Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pirkka Kivenheimo: African-American Cinema (lecture)

Lecture at Cinema Orion, 17 April 2009, in the U.S. Independents series.
For the black film-makers in the United States, being "independent" was not a virtue but a necessity.
The Birth of a Nation: racism in the heart of mainstream Hollywood.
The PBS definition: three of the following criteria have to be met in order for a film to be classified as "black": 1) black producer, 2) black director, 3) black executive producer, 4) black talent, 5) black target audience.
In Hollywood the black breakthrough took place first in the late 1990s.
Clip: ABC Nightline on the 1996 Oscar Gala. American film industry was one of the last to have black presence.
For a long time blacks had to make their films independently on a small budget.
1910: Chicago, Phileon Poster. Segregation in Cinemas.
1910-1952: ca 500 race movies.
Oscar Micheaux: 34 films. He made the first black feature film The Homesteaders (1919). Paul Robeson debuted in Body and Soul (1924). The first black sound film.
The 1950s and the 1960s were the great decades of civil rights. During 1952-1967 there was not a single film directed by a black artist in the United States.
1967: San Francisco Film Festival: Melvin Van Peebles presented La Permission. He had lived since 1959 in Europe. Born in 1932 in Chicago, served in the U.S. Air Force, was a painter in Mexico, worked in San Francisco as a trolley driver, became an author, since 1957 short films, Pick-Up Men for Merrick, moved to the Netherlands in 1959, was a dramaturg, moved to France in 1961, first feature film 1965, and in 1967, La Permission, in the same year as Sidney Poitier starred in In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Hollywood studios were intrigued and employed at once three black directors. Gordon Parks, Sr. became the first black Hollywood director (The Learning Tree). Ossie Davis, the second (Cotton Comes to Harlem). Van Peebles directed The Watermelon Man for Columbia.
But in 1971 he directed Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. On a budget of 100.000 USD the revenue was 10 million dollars. Immediately this success inspired the blaxploitation cycle, starring blacks, but written, directed and produced by whites.
Van Peebles inspired a whole generation of young black film-makers, such as Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans, the Hudlins, Charles Burnett, Mario Van Peebles, John Singleton, the Hugheses, Ernest Dickerson, Carl Franklin, Bill Duke, Mike Lane, Leslie Harris, Ruby Oliver.
Clip: Melvin Van Peebles visits the set of Do the Right Thing (1989).
Melvin Van Peebles was multitalented: he made records, poems, novels, theatre, he was a flyer, and in the 1970s and the 1980s he was a trader in the New York stock exchange, and also wrote a book about that.
Clip: Mario Van Peebles, 2003.
As a 13 year old boy Mario played a sex scene in Sweet Sweetback.
Backing came from Bill Cosby, among others.
Clip: Baadassss (Mario Van Peebles, 2003)
The secret of the popularity of Sweet Sweetback: the right time, the right place, the right spirit. The black community. Melvin hired black professionals to his crew. For the first time, police violence against blacks was shown. It was well-known to the blacks, but first in 1991, with the Rodney King incident, whites became aware of it. Sweet Sweetback was prophetic.
No more resignation. Taking responsibility. Emphasis on the black community. Already the opening credits are significant. "Starring: the black community". Melvin himself stars as "Brer Soul", a reference to Brer Rabbit and the old tales of the South, coming from Africa. A new kind of hero.
The film is serious beneath the surface.
The depiction of sexuality was interpreted as machoist, but is not that simple. The theme of androgyny. The sexual exploitation is mutual.
The theme of violence. The essential scene: Sweetback kills the policemen who beat cruelly a brother. There is no glorification of violence.
"Dedicated to the brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man".
The old woman's comment: "I might have had a Leroy once, but they used to take them away from me". The slave masters could break up families, and so could the social security officials.
Clip: the premiere (from Mario's Baadassss, 2003), "dedicated to the brothers and sisters who opened the door".
Earth, Wind & Fire performed the soundtrack in the year of their debut album.

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