African American Cinema illustration by Billups Allen

From Selma to The Wiz: The Rise and Fall of African American Cinema in the ’70s by Billups Allen

Splat the Movies, Episode Ten

“I’ll check out a movie….”

The opening shot of the 1973 crime-drama Coffy centers on a set of double doors with big circles painted on them. It begins with little fanfare, arguably in medias res, in a crowded nightclub. The opening is so abrupt by today’s standards it might cause you to look to see if you missed something. The walls are plush and red. The music is furiously funky. A drug peddler and a high-end dealer are discussing a girl waiting outside in the car. She is strung out and willing to do anything for drugs. They take her to a nearby apartment. At one point, it becomes safe for the girl to pull out a sawed off, double-barrel shotgun. She puts the barrel to the big dealer’s face: “This is the end of your rotten life, you mother fuckin’ dope pusher.” The grin on the dealer’s face indicates he doesn’t take her seriously at first. Then his head explodes as if in a horror movie.

For an African American woman at the time, lead roles were few and far between. But during a rise in Afro-centric filmmaking, Pam Grier grabbed top billing in many of her movies.

The woman is “Flower Child” Coffin or Coffy for short. Coffy is not actually a drug addict, she’s a late-shift nurse fed up with the influx of strung-out women overdosing during her shift. Coffy is portrayed by Pam Grier, an actor whose career spans 105 entries on IMDB between 1970 and 2020. During a boom in African American filmmaking from the early to late 1970s, Grier portrayed other violently motivated characters, including Friday Foster and Foxy Brown. For an African American woman at the time, lead roles were few and far between. But during a rise in Afro-centric filmmaking, Grier grabbed top billing in many of her movies. It was a short period of time, but one people still find controversial.

The genre she is associated with is called “Blaxploitation.” The word itself makes you want to tip toe. It is, in fact, as it sounds: a cross between “Black” and “exploitation.” These films have been controversial since their inception. The Hollywood NAACP chapter, among many others, found the films perpetuated African American stereotypes. The Congress of Racial Equality suggested these films should go against a review board for approval. Ask a white liberal which is their favorite and they may stutter a bit before answering, or give a quick lecture about context.

Still, some key players at the time, like director Gordon Parks, found the films were key in exploring African American talent, particularly in the white-dominated climate of Hollywood. In a New York Times op-ed, he stated the controversy is “blown far out of proportion” laying the blame across racial lines stating “some Black people, egged on by some whites will use destructive measures against Black endeavors,” and how “Black filmmakers are not yet running the big Hollywood studios, that it took many hard years to even get our foot in the door.” Many modern re-assessments have found at least a portion of these films have presented a larger range of characters over this period, particularly when compared to the limited character range representing African Americans in Hollywood productions.

The success of some of these narratives can be contributed to mirroring successful genre structures while at the same time bringing to the screen elements of the Black experience. Two of the most talked about films from this era, Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972), besides bringing African American street culture to the screen, were also known as successful entries in their genres: Shaft as a detective story and Super Fly as a heist narrative. These films were made before African American stories were widely told on film. New messages, stories, or talents were necessary to showcase the Black experience in the ’60s-’80s. It’s shocking how recently an African American production would not be considered at all.

The era of Selma.

Between March 7, 1965 and March 21, 1965, three marches were held along the highway from Selma, Ala. to the state capitol. The March was lead by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was president, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Dallas County Voters League to combat Jim Crow laws in effect in Alabama at the time. The marches brought a lot of public attention to the plight of African Americans in the South. People involved in the marches were met with much violence. This was a period of great change in the segregation laws in the South for which many people paid with their lives.

The plight of African Americans was coming to the forefront of the American consciousness. As people sacrificed and fought for reform, African American culture became more prominent. Around this time, Hollywood was not supporting African American narratives on a large scale. Esteemed actor Sidney Poitier made several ripples as the most visible African American writer and actor of his time. Poitier could guarantee a Hollywood budget and, by extension, get a movie made with an African American lead under certain circumstances. Poitier became the first Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964 for the 1963 film Lilies in the Field. He was also notable in films like Blackboard Jungle (1955), Edge of the City (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and other films of the ’50s and ’60s.

