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Home >> Society & Culture
Black Portraiture in Hollwood

Richard Robinson

(PART 4)
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. 
Civil Rights and Sweetback and ‘Blaxploitation’

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The Civil Rights Movement felt that the use of Sidney Poitier in such roles was also a further denial of the causes of the real problems that affected the Black community in terms of their socio-economic well-being in America.  According to Belton, for Hollywood, Sidney Poitier became the “perfect problem solver” since although the colour of his skin was bound to provoke racism “his class status solves whatever problems whites have with his blackness.” (Belton: p.284).  For Blacks, his portrayals of middle to upper-class professionals such as a doctor in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967), a homicide detective in In The Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967) and as an engineer who teaches in To Sir, with Love (James Clavell, 1967) were no longer acceptable because they were so far removed from the reality of the majority for “Poitier is equal, if not superior to any of his white antagonists, who are forced to recognize his abilities and to purge themselves of their own racism.”  (Belton: p.285).
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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View Comments
Date:May 07, 2012
Great post with lots of importnat stuff.

Date:May 07, 2012
Ah yes nicely put everynoe.

Date:May 07, 2012
A good many valualbes you've given me.

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