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October 21 – December 3, 2016

Say It Loud! The Black Cinema Revolution

At the beginning of the book based on his incendiary film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin Van Peebles quotes a traditional medieval prologue: “Sire, this is not an ode to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn that comes from the mouth of reality.” Peebles’ directive was eloquent and explicit, and his first feature helped light the match that would shortly ignite not only the blaxploitation movement, but a revolutionary era of firsts for black Americans in cinema. During the early 70s, more people of color were involved in the movie industry than at any other time in history. With very low budgets and sweeping popularity, blaxploitation films were highly lucrative investments for both languishing independent studios and bigger players—like MGM and Warner Bros.—so for once, black filmmakers and actors wielded an artistic and economic power, exposing the discriminatory cracks in Hollywood’s conservative framework.

Before this, the struggling vestiges of black cinema that existed fought to be recognized, lacked funding and were often relegated to a limited “ghetto” theater circuit. By the 60s, black actors were more regularly securing roles beyond domestic help, yet—even when discussing racism—the image was still largely “integrationist” and well behaved. And even these roles were few and far between. "When a good part for a Negro actor does come along, they always offer it to Sidney Poitier," director Bill Gunn told Variety. "If he turns it down, they rewrite it for a white actor." Many of the authentic visions of the black experience that were being made—such as Nothing But a Man (1964) or The Cool World (1964)—were still being directed by white filmmakers.

The momentum and progress of civil rights and the Black Power, Black Panther and more radical, militant movements energized black artists to reclaim power over their own image and activated institutions like UCLA to make it financially possible for students of color to study filmmaking. With Hollywood at its most freewheeling and a new ratings system that replaced the Production Code in 1968, even more restrictions and barriers were removed, and a renaissance was born.

The initial seismic wave came in the form of so-called “blaxploitation.” Though now not generally considered derogatory, the quick industry moniker “blaxploitation” was often derided and considered racist since white exploitation films did not have to designate their racial identity. Nevertheless, this insubordinate movement conspicuously reclaimed genres formerly relegated to an all-white cast, most often in the flashier action, thriller and horror varieties. After years of struggling to fit into roles Hollywood deemed acceptable to white audiences, black filmmakers and stars finally did not have to subscribe to any particular genre, format, role or message. The array of black personas suddenly filling the screens only made their previous exclusion more glaring. Thus, the most thrilling and galvanizing roles—Sweetback, Shaft, Coffy, Foxy, Sheba, Cleopatra Jones, Super Fly’s Youngblood Priest—were those that called for reactionary, independent authority and powerfully claimed that most coveted of Hollywood’s positions: the lead. From this anti-establishment, superheroic platform, they could say whatever they wanted to say at a viscerally high volume. It was catharsis.

Sex, violence and action spoke loudly and often took center stage. The films not only had a rudeness and antagonism, they had a rawness, vigor and urgency, reveling in longer, more graphic sex scenes and stark violence with radical political statements only inches from the surface salaciousness. In addition to confronting racism—and in the case of the Pam Grier films, sexism—many focused on the new scourge of drug addiction as another disease transmitted from white elites to poor black communities. More importantly, they were depicting the flourishing subcultures of the urban ghetto—essentially a foreign land to middle-class mainstream audiences—illustrated within an alluring new groove featuring revelatory music and fashions accompanied by afros, slang and the stealthy code of the street. Black audiences were electrified by seeing their experiences reflected on screen, whether as reality or fantasy or a mix of both, and the youth, in particular, soaked up the fashions and a proud, independent, nonconformist attitude.

Many white directors also participated enthusiastically in the new movement—including Roger Corman, Jack Hill and William Girdler—but it was the black filmmakers who were artistically, economically and politically making the most of the opportunity. A nonconformist, therapeutic space had opened up, inviting reinvention, re-creation and re-education. Black directors made it an imperative to employ many people of color behind the scenes, and there was a shockingly endless number of “firsts” for African Americans in the industry during this time. While many careers in film and music were either launched or enjoying the height of their fame and productivity, innovative polymaths like Bill Gunn, Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks and Sun Ra found it the opportune moment to also add filmmaking to their versatile plates, both of the blaxploitation variety as well as independent films, documentaries and experimental work like Gunn’s masterpiece Ganja & Hess and Ra’s futuristic hybrid Space is the Place. Filmmakers like Parks and Kent Garrett had a head start in the journalistic world that led to their documentary creations. Others, like Amiri Baraka, came to film through activism. Meanwhile, actresses of color like Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson were blasting through uncharted territories no woman had been able to enter. And then there was the even more rare phenomenon of female filmmakers working against the odds, like Madeline Anderson, who began her career in the late 50s and produced socially progressive documentaries focused on the voices of the marginalized.

