The American Historian

African American Filmic Artifacts from Body and Soul to Black Panther

Lisa Alexander

In 2019 when Disney announced its new streaming service, one of the pressing questions potential viewers had was whether the 1946 film Song of the South would be available on the service. The Oscar-winning film features “The Lost Cause” version of the post-Civil War period that “helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery … [and] unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship, which is a distortion of the facts.” The powers that be made it clear that the film would remain in the Disney vault, where it has been since the 1980s. Other films such as Dumbo (1941) and Lady and the Tramp (1955) are included, but with an advisory warning that states: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”[1] Such is the power of film that one of the largest media companies on the planet continues to censor its own content over sixty years later. If we think of films as historical artifacts, we must ask ourselves: what purpose does it serve to hide said artifacts? Does Disney hope that people will forget that this film exists? Are they trying to whitewash the company’s history of racist representations? Should any company be in the business of hiding history? And, if Disney somehow manages to erase that history, what does that mean for other inconvenient historical artifacts?
 
The intersection of film and history can be thought of in at least two different ways. The first is the use of films to tell stories about actual people and/or events. There is a popular adage that says history is written by the victors, and a similar thought process exists for film. Whomever writes and/or directs the film decides how the story is told, and because of the small number of African American filmmakers, producers, and production company executives, white men have been framing the historical narrative. White savior films such as Mississippi Burning (1988), The Blind Side (2006), and Green Book (2018) earn money and awards, but relegate black people to second-class citizens in their own histories. When African American filmmakers tell similar stories they also may take liberties, but the focus remains on African American communities (see Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013), Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015), and Kasi Lemmon’s Harriet (2019)).
 
The second way the intersection of film and history can be thought of deals with the idea that films themselves can be read as historical artifacts that allows viewers a window into a specific time and place. When we look back at the early days of cinema in the United States, African Americans were virtually locked out the burgeoning industry, but race relations were still front and center. As James Loewen points out “America’s first epic motion picture, Birth of a Nation; first talkie, The Jazz Singer; and biggest blockbuster ever, Gone with the Wind, were substantially about race relations.”[2] As is the case with almost any other industry, African Americans were not content with being erased or misrepresented in the nation’s visual history, and a few African American film production companies such as The Oscar Micheaux Film & Book Company, The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, and Norman Film Manufacturing Company released “race” films in response. Directors such as Oscar Micheaux (Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925)) and Spencer Williams (The Blood of Jesus (1941)) portrayed African American characters as regular people making their way through the world as opposed to the stereotypical “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks” mainstream Hollywood films perpetuated (this is the era where Song of the South originated).
 
As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s the film industry found itself in a bind. On a daily basis, American households could tune in and see African Americans struggle for justice and equality and the violent backlash that their struggle invoked. Studio heads had to figure out how they could compete with the burgeoning television medium. After decades of relegating African American actors and stories to second class status, Hollywood finally saw fit to push a handful of African American actors into the limelight. The most prominent of these actors was Sidney Poitier. His films illustrate the unevenness with which Hollywood handled race and racism. On the one hand, there is The Defiant Ones (1958), which James Baldwin characterized as a film designed “to reassure white people, to make them know that they are not hated.”[3] On the other hand, there was A Raisin in the Sun (1961), which highlighted the effects racism and poverty have on black families but also provides a glimpse into the resistance white communities had toward integration. In many of his films, Poitier’s characters were exceptional, almost to a fault, in that they placated racists (In The Heat of the Night (1967)), would-be liberals (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)), and even wage-stealing nuns (Lilies of the Field (1963)). If all black people had to be like Poitier’s characters to be seen as equal by white America, Hollywood was setting up an impossible standard for African Americans in the real world. Despite the criticisms of Poitier’s roles, we can’t lose sight of the fact that he was a genuine superstar whose films moved portrayals of African Americans away from the stereotypes that plagued black characters for decades.
 
If there is one period of African American film history that many people know, it is the 1970s and the Blaxploitation Era. As the film industry continued losing money due to television’s increased market share, “desperate executives ultimately demonstrated that in times of financial distress, they would even turn to the oft-ignored African American demographic to address their monetary struggles.”[4] Films such as Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Shaft (1971), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and Cleopatra Jones (1973) created a new formula for Hollywood studios to exploit: films with predominately black casts could be filmed for relatively low budgets for black audiences, still starved for non-stereotypical representations, who would flock to the theaters to see black actors in lead roles. Many films in this category shook off the integrationist politics forwarded by Sidney Poitier films in favor of a more militant, violent, and sexually charged protagonist or antihero. Films from the Blaxploitation Era varied in quality, but they provided opportunities for black screenwriters, directors, actors, and other crew members who were oftentimes shut out of regular work.
 
