation; a meaning that can still be understood and appreciated today.
After the '70s, however, there was a seeming loss of interest in the black movie industry that was never restimulated. In the 1980s there was an influx of movies about breakdancing, and at the very end of the decade Spike Lee was able to squeeze in his landmark social commentary Do the Right Thing (1989). Where did all those black film pioneers go?! There is a movie produced in the late '80s that I appreciated by actor/director/writer Robert Townsend called Hollywood Shuffle (1987). Townsend plays Bobby Taylor, a young black actor who dreams of making a name for himself in Hollywood, despite the naysayers at his job and in his own family. However, during the audition process for terribly written a movie, he realizes he may have to sacrifice his integrity to work for a white Hollywood that wants him to act like Eddie Murphy, as opposed to just act. Hollywood Shuffle takes a no holds barred look at how stereotypes are still present for black actors in cinema, despite the suggestion that the end of blaxploitation era improved the image of blacks on the big and small screens. I respect that Townsend made this movie practically out of his own pocket, and it woke me up enough to write this piece and ask: where do we go from here?
It's been 21 years since Hollywood Shuffle and black actors are winning Academy Awards and Golden Globes in bigger numbers than ever before; they're also being critically acclaimed for their performances as drug addicts and dealers ("The Wire"). Also, most of the roles available to black actors are in bio-pics about popular musicians and athletes overcoming racism and/or poverty; I feel like I'm watching the same movie over and over again. Another problem is that Hollywood is slow to become color blind in casting blacks in leads for modern day romantic-comedies as if interracial relationships in this country exist in small numbers. And what happened to the intelligent, butt-kicking black action heroes I can only see in "Soul Cinema" DVD collections? As a future filmmaker/actor, I'm hoping I can have a hand in changing this, even if only a little bit. Spike Lee can't do this by himself.