By the mid-seventies, the tide was ebbing. In addition to an assault on blaxploitation pictures by organizations distressed over images of African Americans they deemed too transgressive and destructive, Hollywood had discovered the cost-effective crossover power of the blockbuster and no longer needed to appeal specifically to black audiences. The independent, rebellious filmmakers and actors of this revolution were also often too fiery for the industry or could not revert to more milquetoast fare. Some simply exited altogether or carried on making independent work for smaller, more select audiences. At the same time, the motivation and urgency of finally getting to cinematically take revenge on a racist culture was also waning. As actor Fred Williamson articulated it many years later: “We don’t need to make ‘get whitey’ pictures anymore, but that’s what we needed at that time. We needed a way to fight back.”

The effects of the 70s explosion was far-reaching, and many of the films are still deeply resonant today—both as stinging reflections on current events and as inspirational works of art. The giant strides made during that period positively and permanently affected the colors of the current cinemascape inside and outside Hollywood, with many more, much needed milestones yet to come.

On two separate evenings, the Harvard Film Archive proudly welcomes Kent Garrett and Madeline Anderson to screen and discuss their remarkable documentary work from then and now. – Brittany Gravely

Special thanks: Elena-Rossi Snook, David Callahan—New York Public Library; Charles Hobson, Walter Forsberg—Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture; Brian Belak—Chicago Film Archives; Eric Isaacson—Mississippi Records; and Jake Perlin.

Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Jeremy Rossen, unless otherwise noted.


Friday October 21 at 7pm

Shaft

Directed by Gordon Parks. With Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi
US 1971, 35mm, color, 100 min

No one could ignore the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, certainly not MGM, which was eager to capitalize on art cinema when it could—leading to such unusual collaborations as a three-picture deal with Michelangelo Antonioni. When famous Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks turned Ernest Tidyman’s novel into film and made the detective black, Parks may have also turned revolutionary baadasssss cinema into blaxploitation and transformed a gritty, urban action film into a monumental cultural event. Newcomer Richard Roundtree was the first black actor to take the sole lead in a major studio production, and black audiences responded in overwhelming, ecstatic numbers to the appearance of a strong black hero who white cabbies still don’t pick up. Just as this new cinematic movement turned the tables on genres dominated by whites, Shaft makes his own rules and calls all the shots, functioning smoothly and stylishly in both black and white urban jungles. This transformative thriller spawned many imitators, a couple of sequels and a short-lived TV show and also earned Isaac Hayes the first Oscar for Best Original Song awarded to a black composer. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

Preceded by

My Childhood, Part 2: James Baldwin's Harlem

Directed by Arthur Barron
US 1964, 16mm, color, 30 min

James Baldwin narrates how his early years in Harlem made him alive to the forces at work in the city and American society to manage the black population. Describing the economic and visual disparity of New York’s famed Fifth Avenue that runs through Manhattan and Harlem, Baldwin reminds us that the “avenue is elsewhere the renowned and elegant Fifth,” but venturing north “we find ourselves on wide, filthy, hostile Fifth Avenue, facing a project which hangs over the avenue like a monument to the folly, and cowardice of good intentions.” — Film Society of Lincoln Center

Print courtesy New York Public Library.

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Friday October 21 at 9:30pm

Super Fly

Directed by Gordon Parks Jr. With Ron O’Neal, Carl Lee, Sheila Frazier
US 1972, 35mm, color, 93 min

Following his father’s triumph with Shaft, Gordon Parks Jr. brought a different view of black urban subculture to life in Super Fly with a naturalistic edge, striking fashion statements, Curtis Mayfield’s extraordinary soundtrack, stylized visual flourishes and the semi-glorification of a criminal lifestyle. For the latter it received more criticism than any other blaxploitation film, though it was also the first Hollywood feature completely financed by African Americans with a primarily black and Puerto Rican crew and no studio interference. Just as the drug dealing Youngblood Priest and his partners invert the capitalistic model to fit ghetto constraints, Parks twists the knife that Shaft unsheathed by featuring a black criminal as the triumphant hero. With Mayfield’s anti-drug lyrics an intoxicating counterpoint, Priest’s subversive goal—to make the ultimate deal, so he will be out of both systems and truly free—is its own, complicated indictment of a high-stakes business model cosponsored by the law itself. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

Preceded by

Flavio

Directed by Gordon Parks
US 1964, 16mm, b/w, 12 min

Based on a 1961 Life magazine photo series by Gordon Parks, Flavio depicts a day in the life of a twelve-year-old Brazilian boy, one of a family of ten living on a squalid, impoverished hillside across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. Parks shows the delicate tensions that affect Flavio who, though suffering from a serious respiratory illness, keeps hope alive for his family. Print courtesy the New York Public Library.