Though most of the attention given to this decade focuses on Blaxploitation, the genre didn’t represent the totality of African American films during the 1970s. While Blaxploitation brought in a lot of money for Hollywood studios, prestige came from a different set of titles. Films such as Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Sounder (1972), Claudine (1974), and Cooley High (1975) occupied a middle ground between significant films from the 1960s and Blaxploitation, and placed racism, poverty, and imperfect protagonists at the forefront but without the violence, nihilism, and low operating budgets. As these films were gaining recognition by the mainstream film community, a group of black film students at UCLA including Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, and Charles Burnett were quietly amassing portfolios of independent features that was unlike anything else being produced at the time. These three tracks of African American films showed two things: first, filmmakers were determined to build upon the gains made during the 1960s; second, they were determined to tell their own stories about their own communities by any means necessary.
 
While the 1960s brought us Sidney Poitier as the first African American superstar in Hollywood, the 1980s built upon that tradition. Black actors such as Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Denzel Washington, and Whoopi Goldberg achieved unprecedented crossover recognition and success. Of course, no discussion of African American film in the 1980s would be complete without mentioning the emergence of Spike Lee and Robert Townsend. The era, though, is not without faults. Some of the roles reverted to longstanding stereotypes (i.e. The Toy (1982)), avoided discussions of race and racism (Beverly Hills Cop (1984)), or had gender politics that could, at best, be described as problematic (She’s Gotta Have It (1986)). At the same time, some white filmmakers figured out how to tell stories about black communities and history without placing white characters at the center (see Brother From Another Planet (1984), The Color Purple (1985), and A Soldier’s Story (1984), though it should be noted that the latter two films were based upon works written by black authors). What feels different about this decade is the ability of black artists to leverage their success. Eddie Murphy, for example, used his box office success to make his directorial debut, Spike Lee used is indie bonafides to create his opus, Do The Right Thing (1989), and Oprah Winfrey created a multi-media empire. The decade also saw the limits of what black artists could achieve. As enamored as Hollywood was with black films, there were still few, if any, African Americans in a position to green-light films at any major studio, which meant that white financiers could, and would, revoke their support at any time.
 
Up until this point, most black filmmakers in the United States had been men. Historically, the intersection of race and gender were rarely well told, and during the 1990s, black women directors took the opportunity to tell their own stories. In 1990 Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust became the first film created by a black woman released in commercial distribution. In addition to Dash, audiences were treated to Leslie Harris’ Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992), Darnell Martin’s I Like it Like That (1994), Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), Kasi Lemmon’s Eve’s Bayou (1997), and Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta (1998). Though black women were making enormous strides in the film industry, the majority of black films from this era fit into what is called New Black Realism, which “most often took as their subject matter young black men living in the inner city who sometimes engaged in deviant behavior. These young men’s lives were portrayed as chaotic and nihilistic, ripe with violence and drugs. [At the same time] these filmmakers made an active attempt to imbue these young men with humanity.”[5] Films such as New Jack City (1991), Boyz n The Hood (1991), Juice (1992), and Menace II Society (1993) embody the New Black Realism. Many filmmakers wanted to illustrate the devastating effect the war on drugs had on black communities and these films certainly achieved that goal. Some, however, maintain that highlighting the most violent and sometimes sociopathic elements of impoverished inner city black men gave conservative and neo-liberal politicians cover to withdraw needed support from those communities, other than in the form of carceral state related expenditures, while writing off an entire generation as super-predators.
 
The status of African American films during the aughts is best summarized the two divergent careers of Tyler Perry and Will Smith. Both began their careers before this decade, but saw tremendous success at this time. Perry’s stage plays and early films catered to a largely African American audience, while Smith, who as of 2019 has yet to star in a film with an African American director, became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood by appealing to broad, white majority (or “integrated”) audiences. These competing narratives manifested themselves in the real world given that at the same time the United States elected an African American president, the nation saw the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement due to the proliferation of extrajudicial killings of unarmed black people.
 
