For Monday 11/18, we’ll turn to film and look at how the Black Arts Movement tried to break into mass entertainment and on to the big screen. As an example, we’ll watch the first half of The Spook Who Sat By the Door, (1973) which was written by Sam Greenlee (the screenplay was adapted from his book of the same title), directed by Ivan Dixon (who co-starred opposite Abbey Lincoln in Nothing But A Man), and features a seriously funky soundtrack by Herbie Hancock. [Note for online course followers: Spook is also on Netflix, occasionally pops up on YouTube, and will be posted here on the Video page. Contact me for access.]
Monday’s assignment is to think about the context of Spook and read/watch the following:
Read this short 2003 article (“After 30 Years, Controversial Film Re-emerges”) from NAACP’s The Crisis on Google Books
Read Cultural Historian Todd Boyd’s summary of the Blaxploitation film genre on The Root
Watch this 4-minute “making of” video on Youtube:
[11/20 Update: the Grace Lee Boggs essay is now on the Readings page]
For Thursday 11/21: we’ll watch the second half of The Spook Who Sat By the Door in class. For this half, think about the background in terms of themes of revolution and rebellion. Read Grace Lee Boggs’s essay, “The Black Revolution”, from Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman anthology (PDF on the Readings page). Lastly, watch this short compilation of scenes from Blaxploitation films:
Also watch the trailer for Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers, which cinematically depicts the successful Algerian anti-colonial struggle against France. While Pontecorvo’s film was artistically influential, it also had political reverberations: could the techniques the Algerians used could be replicated? With urban rebellions (many of which were precipitated by acts of police violence) erupting across the country, it seemed within the realm of possibility to some, even if the success of such a strategy was doubtful at best.
Although there isn’t a neat distinction between Blaxploitation as a genre and “Black Arts”, it’s worth noting that the Blaxploitation films generally evolved into mass, commercial entertainment controlled by the film studios, and focused more on putting Black faces in the films themselves, while not necessarily developing infrastructure or institutions that would support a larger ecosystem of Black writers, directors, film technicians, or studio and production facilities.
One cinematic outgrowth of the era is the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers who emerge from UCLA’s film program. Although politicized by the Black Arts/Black power period, they don’t become active until the mid-late 1970s, and miss the height of Black Arts Movement. Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, and Julie Dash are three of the most prominent to emerge.
Here are a few things to think about while reading and watching (in class). First, film is difficult to produce in that the process of creating it is expensive and time-consuming, particularly in the analog era. No digital video or Final Cut Pro here, folks. This naturally limits the ability of Black Arts Movement aligned artists looking to do work beyond the mainstream.
There’s also the issue of distribution. Again, consider technology of the time: no iTunes or video on demand, which means a release in theaters. That means distribution by a major studio, which Greenlee managed for Spook (using some deception about the film’s contents), but also meant very limited release and that it remained locked inside the studio’s vaults for decades. Greenlee had to be creative about getting Paramount Pictures to agree to distribute the film, as did Melvin Van Peebles with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song. (Van Peebles, ever the trickster, led people to believe he was making a porn movie.)
Also, the soundtrack for Spook comes from noted jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who was named Mwandishi, Swahili for “composer”, by James Mtume, who was affiliated with the Cultural Nationalist US Organization (and founders of Kwanzaa). This is a nod to the need to connect with people by the use of a popular musician and catchy soundtrack (which we still see in film today), shows the cross-genre connections of the Black Arts Movement, and is another example of artists becoming more widely politicized.
Finally, consider contextual questions. What outside issues does all this relate to in 1974? How are Black characters portrayed on the screen in this film? What themes do you see that are similar to others we’ve seen this semester? Note also differences between Greenlee’s film and the Blaxploitation films that became popular at the time and had mainstream Hollywood backing behind them.
Reminders: those of you who still owe me either a paper proposal or draft works cited should get them in. Aside from me not being able to help you with your paper, they count toward the paper grade.