culturally diverse, politically correct society, it is hard to
believe that at one time racism was not only accepted as the norm,
but enjoyed for its entertainment value. Individuals of African
descent in North America today take the large, diverse pool of
opportunities offered by the film industry for granted. Much like
Canadian theatre however, there was a time when a black man in any
role, be it servant or slave, was virtually unheard of. It took the
blaxpliotation films of the early nineteen seventies to change the
stereotypical depiction of Black people in American Cinema, as it
took The Farm Story, performed by a small troop of Canadian actors,
to create a Canadian theatre industry. To be more specific, it took
the release of Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback?s Baadasssss Song,
in 1971, to change the tradition view of Black people in American
was the first in a long line of socially acceptable Good Negro
characters. Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged,
enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n?er turn against their
massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and
The early silent
period of cinema introduced five basic archetypes for Black
characters: the Tom, the Coon, the Tragic Mulatto, the Mammy, and
finally, the Brutal Black Buck. America?s first Black character found
manifestation as the aforementioned Uncle Tom in Edwin S. Porter?s,
Uncle Tom?s Cabin, which was released in 1903. ?The paradox was that
in actuality Tom wasn?t Black at all. Instead he was portrayed by a
nameless, slightly overweight actor made up in blackface.?(Boggle, 4)
This was a common practice developed by the theater, and carried
over, as were many of the acting techniques, to silent film. Tom?s
presence, and the appearance of the four negro archetypes which were
to follow, served the same purpose: ?to entertain by stressing negro
no positive effect on the status of Black people in America socially,
the tom character opened the door for Black actors in cinema. Sam
Lucas became the first black man to be cast in a leading role as a
tom, and in 1927, Universal Pictures signed James B. Lowe, a handsome
black actor, for the lead role in the Universal Pictures production
of Uncle Tom?s Cabin. Lowe was chosen to play the part because film
director Harry Pollard, a former blackface actor, believed he ?fit in
with the realistic demands of the times?(Bogle, 6)
Tom was to be
followed by the coon, although he remained the cinematic negro
character favorite. Where tom was an endearing character, the coon
provided audiences an object of amusement. Two variants of the coon
soon emerged: the pickaninny and the uncle ramus.(Bogle, 7) The
Pickanny was the first coon type to appear in cinemas.
was a harmless, little screwball creation whose eyes popped, whose
hair stood on end with the least excitement, and whose antics were
pleasant and diverting.?(Bogle, 7)
provided audiences with an amusing diversion, and soon found his way
into the hearts of the mass audience. Next to debut was the pure
coon, ?a no-account nigger?, whose unreliable, crazy, lazy nature was
good for nothing but eating and causing trouble. This character found
its pinnacle of success in Rastus, a good-for-nothing negro featured
in a series of films released between 1910 and 1911. The final coon
brother would emerge as the eager to please metaphoric cousin to the
tom. Quaint, and na?ve, the Uncle Ramus character distinguished
himself through his comic philosophizing.(Bogle,8)
In general, the
cinematic coon was used to indicate the Black man?s contentment with
his submissive position in society. Also emerging around this time
period is the tragic mulatto: a negro light enough to pass for white,
who must fight against the negro taint to either rise above his
colour, or fall victim to it.
character closely related to the comic coon, was the next to emerge.
Headstrong and abundantly female, Mammy debuted around 1914. The
Mammy role would be perfected by Hattie McDaniel in the 1930?s. From
the mammy roles emerged the Aunt Jemima, a male or female character
who had a bit more tact and were, for the most part, sweet and
archetype emerged in D.W. Griffith?s The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Depicting life before and after the civil war, all four archetypes
are present in this film. It depicts renegade negroes who overpower
the good-hearted, white southerners and impart on a path of lechery,
vulgarity and crime. The ultimate goal of these wild beast-men is
sexual dominance of the pure, innocent white women. At the films
conclusion, the white men of the ?invisible empire? ride in to save
the day and restore white supremacy in the South. Proudly
discriminating, D. W. Griffith, touted as one of the fore-fathers of
cinema, uses his film mastery to show audiences what happens when
?slaves get uppity?.
archetypes would rule in black cinema for the next 50 years. Although
Black films did emerge, it was for the most part produced by white
production companies for a black audiences. Black Independent
production companies such as the Ebony Motion Picture Company began
to emerge in the 20?s, but the stereotypes and subject matter stayed
the same. A common theme of social climbing, the ultimate goal of the
negro being suburban living, dominating Black theatres.(Cham, 20)
Throughout the 30?s and 40?s the gangster films rose to the fore,
usually depicting gun-totting, slick-talking negros, entent on making
it big. Despite the presence of Black independent filmmakers such as
George Randall, African American issues were essentially ignored.
The 50?s and
60?s brought social unrest and the Civil Rights Movement brought a
need for films with a stronger message. The archetypes of the 20?s
and thirties were no longer acceptable, and the few Hollywood ?race
films? (which usually starred Sidney Poitier), were no longer
adequate. ?Hollywood was still unable to discern or depict the full
spectrum of Black American life and culture.?(Cham, 21)
In 1971, Black
film experienced an epiphany. It came in the form of a low-budget,
badly made French film by the name of Sweet Sweetback?s Baadasssss
Song. It was created almost entirely by one Black man- Melvin Van
Peebles. This marked a radical change in Black cinema.
?In 1971, Melvin
van Peebles dropped a bomb. Sweet Sweetback?s Baadasssss Song was not
polite. It raged, it screamed, it provoked. It?s reverberations were
felt throughout the country. In the Black community it was both
hailed and denounced for it?s sexual rawness, its macho hero, and its
depiction of the community as downpressed and in need of
Van Peebles film
sparked an explosion of what would become known as
films. What Sweet Sweetback Baadassss Song did was interpret Black
Stereotypes differently. He, and other Black directors of the time,
took the Black Buck, Coon, and Mammy stereotypes of the era before
and modernized them. ?Mammy? lost weight and grew an afro, becoming
the ultra-stylish diva which was personified best by actress Pam
Grier. The Black Buck emerged dominant, ready to fight his historical
films acted as a cleansing process, through which black films were
eventually able to accurately depict the African American experience.
Directors such as Spike Lee and Jon Singleton were able to create
?race films? which confronted the serious urban issues of the time,
without using old stereotypes. It is important to note, however, that
Sweet Sweetback is not considered a blaxpoitation film, as it is too
artistic to be considered such. Rather, Melvin Van Peebles first film
was the catalyst for the cleansing blast.
?The Farm story?
marked a point in time- before it there was no Canadian identity in
theatre, after it there was. In the same fashion, Melvin Van Peebles?
movie marked the moment when African Americans reclaimed their
identity. They were no longer content with the cinematic roles
offered to them, and so they began to create their own. Although
blaxploitation films were later commercialized, their intent and
result stayed consistent, and have created the ethno-conscious cinema
industry we find today.
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