Dakar, Senegal — Black History Month is about to end and, as it does every year, it causes me to take stock of where we are as Black people living in America. I had two experiences this month that made me revisit last year’s February ART-iculate, which was all about the absence of Blackness in my formal education. The two experiences both involved film, one from my college aged past and one from today.
I was invited to provide a pre-screening talk for the 1972 Blaxploitation film Superfly co-sponsored by my old place of employment South Dallas Cultural Center, and The Texas Theatre. I was happy to provide some historical context for the mostly below 50 years old audience. I recalled for them how, in the 1970s, Black America was so excited to finally have films that centered on black protagonists, even though many of them were hardly standup individuals (a plethora of drug dealers, pimps, hustlers etc.). Occasionally we got a truly positive film like the 1974 Claudine, produced by Third World Cinema Corporation, a production company founded by left-wing activist/producer Hannah Weinstein in partnership with James Earl Jones who starred in the film, along with Rita Moreno and Ossie Davis. But mainly we were content to simply not see black folks shuffling their feet and bucking their eyes in fear of their own shadows! So, although the protagonist in Superfly was a drug dealer, we cheered for him because he was stickin’ it to “the man.” We also loved these films because they always had killa soundtracks given that some of our most talented musician/composers were employed to create these musical backdrops. Curtis Mayfield created the soundtrack for Superfly and Claudine and the LPs for both movies made millions. Artists like Isaac Hayes (Shaft) and Earth Wind & Fire (Sweet Sweetback’s Baaaaadass Song) and Herbie Hancock (Spook Who Sat by the Door) got their feet in Hollywood’s very lucrative door of movie composing, paving the way for artists like Stanley Clarke and Terence Blanchard.
But the Blaxploitation films were always controversial because, as I mentioned earlier, they almost always dealt in a new kind of less-offensive stereotype, but a stereotype nonetheless. The men were usually studs, rolling through women like they were totally disposable, and the women were rarely more than two-dimensional backdrops for the men. The only exception to this formula were the few female-centered superchick films like Coffy, Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones, which basically featured women who were major ass kickers of all men doing wrong in the community. These films were being made at the height of the Black Power Movement, so it isn’t surprising that Hollywood chose to bankroll those films that glorified the black gangsta besting “the man” but not the revolutionary black man or woman promoting the disruption of white supremacy and capitalism! Seeing ourselves in films was important, but how we appeared in those films was a topic often debated.
Fast forward to 2018 and the latest hot black film, Black Panther, that’s breaking all kinds of movie records, and we see a major shift in the black image on a Hollywood screen. Ryan Coogler is just beginning his career as a filmmaker and already he’s made three great films, Fruitvale Station, Creed and now, Black Panther. I can only imagine what’s to come from this talented, proudly black young man. I will admit that I had no prior knowledge of the character Black Panther, not being a comic fan; but my son was, and he assured me I’d probably like this story line. He knows how hypercritical I am about most of what comes out of Hollywood, so I trusted his assessment! After reading all the promo material about the making of this movie, I’d already decided I’d give it a try because I’m probably the most pro-black person I know, lol!
Well, I have to say I was not prepared for how much I love this movie! We've had some good films done by black filmmakers coming out of Hollywood this last year, but Black Panther is in a category all its own. The fact that it’s centered in Africa and boasts an African diasporic cast and, from what I’ve heard, production crew as well, means it's a film that not just provides a positive spin on a continent rarely presented in such a way, but it keeps the focus on black people (spoiler alert: white people are as scarce as hen’s teeth in this film!). As I look at interviews with the cast, I am so moved by how moved they are by the outpouring of love from black kids attending the film. They are recognizing just how powerful film can be in shaping a child’s outlook on themselves and their place in the world. Anyone who doesn’t understand how critical it is for kids to see themselves in a myriad of diverse images, most importantly, in positive images, doesn’t understand why the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s could never come close to instilling the sense of pride and accomplishment that Black Panther does for 2018’s black kids. Granted it’s a fantasy world but when have we ever seen a fantasy world that is black, powerful and positive?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other black filmmaking star on the rise, Ava Duvernay, who is blazing a new trail for black women filmmakers, one filmmakers like the incredible Julie Dash were denied. I understand she’s working with a $100 million budget for A Wrinkle in Time, a first for a black woman filmmaker. Anyone else wondering if good old Walt Disney is turning over in his grave knowing the two biggest films coming out of Disney Studios are both being made by black filmmakers? (If you’re asking why I’d say this, I suggest doing some research on Disney and his views on race!) I’m also thrilled to learn that Black Panther stars Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira (an award-winning playwright and director as well as an actor best known for The Walking Dead) will be producing a mini-series based on acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah. I’ll be organizing some viewing parties for this one, for sure! Lupita is reportedly also developing Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s autobiography as a movie, in which she’ll play his mother.
Of course, I know the number of black filmmakers making major studio films in Hollywood is very miniscule in comparison to the number of white filmmakers, but I believe despite how far we may need to go to see parity, we need to celebrate the advances we’ve made from the days of blaxploitation films until now. For me to have gone to the movies more times in a year than
I’ve been in probably 10 year says something about the stories now being told on the silver screen. If this keeps up, who knows, I may actually become a regular moviegoer!
Well, we’ll see about that, but in the meantime, Happy Black History Month!
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
» ART-iculate runs on the last Wednesday of the month.
- April: Vicki Meek ART-iculates
- May: On Dallas and Cultural Equity
- June: Equity vs. Diversity
- July: An Arts Super PAC?
- August: Too Big to Fail?
- September: It Isn't Us Against Them
- October: Another Missed Opportunity
- November: Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea
- December: Save Our Summer Programs
- January: The Creative Community in the Trump Era
- February: Being a Black Artist in a White World
- March: Expanding Our Cultural Horizons
- April: Intercultural Self-Determination
- May: A New Cultural Plan
- June: Working for Good
- July: Into the Forest
- August: Saved by Art
- September: Immersed in Cultural Equity
- October: The Artist as Citizen
- November: Understanding Your Roots
- December: No column
- January: Strengthening Our Voice