The 1950s and 60s ushered in a new era of awareness for Blacks in America as such inspirational speakers and leaders as Martin Luther King Jnr., Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson joined the Civil Rights
Movement. Listed amongst their aims was a necessity to produce films with a stronger message for the Black community, which, ideally, would lead to equal opportunities for Blacks in America. In the late 1950s a fine young Black actor had emerged who instantly impressed critics through a combination of poise, intensity and versatility. Sidney Poitier starred in a number of high-profile roles: certainly the most advanced roles for a Black actor at that time. In his first appearance he co-starred with Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958). The two stars are bound together and have to overcome their racial prejudices against one another in order to evade the law. As Belton suggests, liberally minded films such as this claimed to have solved racial problems, without actually “uncovering their root causes in the fundamental political and economic inequality, which existed between blacks and whites.” (p.283). In other words: “Hollywood films of the 1960s expose bigotry and racism but do so without exposing their sources. The major studios ignore the politics of racism” (Belton: p.283). Snead argues that this trend was evident for all to see in King Kong (Cooper, 1933), which he believes is symbolic of the taking of Blacks from their habitat to the ‘New World’. The film proceeds to ignore King Kong’s capture (against his will and for the sake of money) and shipping to America and instead concentrates on a narrative which describes how a black foreign monster is in America, wants white women and threatens the American empire/economy (hence his siege upon the financial centre: The Empire State Building). As in Birth of A Nation and Star Wars, ‘order’ is restored once the ‘monster’ is dead.
Despite pressure from the Movement, Hollywood maintained that it was “unable to discern or depict the full spectrum of Black American life and culture” (Snead: p.115). Sidney Poitier was a huge box-office draw during this time and Hollywood felt that realist Black films were likely to lose rather money than gain profit. Significant changes took place during the early nineteen seventies which went further than ever before to change the stereotypical depiction of Black people in American Cinema. In particular, it took the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971), a film over which Van Peebles assumes full authorship since he is the film’s director, screenwriter, editor, music composer and star of the title, to really make headway towards denting the traditional view of Black people in American motion pictures. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was not subservient or apologetic with its message. On the contrary it was designed to be brash, noisy, at times incoherent; the film was provocative and uncomfortable viewing for whites and even split sections of the Black community, particularly in regards to the portrayal of women.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song sent shockwaves through all sections of the nation and single-handedly marked a radical change in Black cinema. Diawara recalls how:
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