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Saturday October 29 at 7pm

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

Directed by Melvin Van Peebles. With Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales
US 1971, 35mm, color, 97 min

In this legendary work of grindhouse political cinema (not to mention personal willpower), Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, edited, and performed the music, the stunts, and the sex scenes. His title character is a male prostitute who intervenes when he sees a young Black Panther being beaten up by two white cops. As a result, he becomes a fugitive. But the black community rises up to help him elude the corrupt and racist state.

Van Peebles makes his technical limitations into virtues, drawing on Godardian inspiration for his hallucinogenic editing style that embraces the non-professionalism of his amateur cast and crew and the breakneck chaos of the shoot. And yet, while the film is funny and decidedly insane (according to one legend, Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea during a sex scene, filed a claim with the Director’s Guild health insurance for an “on-the-job injury,” and used the money to buy more film), it also has to be taken seriously, as an attempt to express a voice that in 1971 had almost no voice at all in the movies. – Athina Tsangari

Print courtesy British Film Institute.

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Saturday October 29 at 9pm

Penitentiary

Directed by Jamaa Fanaka. With Leon Isaac Kennedy, Wilbur White, Hazel Spears
US 1979, 35mm, color, 99 min

Part of the group of UCLA student filmmakers of color known as the L.A. Rebellion, Jamaa Fanaka proceeded to make the most of his time there, directing three features as a student: the outrageous Welcome Home, Uncle Charles (1975), Emma Mae (1976) and Penitentiary, the highest grossing independent film of 1980. Though the interiors were shot in an old jail in Los Angeles, Fanaka turned the UCLA film school quadrangle into the prison yard where a wrongfully accused black man must quickly prove himself or be crushed within the abusive, violent hotbed of prison life. Upon a populace that remains unfairly racially skewed, Fanaka sheds an intense, humane—even at times humorous—light on the range of human beings trapped in this toxic environment. Literally fighting their way out—through illegal boxing matches organized by the prison lieutenant—the inmates’ microcosm is also a potent reflection of life on the outside for many black men who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Print courtesy American Genre Film Archive.

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Free Admission
Madeline Anderson in person

Monday November 7 at 7pm

A pioneering filmmaker and producer during a challenging era in American history for both women and people of color, Madeline Anderson confronted astounding obstacles within both the film industry and society at large. However, she remained undeterred and proceeded to make a series of powerful and timeless documentaries. Shot by the Maysles brothers and Richard Leacock, Integration Report 1 features haunting singing by a young Maya Angelou and captures the marches, sit-ins, rallies and boycotts in the months leading up to the first attempt at a march on Washington. A Tribute to Malcolm X, made for Black Journal, discusses the influence of the famous activist and includes an interview with his widow, Betty Shabazz. Anderson’s most critically lauded film, I Am Somebody, documents the struggle of 400 black hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, who went on strike demanding a fair wage increase. The film has the distinction of being the first half-hour documentary directed by an African American, unionized, female director.  “I was determined to do what I was going to do at any cost. I kept plugging away. Whatever I had to do, I did it,” Anderson has said of her career. The Harvard Film Archive proudly presents the pioneering work of Madeline Anderson with the filmmaker in attendance to discuss her documentaries and the turbulent atmosphere in which these important films were created.

Co-presented by the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard.

Integration Report 1

Directed by Madeline Anderson
US 1960, 16mm, b/w, 20 min

16mm preservation print from the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

A Tribute to Malcolm X

Directed by Madeline Anderson
US 1967, 16mm, color, 13 min

4K DCP from the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I Am Somebody

Directed by Madeline Anderson
US 1970, 16mm, color, 30 min

Courtesy the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Preserved with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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Sunday November 13 at 7pm

Angela Davis at Malcolm X College

Directed by Don McIlvaine
US 1972, video, b/w, 33 min

Halfway through 1972, Angela Davis was acquitted in her infamous murder trial and later appeared in McIlvaine’s film, in which she expounds on a myriad of topics including US imperialism, socialism, the prison industrial system, the Black Panthers and her trial.