As his popularity grew, he was able to choose his roles more carefully. Some of his films touched on the issues of racism of the time. In the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier portrays a young African American man being brought to dinner to meet his white in-laws for the first time. This was a very controversial concept at the time. It’s certain the film couldn’t have been made without him. Poitier’s work was still—through no fault of his own—considered a bit out of touch with what was happening on the streets at the core of the Black community. He himself was an activist, but his film persona was held to a limited code of conduct: this was still not a time when Hollywood would take a chance on films dealing directly with African American issues. He was occasionally criticized for being typecast as playing characters with problems the African American community could not relate to.

The esteemed writer and actor Ossie Davis was in the process of adapting his stage play Gone Are the Days to a film screenplay in the early ’60s. The film version is also known as Purlie Victorious (1963). Davis, alongside his long-time wife and collaborator Ruby Dee, had a successful run with Davis’s play about a con man preacher who returns to his hometown in Georgia to attempt to obtain an inheritance due to a relative and relieve the townspeople of their dependence on the local cotton plantation.

While the stage production was a hit, the film production proved to be problematic in a variety of ways. Most interestingly, the “crossover” nature of the subject matter came into question. Crossover was a term used for a property studios believed would be a hit since it might appeal to both Black and white audiences. The plot included, for the time, issues and themes in the African American community. Here the crossover potential backfired, as the largely African American production became discussed so widely in the trades as a novelty, the film became a regular in big city art house theaters and venues attracting a white intellectual audience. Black audiences were encouraged to see the film from a variety of sources, including churches, African American colleges, and magazines and papers aimed at African American intellectual circles were championing Gone Are the Days.

But the film, released in 1963, wound up in mostly white theaters and somewhat out of reach of the average African American moviegoer. African American audiences were also looking for something new. The “Black experience” was happening in the streets, not on movie screens. People were protesting and organizing and being injured and dying over the fight for civil rights. The story of a small-town preacher returning to his Georgia roots, however well told, was not going to excite African American audiences into the theaters in droves. Even though it is the story of an African American beating the system, it still carries a slightly outdated representation of African Americans in film. People at this time were looking for films reflecting more modern times.

Gone Are the Days flailed at the box office…. One film bore the weight for an entire cultural viewpoint.

The film was reviewed well, but was a box office flop. The hype the movie brought on at first opened doors, causing studios to buy scripts and rights to stories they believed would resonate in the African American community. But when Gone Are the Days flailed at the box office, those properties were shelved and left largely unmade or dumped by the studios. One film bore the weight for an entire cultural viewpoint. The film has thought to have set back Black production on a large scale. Although Davis and Dee went on to have esteemed careers, the two rarely spoke of Gone Are the Days ever again.

The state of African Americans in mainstream cinema entering the ’70s

Poitier was still very much in the public eye in the ’70s when Richard Pryor came on the scene as another recognizable and bankable African American actor in Hollywood. Pryor went a little further in bringing the tenets of the “Black experience” to the screen, but was still regularly cast in films where he was out of place in the white world. This is slightly less true in Pryor’s 1979 stand up movie Live in Concert. In the film, Pryor touches on controversial subjects like police brutality, going as far to describe the “choke hold” police use on African Americans in detail. He also points out when he brings it up that Black people are nodding and white people are shaking their heads, unaware of the danger.

Pryor broke new ground with his concert films, but white audiences were largely keener to see Pryor paired with his white partner Gene Wilder. The Black and white duo became a standard after the success of Silver Streak (1976). The two made four films together; including their biggest hit directed by Sidney Poitier called Stir Crazy (1980), the story of two friends traveling to California who are mistaken for bank robbers and sentenced to a long sentence in a penitentiary. This film came after the two were slated to make the early and still controversial comedy film Blazing Saddles (1974) together, but Pryor was recast.

