For Monday 11/23: 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) and the LA Weekly article “LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema”. 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.
Optional: If you have Netflix, the documentary BaadAsssss Cinema on Blaxploitation era film is worth a look (DVD only, no streaming).
Wednesday 11/25 is the evening before the big holiday, so we don’t meet. Look for an update next week, but we’ll finish discussing Spook Who Sat By the Door on Monday 11/30 and the assignment will be short, considering that drafts of your final papers are due that day.
Don’t forget the screening of Baddddd Sonia Sanchez on Thursday 11/19 at the DOC NYC Festival. Advance tix highly recommended, since it will likely sell out.