The New-Ark

Directed by Amiri Baraka
US 1968, digital video, color, 25 min

Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) was commissioned by the Public Broadcast Laboratory of National Public Television to make a documentary, and he bravely set out, along with cinematographer James Hinton, to document Black Power in Newark, New Jersey. Beginning as a city-symphony of Newark streets, buildings and people set to wordless chanting, The New-Ark quickly arrives at its political imperatives: Black Power must be accomplished through nationalism, and “a nation is organization.” The film focuses on black education, urban public theater and political consciousness-raising inside and outside of Spirit House—Baraka’s black nationalist community center. Lost for years and recently rediscovered at Harvard in 2014, The New-Ark was restored and preserved by the Harvard Film Archive.

Baldwin’s Nigger

Directed by Horace Ové
US 1968, 16mm, b/w, 46 min

Horace’s Ové’s first film is a provocative conversation with writer James Baldwin and comedian Dick Gregory who speaking frankly and openly with a group of West Indian students in London. They discuss how the black experience in America relates to racial problems in Great Britain, the danger of “white liberals” and why racism is an issue of attitude, not of skin color. Print courtesy the British Film Institute.

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Free Admission
Kent Garrett in person

Monday November 14 at 7pm

The Harvard Film Archive is honored to welcome Kent Garrett, a Harvard alum (Class of 1963), to present a selection of his films from a long career—one with no end in site, as Garrett continues his tireless documentarian investigations of socio-political issues. In 1968, Garrett—along with William Greaves, Madeline Anderson and Charles Hobson, among others—was a founding member of WNET’s groundbreaking public affairs show Black Journal. Widelyconsidered the first nationally televised African American series, Black Journal highlighted critical issues within the black community. One of the episodes, Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, was conceived by Robert F. Kennedy, produced by Charles Hobson and directed by Kent Garrett to show the diverse array of families, students, artists and professionals from a neighborhood more widely known for its crime.

Two other films Kent Garrett made for Black Journal, Black GI and Black Cop, examine the outsider status accorded to those seemingly on the inside. In Black Cop, set Central Harlem at the height of the Black Power movement, a policeman’s discussion of his role in and out of uniform is contrasted with the experiences of a colleague in the LAPD. In Black GI, African American soldiers serving in Vietnam contemplate the contradiction of defending the very country that is oppressing them. Both Black GI and Black Cop portray the deep conflicts—personal and institutional—that defined a generation of black Americans and would shape racial dynamics in the country for decades. Concluding the evening will be a clip from Garrett’s latest work, The Last Negroes At Harvard, a work-in-progress that examines the lives of the nineteen African American men and women—including Garrett—who were admitted to Harvard in 1959, the largest number of African Americans who had been admitted in Harvard’s 300-year history.

Co-presented by the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard.

Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant (excerpt)

Directed by Charles Hobson
US 1968-71, digital video, color, 12 min

 

Black GI

Directed by Kent Garrett
US 1971, DCP, color, 54 min

4K DCP from the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Black Cop

Directed by Kent Garrett
US 1969, digital video, color, 15 min

Courtesy the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

The Last Negroes at Harvard (excerpt)

Directed by Kent Garrett
US work-in-progress, digital projection, color, 22 min

 

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Friday November 18 at 7pm

The Mack

Directed by Michael Campus. With Max Julien, Richard Pryor, Don Gordon
US 1973, 35mm, color, 110 min

Pimpin’ ain't easy, the saying goes, and no film better illustrates both the glamour and the downside of this world than The Mack. Though not the first film to invite audiences to identify with a villain, its volatile yet progressive take on sex, class, capitalism and race made it an important touchstone not only for black film, but also for hip-hop culture—serving as major inspiration for many musicians. Part gritty urban realism, part male fantasy, The Mack is based on the life of Frank Ward, one of the most successful African American drug dealers and pimps at the time. The real Ward provided guidance, protection and permission to film in his Oakland, California “territory” as well as all of the movies’ authentic underground extras—in exchange for a small role in the film. Max Julien plays Goldie, the Ward character, who returns home from jail to discover that his brother has become a black nationalist, whose opposition to drugs and violence complicates Goldie’s achieving his career goals. Shot in the middle of a turf war, the production came to a momentary halt when Ward was killed, and the filmmakers had to renegotiate with the Black Panthers. - adapted from text by Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club

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Friday November 18 at 9:15pm

Cleopatra Jones

Directed by Jack Starrett. With Tamara Dobson, Bernie Casey, Shelley Winters
US 1973, 35mm, color, 89 min