With no disrespect intended to Gene Wilder, who was himself a comedy genius and tremendous actor, it’s still curious Richard Pryor often had to work with his white partner to be effective at the box office.

Another hit comedy film Trading Places (1983) was also written with Wilder and Pryor in mind, but Pryor was unable to make the film. With no disrespect intended to Mr. Wilder, who was himself a comedy genius and tremendous actor, it’s still curious Pryor often had to work with his white partner to be effective at the box office. It’s not so shocking that this happened, but that this dynamic was happening as recently as thirty-five years ago when Trading Places was filmed. The movies themselves are also still not steeped in the Black experience except to note that it’s better to aim for the white experience if you want to make a hit.

But there were exceptions to the rule.

The Juggernaut

In the early ’70s, American playwright, novelist, and musician Melvin Van Peebles made a low-budget film called Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). The basic spine of the film is hung on Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) who works in a brothel. One night the police, on the hunt for a suspect in a murder, decide Sweetback is as good a candidate as any and attempt to arrest him. Sweetback evades and beats the police. He becomes a wanted man, and the chase puts Sweetback in the company of bikers, hippies, Black revolutionaries, and various other characters from his life as he attempts to evade arrest. This is a 1971 film directly addressing the subject of police brutality against the Black community in Los Angeles eight years before Pryor mentions it in Live in Concert.

Much is made about “Blaxploitation” containing negative stereotypes, but as a counter example, you could do worse than have a friend like John Shaft.

The film became a juggernaut for the “Blaxploitation” genre. The film resonated with Black audiences with its anti-authoritative themes and scores from top artists of the day. Shortly after, there was a deluge of films which followed this formula. Among the most successful and famous is Shaft (1971), the story of a Black detective who runs afoul of the mob. Much is made about “Blaxploitation” containing negative stereotypes, but as a counter example, you could do worse than have a friend like John Shaft. Shaft is smart, strong, loyal to his friends, and doesn’t approve of drugs. The “Theme from Shaft” won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for its writer and performer Isaac Hayes—the first African American to win that award. “Theme from Shaft” may be the most famous byproduct from the “Blaxploitation” era. It is difficult to find a person whom has not at least heard the song, but the movie is not seen by all as a Hollywood classic.

Films like Shaft and Super Fly (1972) were relegated as films specifically made to appeal to African American audiences. These films were also very hip at picking up on the modern Black experience in new ways. There is a case for some of these films to be criticized for showing negative depictions, but as productions with African American talents in the forefront, many of these films are invaluable. Films in the vein of Shaft, Super Fly, and 1970’s Cotton Comes to Harlem) (which we discuss in the next segment), have an advantage of being genre films promotable in marketable genres.

Other films in this canon

In the buddy cop film Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) based on the novel by Chester Himes, Ossie Davis returns as writer and director. The story depicts two African American detectives as they attempt to figure out who robbed a rally led by a con man preacher known as Reverend Deke O’Malley. Here the con man preacher character has returned as if resurrected from Gone Are the Days. In this story, the preacher is stealing from the community using the then-common theme of collecting for a “back to Africa” movement. The preacher is robbed during a rally. “Gravedigger” Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and “Coffin Ed” Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) are two African American detectives assigned to the case. Although they suspect O’Mally is conning people, the two must find the missing money and navigate what to do about the con they suspect. The film is a well-written buddy cop/heist narrative.

Ossie Davis stayed busy during this time. Davis also narrated the early documentary Malcolm X (1972), an archival footage-based telling of the life of the African American leader’s life using his own words and occasional narration by Davis and James Earl Jones. The film opens with haunting “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, a song about lynching that was somewhat clandestine in theme to those in the white community not paying attention.