While black films were being made and released throughout the aughts, something in Hollywood seemed to change in the following decade. Though 2015 saw the creation of the hashtag #OscarSoWhite, which called attention to the lack of black Oscar nominees in leading categories, the number of black films in general seemed to increase. African American films weren’t being released quietly or scrounging for an audience. Rather, they were making large sums of money, achieving cross-over success, and pushing the definition and boundaries of African American film. In a three-year period, audiences saw the release of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018), and Peter Ramsey’s Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018). Hollywood, it appears, finally realized that black actors, black directors, and black stories can make money. As Scott Mendelson from Forbes argued after Black Panther became the highest grossing film of 2018, “Hollywood may have finally figured out the value of ‘not a white guy’ movie stars. . . . I have long argued that Hollywood erred badly by spending a decade trying to find the next Tom Cruise when it should have been looking for the next Will Smith.”[6] There is no way to know whether this proliferation of African American films illustrates sustained changed within the industry or whether it is a temporary blip that will evaporate in time. One can only hope that when historians look back to this decade, they can say that African American films of tremendous quality and quantity were produced, and that it was the beginning of a Black Renaissance in film.
 
If we are seeing the beginning of a Black film renaissance, what do we do with the historical films that no longer represent accepted values? Do we allow the artifacts to exist in the world as is, or do we follow Disney’s lead and place the embarrassing/offensive artifacts in a vault never to be seen again? Do we remove the questionable content from films or have a parental advisory warning accompany the film? None of these solutions feel satisfactory from a historical or preservationist standpoint. Here are a couple suggestions. First, instead of an advisory warning which will be ignored by most viewers, create a mechanism where viewers must verify that they are over a certain age before the content can be viewed. Even if the film was created with children in mind, exposing children to harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes may not be the best idea. Second, create short featurettes to air before and/or after the film that feature prominent historians, critics, or actors who can place the film and it’s depictures in the proper context. Ironically, Disney did this in 2004 when it released Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines. The DVD set includes the educational and propaganda films Disney created during World War II. The sets contained a sticker advising buyers that these cartoons were not meant for children and film critic Leonard Maltin introduced the films and explained their historical significance. By all accounts, the DVD set was a success, and can
serve as a guide for how to handle potentially problematic media artifacts going forward.
 
History may be ugly and offensive, and our first instinct may be to ignore it; however, if we want to move forward and do better, we have to confront it and understand it.
 

Author

Lisa Doris Alexander is an Associate Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Wayne State University. She is the author of Expanding the Black Film Canon: Race and Genre Across Six Decades (2019) and When Baseball Isn’t White, Straight, and Male: The Media and Difference in the National Pastime (2012).

Notes

[1]Ryan Lattanzio, “Song of the South: 10 Facts About Disney's Most Controversial Movie,” IndieWire.

[2]James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (2007).

[3]James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work: An Essay (1976), 79.

[4]Novotny Lawrence, “Strictly a Laughing Matter?: The Significance of the Blaxploitation Movement and Black Dynamite as Parody,” Black Camera, 10 (No. 2, 2019), 10.

[5]Katherine Bausch, “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism,” Journal of Popular Culture, 46 (No. 2, 2013), 267.

[6]Scott Mendelson, “Black Panther Shatters Stereotypes, Breaks Box Office Records with $400m+ Debut,” Forbes, Feb, 18, 2018.

 

Resources for the classroom

1. Black Camera: A Journal of Black Film Studies
2. Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Updated and Expanded 5th Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
3. Mia Mask’s Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 2012.
4. Mark A. Reid’s African American Cinema Through Black Lives Consciousness. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2019.
5. Jacqueline Najuma Stewart’s Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
 

Bibliography

 
James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work: An Essay (1976).
 
Katherine Bausch, “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation
to New Black Realism,” Journal of Popular Culture, 46 (no. 2, 2013).
 
Ryan Lattanzio “Song of the South: 10 Facts About Disney's Most Controversial Movie.”
IndieWire, https://www.indiewire.com/gallery/song-of-the-south-disney-you-must-remember
this/film-and-television-414/.
 
Novotny Lawrence, “Strictly a Laughing Matter?: The Significance of the Blaxploitation
Movement and Black Dynamite as Parody,” Black Camera, 10 (Spring 2019), 7-35.
 
James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got
Wrong (2007).
 
Scott Mendelson, “Black Panther' Shatters Stereotypes, Breaks Box Office Records with
$400m+ Debut,” Forbes, Feb. 18, 2018.