Getting Whitey

The eagerness of urban black audiences for movies with black casts, stories, and themes, and particularly for black heroes, exemplars of racial pride, has created the first situation of guaranteed profit for commercial film makers since the 1940s. Recent genres like the youth film, the drug-addict cycle, and the revisionist Western have failed after a few box-office successes, or failed altogether, but at the moment, any film which shows blacks facing down whites in violent confrontations (the more corpses the better) is going to do quick and heavy business in the big cities. From large studios like MGM to fly-by-night outfits that barely exist on paper, everyone is struggling to get a few black movies into the theaters before the bottom falls out of the market; within the next year as many as two dozen features for the black audience should be released—some directed by whites, but most of them made by young blacks experienced in stage and television directing, still photography, film acting, and documentary.

Some of these films will be better than the slam-bang, blood-and-guts entertainment that is jamming the market now. The guaranteed audience has been a big incentive to shoddiness and exploitation, and with the exception of Ossie Davis’s Cotton Comes to Harlem, there hasn’t been a recent black movie with more than a few good moments. So far the hustlers have been in the saddle; perhaps the artists and decent entertainers will emerge when the audience gets over its first excitement at seeing blacks playing gangsters, cowboys, and private detectives. There’s no doubt that by producing violent genre films the hustlers have been correct about what the majority of the black audience wants. (Malcolm X, a documentary compilation of Malcolm’s speeches and interviews from his last years, captures enough of his lucidity and wit and fervor to convince one that he was the greatest public speaker of our time, but hardly anybody has been going to see it.)

What has already appeared is of immense importance in the history of mass culture, even if it is aesthetically null. The film makers, whether white or black, have sensed the audience’s rage and its mood of revolt against the insulting image of blacks in past movies and against the white man in general. The black cinema has discovered the profitability of revenge: the desires to make money and to erase a legacy of racial humiliation coincide perfectly in a cinema whose moments of purest audience joy consist of black men and women responding to white racism by killing their oppressors. Movie audiences have always wanted heroes for fantasy release or just the basic pleasure of watching beautiful physical action, but this may be the first time an audience has demanded physical heroism in order to confirm an emerging sense of identity. The mood in the theaters is festive, alternating between admiration and mockery. If a white person wanders into one of these movies, he will have the novel experience of complete exclusion; he will feel like a “nigger.”A historical victim has found a voice, and not unexpectedly, it is abusive, wised-up, malicious, and charged with the special bitterness of a people who still haven’t much power but who know how to go one up on those who do. The derision directed toward whites on the screen, whether they are evil or well-meaning, and the glee when the white enemy is rubbed out gets to the white viewer emotionally, no matter how hard he tries to hide behind “aesthetic” responses. On screen there’s an image of himself that hurts; he will see that he is violent and joyless, cruel without courage, lecherous without sensual grace; that he is sexually obsessed with blacks, particularly with the specter of black masculinity; that he is at a loss as to what to say to a black man when he cannot bully him with superior force; that he is humorless, power-mad, and above all, disgracefully clumsy in all the essential relations of life.

The white is being paid back for years of portraying blacks in movies as simple, shiftless, and stupid, although occasionally faithful and brave as well. The portrait was not without affection, but it was the affection of master for servant—condescending, humorous, complacent. During World War II, the platoon and bomber-crew movies discovered the black man as a valiant fighter for democracy to whom tolerance and a certain amount of respect should be extended; then, in the postwar antiprejudice films, which continued through the fifties and sixties and culminated in Stanley Kramer’s insufferable Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), the image of the black man was thoroughly cleaned up. He was made intelligent, earnest, skillful, and well-spoken; in a word, he became the Negro (although some blacks would say he simply became white), and was exhibited in self-congratulatory white-made films as if he were an overdressed little boy at a garden party. The liberal, conscientious image of the black was nearly as insulting as the old one because it implied that it was the black man’s resemblance to the white bourgeois which qualified him as a member of the human race. (Honorable exceptions to the general whitewash include Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1964) and especially Michael Roehmer’s Nothing but a Man (1963 ), which faced the self-destructiveness and anguish in a black family, as well as the affirmative struggles, and allowed a little reality to come through.) Fortunately, we are now past the age of ethnic squeamishness and hypocrisy; the new films couldn’t be less concerned with the characters’ ability to speak the King’s English or act like model citizens. The joyous response from black audiences no doubt derives from hearing the ghetto idiom and seeing the abrasive style of ghetto life for the first time in the movies.

Whether set in the nineteenth century or the present, the current heroes are all engaged in the act of creating themselves as black resisters, black defenders, black men. So far, black manhood inevitably means the willingness to kill whites. Black pride appears to be sustaining the machismo ideal for black men and at the moment there are no black Woody Allens in the movies.

Several of the new heroes have been killed, but none of them has suffered moral or psychological defeat, nor displayed much hesitation to act bravely. This insistence on winning has already produced some wild and uneasy fantasies. In his introduction to the published script of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, black producer-director-writer-star Melvin van Peebles says that his first priority was “a victorious film. A film where niggers could walk out standing tall instead of avoiding each other’s eyes, looking once again like they’d had it.” Van Peebles is a hustler of genius, and his account of how he made Sweetback independent of white money and control makes exhilarating reading, but his film was a frenzied, over-directed, over-cut, visually incoherent swirl of images surrounding a flamboyantly excessive ego-trip. Sweetback, a whorehouse stud-performer, so cool he hardly needs to speak; the man who kills several cops and beats up a few more and gets away with it; who conquers the female leader of a white motorcycle gang in a bizarre sexual “duel” by giving her an orgasm—Sweetback was an example of self-aggrandizement so extreme that his creator must have counted on a special love of the outrageous, buried deep in the heart of the audience.