Perhaps heist and action movies resonate louder from the Blaxploitation era because they were filled with wild and colorful characters and situations. Heist and action movies are tried-and-true genre successes, but African American productions and stories were made across many genres during this time. Like the Malcolm X documentary, the music documentary Wattstax (1973) about the famous Stax Records concert that took place in the Los Angeles Coliseum was produced during this era. Buck the Preacher (1972) is a western directed by Sidney Poitier about African Americans going west after the Civil War as settlers. Blacula (1972) is a classic horror tale set in the Black community. Another unusual Afro-centric vampire narrative directed by Bill Gunn called Ganja and Hess (1973) is a classic of the vampire genre. Ganja and Hess stars Duane Jones who played the main protagonist in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Here an African American lead was cast in a mostly white, but also staunchly independent, production. Night of the Living Dead director George Romero has repeatedly stated Jones was simply the most compelling actor during the auditions, but it clearly shows the freedom in independent cinema as a viable platform for crossing racial boundaries.

Other genres were also touched on using Black stories. Cooley High (1975) is a seminal “coming of age” film exposing the lifestyle of teenagers in a Chicago housing project. The Great White Hope (1970) is a boxing movie starring James Earl Jones. Claudine is a love story. Singer Billie Holiday’s life story was portrayed in 1972 in the biopic Lady Sings the Blues. Car Wash is a comedy with its ear to the street containing vignettes about employees working in a car wash in 1976.

There was an upswing in all types of African American narratives coming to the screen. Karate champion Jim Kelly made Black Belt Jones (1974) following the Blaxploitation blueprint portraying a karate instructor trying to save his dojo from evil land developers. If Shaft and Super Fly are the only films widely remembered from this era, there is a large canon of forgotten cinema to explore. Some were not all entirely African American productions, but all had stories and characters brought to the screen by African American talents. To white audiences, the idea of the “Black movie” was perceived as inherently anti-white. These were films that were largely supported by the African American moviegoer at the time.

The “brand new day” comes to an end.

In 1971, America was not far from legal segregation. Laws changed, but attitudes and habits had not. It was generally thought African American audiences could not support larger productions. As the boundaries of what could be done on an independent level continued to be pushed, Motown, backed by Universal Pictures as distributor, took a chance on a large budget musical featuring the music of the day. Motown still had its ear to the ground with regards to popular music. The music was set to an interpretation of the popular story The Wizard of Oz.

The Wiz was the first big African American film production, costing twenty-four million dollars, and unfortunately… The Wiz was a flop…. This and the massive success of Star Wars (1977) hindered independent productions across the board…. This one-two punch spelled the end of a large rise in production of African American stories.

The Wiz appealed musically. This was the first big African American film production, costing twenty-four million dollars, and unfortunately it failed at the box office. The Wiz was a flop. The perception was white people weren’t seeing The Wiz and African American audiences were not active enough movie goers to support a large budget feature. This and the massive success of Star Wars (1977) hindered independent productions across the board. Studios no longer wanted small pay-offs, they wanted big ones. This one-two punch spelled the end of a large rise in production of African American stories.

Also coming into play were overseas rights for film, an arena where Hollywood studios believed African American stories wouldn’t translate. Home video rights were also about to become a big issue for the major studios. Early VCRs were expensive and unavailable to working class homes. Much like Ossie Davis’s problems only twelve years earlier with Gone Are the Days,studio avenues dried up for African American stories on a large scale.

Science fiction seemed like the new frontier for racial equality, but it couldn’t save all the careers that found work in the influx of African American productions in the ’70s.

As early as 1981, major players during the ’70s were relegated to smaller roles. Pam Grier again played a prostitute, this time in the Paul Newman vehicle Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981), but unlike before, there was no revenge for her character. Besides small television and film roles, Grier wouldn’t have a big lead until Quentin Tarantino’s hip epic Jackie Brown (1997). Billy Dee Williams, who played Louis McKay in Lady Sings the Blues, took on fewer lead roles, but famously landed a big screen role in the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back (1981). LeVar Burton, a lead from one of the most watched African American narratives of the era, Roots (1977), went on to play sidekick to Steve McQueen in the film The Hunter (1980) in a role that was originally written for a dog. Burton landed on his feet securing a role as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). James Earl Jones also famously went on to voice Darth Vader in the Star Wars franchise. Science fiction seemed like the new frontier for racial equality, but it couldn’t save all the careers that found work in the influx of African American productions in the ’70s.