Cutting a striking figure across a dramatic mountain landscape, Special Agent Cleopatra Jones, clad in a long black cape and fur bonnet, watches fields of poppies burn. Less emotional, naked and raw than the Pam Grier cycle, Cleopatra Jones presents a glossier 007-style action heroine who maintains her cool and keeps her ever-changing outfits securely fastened. Like Grier, former model Tamara Dobson changes the action movie game with her beauty, brains and physical prowess. She too is up against crooked cops, double-crossing brethren and “Mommy,” Shelley Winters’ kitschy dominatrix who attempts to control the city through drugs and violence. Yet Jones is a sophisticated martial artist and a professional protector of her community. The vengeful blasts of Foxy and Coffy are desperate, enraged shouts compared to the slick choreography of the semi-futuristic Cleo, who drives a Batmobile-like Corvette complete with a car phone and an arsenal of automatic weapons hidden in the door.

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Saturday November 19 at 7pm

The Harder They Come

Directed by Perry Henzell. With Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw
Jamaica 1973, 35mm, color, 103 min

The creator of the first all-Jamaican-made feature film, native Perry Henzell, was white but spent an unconventional life exposing the vibrancy of Jamaican culture to the world. Remaining the most influential, most important Jamaican production to this day, The Harder They Come and its soundtrack album brought reggae and Rastafarian culture to a wide, international audience. Inciting near riots at theaters, this marked the first time Jamaicans had seen themselves on screen. With its improvisational, documentary feel and a deep Jamaican Patois spoken by a cast of non-actors, this was a culture, a style and a poverty unseen and unheard by any audience.The story of Ivanhoe Martin—Jimmy Cliff’s broke, aspiring singer—is loosely based on both the musician’s early biography and a legendary Jamaican outlaw whose anti-establishment exploits were much celebrated. Optimistic and charming, Ivan slides surprisingly easily into a life of crime—standing up to anyone who stands in his way, trying to change many oppressive, corrupt systems: law, religion, the music industry and the even the unfair economy of the drug trade.

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Saturday November 19 at 9:30pm

Space is the Place

Directed by John Coney. With Sun Ra, Raymond Johnson, Barbara Deloney
US 1974, 35mm, color, 85 min

Rarely screened today, Space is the Place is a cosmic journey in which philosopher/musician Sun Ra and his Arkestra, in their quest as space explorers, attempt to settle a new planet with African Americans, tempting them away from oppressive Earth with the music of the Arkestra. An Afro-Futuristic, psychedelic blend of intergalactic card games, time travel and spaceships, Sun Ra imagines outer space as a utopian zone free of racism where everyone is free to create their own future, or “alter-destiny.”

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Monday November 21 at 7pm

Nina Simone – Live in Montreux 1976

Switzerland 1976, digital video, color, 70 min

One of the most dynamic and extraordinary artists, activists, composers and musicians of the twentieth century, Nina Simone (1933-2003) remained an extremely prolific singer and performer throughout her career, recording over fifty albums and five-hundred songs while performing incessantly. Simone used her remarkable talent to transmit messages of black liberation, self-empowerment and love through her music.

Fresh from a three-year spiritual journey in Liberia, Simone completely blindsides a Swiss jazz festival audience with a raw, intense confessionary performance. Nina’s unconventional production is contemptuous, hilarious, spiritual, brilliant—a breathtaking tour de force from the “High Priestess of Soul.”

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Saturday December 3 at 9pm

Ganja & Hess

Directed by Bill Gunn. With Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn
US 1973, 35mm, color, 110 min

Born upon the wings of Blacula (1972), Ganja & Hess—a black vampire film of an entirely different vein—cascades obliquely into experimental territory where few black directors had ever found the freedom to venture. After the opening song—by Nina Simone’s brother Sam Waymon—explains the vampiric origins of Dr. Hess Green, the film’s dense, dreamlike structure unfolds via fluctuating perspectives and voices, both internal and external. Played by Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones, Hess is a wealthy intellectual whose complicated interaction with an artist leads to his meeting the lovely, self-determined Ganja. Into the vampire metaphor director Bill Gunn poetically folds the black experience, addiction and the victim/victimizer cycle, while tracing the dark shadows of class and race, religion and mysticism, maleness and femaleness and even narrative structure itself. His breathtaking nightmare is further expanded by extended documentary-like scenes in a Christian church and a lush soundtrack that freely alternates between electronic, choral, classical and soul. Though the film received the Critic’s Choice Prize at Cannes in 1973, the mystified distributors brutally re-edited it for the drive-in circuit, forcing all of the original makers to remove their names. Luckily, MoMA retained an original print that was later restored, thus ensuring that Gunn’s transcendent creation would live forever. Print courtesy the Museum of Modern Art.

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