Van Peebles is the Adam Clayton Powell of the cinema, and his Sweetback is at least an attempt to create a film directly out of ghetto experience, a parable of the black man in flight. Gordon Parks’ Shaft, on the other hand, is a sloppy spoof-replay of tired private-eye formulas, with black actors standing in for the old Warner Brothers stock company. And the recent Buck and the Preacher, directed by Sidney Poitier, also draws on old movie sources, with Poitier doing a Ward Bond routine as a wagon master leading black settlers West after the Civil War. The film simultaneously evokes historical truth (vicious white night riders try to bring the ex-slaves back) and denies it (Poitier and Harry Belafonte kill dozens of these men and get away with it).

Even when an old movie is remade directly, the plot must be changed to suit the demand for “victory.” The white-made Cool Breeze, based on the same W. R. Burnett novel that inspired John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, casts black actors as gangsters pulling off a big jewel robbery, but this time, rather than the characters’ various frailties leading to their arrest or death, the two most likable robbers escape with the loot; the point of the story is completely lost.

Another white-made film, The Legend of Nigger Charley, resembles one of those masochistic drugstore novels that used to be written for whites in which a powerful black slave is beaten and humiliated and finally kills the master and runs off with his wife. Instead of the sexual triumph (white girlfriends are temporarily out of the question), Nigger Charley moves West and disposes of a pack of crazy, evil white men who come after him, as well as some local lunatics harassing a gentle white man and his Indian bride; in the end he rides off into the western sunset. In these films the white man is always the oppressor, but it’s necessary for the fantasy structure that he be a defeated oppressor, no matter how false and contradictory that may appear.

In form Nigger Charley is like the Spaghetti Westerns, those Italianmade products in which duels and ambushes and shoot-outs are spread throughout the entire picture, in contrast to the typical American Western, in which an early provocation followed by a gradual change of character in the hero leads to the inevitable final duel. In movies like Nigger Charley and Buck and the Preacher, the act of violence is less a definition of identity and a moral fact than an invitation to a body count. In this respect, the black cinema is part of an industry-wide movement; apparently a single death is no longer expected to carry any weight with the audience.

Oscar Williams, director of The Final Comedown, goes a step farther; his picture, set in the present, is just one endless shoot-out between Pantherish young blacks and huge squads of police. The flashbacks interspersed through the killing show that young blacks must choose between the Uncle Tom ways of their parents (the picture is inhumanly hard on older blacks) and a splendid death fighting “the pigs”; no other conduct is offered as possible. The young men all die after taking scores of policemen with them, and not only does the picture fail to examine the premise that one should be warring with the police, but it provides a sickening glorification of death. With its kamikaze mentality, The Final Comedown provides a thrill of despair, an intimation of a race war that the blacks will lose, but lose gloriously. No one can say whether the cheering audience dismisses this sort of thing as movie nonsense or takes it as a serious invitation to go out and get a cop; in either case one needn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between movies and behavior in order to hate and fear commercial nihilism like The Final Comedown. Black movies without heavy violence will soon be showing: James Baldwin is going to direct a movie from his own script; and Third World Productions, a company in New York headed by people like Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Piri Thomas, and John O. Killens, is planning to film adaptations of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and novels by Killens and Thomas. Adaptation of quality literary work doesn’t always produce good movies, but at least this strategy could rescue black experience from the movies themselves—from old genres, borrowed styles, superheroes, and bloodspurting bodies falling off roofs and down stairways.

Many of the brutal or trivial new entertainments have come in for scathing criticism from black intellectuals and activists, particularly the younger ones, who place an immense importance on media images and the use of media for political instruction. Clayton Riley, for instance, a teacher and writer living in New York, complains about the continued obsession with violent figures. “The superhero creates elitist, worshipping attitudes and enforces your sense of personal worthlessness.” Riley feels that current films are dangerous because they encourage the audience to oversimplify its problems. “Watching Poitier kill whitey with his custommade shotguns may make you feel good, but it doesn’t help you to live on the streets of Chicago.” One needn’t be Herbert Marcuse to see that the films might have the effect of dissipating black political militancy by providing victories on screen that are impossible in life. “Social masturbation” was the phrase used by Leonza Campbell, a writer-director at Third World Productions, to describe the revenge epics.

Many black people I have spoken to are hostile to “mere entertainment” in the movies, on the grounds that the continuing crisis in black life demands something more useful. “We have to have a code of ethics and principles to live by; if a movie is just entertaining, it’s irrelevant,” said Dolores Costello, executive producer of Third World programs at WBAIFM. But is this a realistic expectation? The repeated emphasis on “relevance” and “positive black values,” so reminiscent of the left-puritanism in the arts during the thirties, could produce a cinema as dreary as most of the “proletarian literature" of that period, and there’s small likelihood that the movie audience would either enjoy or learn anything from it.

Perhaps the best direction for black cinema, and also the one that would satisfy the conflicting demands being placed on it, would be to deal with the ordinary heroism of black life, the struggle simply to survive in America with dignity and selfhood intact. The film makers certainly have the attention of the public, and they should be able to take a few chances. If that public is cheated of the quality its enthusiasm deserves, black movies will be remembered only as another form of exploitation and betrayal.