“Always do the right thing.”

Like an old car battery struggling to life under the hood of a cold car, independent cinema has had several jumpstarts on its way to new heights. There was a dip in progress in the ’80s, although there were people working to create African American narratives. The L.A. Rebellion film movement consisted of a group of UCLA film students and actors making high-level films about the Black experience eschewing Hollywood influence using techniques learned from art films and repertory classics. From this group came filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Jamaa Fanaka, and Julie Dash. Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) would be the first film directed by an African American woman to acquire widespread distribution. Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) reflects the lifestyle of a typical African American neighborhood in L.A. using techniques similar to those used in Italian neorealism, giving the film a documentary feel. Jamaa Fanaka directed and co-produced the successful Blaxploitation drama Penitentiary, a film that crossed the genres of boxing and prison picture. 

Michael Schultz, who directed the aforementioned films Cooley High (1975) and Car Wash (1976), also directed African American-themed films from the ’80s, including the unusually sentimental Richard Pryor vehicle Bustin’ Loose (1981), the early hip hop drama Krush Groove (1985), and the overlooked karate classic The Last Dragon (1986). Schultz was firmly amongst those keeping the African American narrative on the screen in the ’80s. Schultz co-produced Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. Lee and his NYU classmate Jim Jarmusch produced films creating a new mold for independent production and distribution for what would be the next “golden age” of independent cinema. She’s Gotta Have It changed what African American cinema could be. There was a new movement giving voice to independent cinema regarding the Black experience. The formula of self-production opened new links to gay and lesbian communities and gave voice to a new generation of filmmaker.

Ossie Davis maintained a long and varied career in film during this time. Among other things, he co-starred in the 1989 Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. Davis again plays opposite Ruby Dee, his wife of sixty-five years. Here, perhaps, his Gone Are the Days character has been put to a new test, perhaps as a tenuous moral tether in a torrent of activity interpreted by an ensemble cast. As “Da Mayor,” Davis is yelled at, lectured to, falsely accused, and called a “drunk fool,” reminding the audience from whence he came. “Da Mayor” also had good qualities. He stands the abuse like Jesus did to Pilate and remains a valued member of the community.

Pam Grier would find new fame as the lead protagonist of Jackie Brown, the follow up to director Quentin Tarantino’s wildly successful Pulp Fiction (1994). Portier acted successfully during the ’80s and ’90s. Unfortunately, his last directorial credit is the Bill Cosby vehicle Ghost Dad (1990). So African American cinema rose safely to a point in the ’90s where it could survive Ghost Dad.

Talented people from all aspects of the industry were finding their avenues. The emerging ’90s independent spirit encouraged a variety of new voices. A youthful group of filmmakers created new and relevant narratives across a variety of genres. John Singleton wrote and directed Boyz n the Hood (1991). The film, influenced by the aforementioned Cooley High, tells the story of the everyday life of a group of African American teenagers living in a gang-centric neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. The Hughes Brothers produced another angle of a similar group of friends in Menace II Society (1993). Reginald Hudlin entered the comedy genre with the Kid ‘n Play vehicle House Party (1990). Candyman (1992) brought a terrifying new horror narrative based on a Clive Barker story to a housing project. In 1992, Spike Lee created a large-scale period piece, a biopic from the Alex Haley biography of Malcolm X. Narratives from the African American community broke new ground telling new stories relative to the Black experience. 

In 1991, two years after Do the Right Thing was released, the chokehold also returned to film, this time for real, when police beat Rodney King mercilessly with batons while a bystander filmed it. Hopefully, this is one trend in film we will see the end of.



Billups Allen spent his formative years in and around the Washington D.C. punk scene. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a creative writing major and a film minor. He has worked in seven different record stores around the country. He currently lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he works for Goner Records, publishes Cramhole zine, contributes regularly to Razorcake, Ugly Things, and Lunchmeat magazines, and writes fiction. (cramholezine.com[email protected])

Bibliography

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