Sunday 22 October 2017

Film: Long and troubled history of black Hollywood

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in Selma
David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in Selma
Selma
Gone with the Wind
Denzel Washington in The Equalizer
Sidney Poitier in Blackboard Jungle

Paul Whitington

The thing that strikes you most powerfully while watching Selma, a compelling new biopic of Martin Luther King Jr., is how very recently it was considered alright to ban African-Americans from all the best bars and restaurants, stop them from voting in elections, and beat them half to death if they had the temerity to peacefully demonstrate.

Selma opens in 1964 as King accepts the Nobel Peace prize in Oslo, but he tells his wife Coretta that he feels like a fraud in his frock coat because his campaign for civil rights has yet to succeed. And as if to illustrate the point, we then see four young black girls lose their lives in a Ku Klux Klan bomb attack on a Birmingham church. Welcome to 1960s Alabama.

But King sees a grim potential in the state's vicious opposition to civil rights, and reckons that Alabama could become a national flash point in his campaign for equality. He sets his sights on Selma, a hate-filled town run by a trigger-happy police chief, and when King and his associates begin staging marches and sit-ins for voting rights, they know well they're lighting a fuse.

English actor David Oyelowo does a remarkable job of capturing King's gravitas, and was a surprise omission from the Best Actor Oscar nominations. And Selma's release has been an emotional moment for black Americans, as it dramatises perhaps the key event in their struggle for equality.

The fact that it was directed by an African-American woman, Ava DuVernay, shows just how much things have changed for black actors and film-makers in recent times, because Hollywood's relationship with black America has been fraught from the very start, and includes some pretty shameful episodes.

The earliest depictions of blacks in American cinema usually involved ludicrously idealised accounts of life in the old, pre-Civil War South, where cowed and pathetically grateful slaves lived happily on cotton plantations run by jovial, benevolent masters.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was originally intended as a passionate argument against the evils of slavery, but by the time early film-makers got their hands on it it had become something else entirely. In Edwin S. Porter's 1903 version, which was not without its artistic merits, Tom was played by a white actor in blackface as a docile servant who dies happily knowing he's been faithful to his white master. And in Porter's film the other slaves are prone to break into elaborate tribal dances at any time. You can watch it on YouTube.

Uncle Tom would eventually be portrayed by a black actor in a 1927 adaptation, but James B. Lowe was a late replacement for the great black theatre actor Charles Gilpin, whose interpretation of Tom was considered insufficiently passive.

D.W. Griffith was one of the great pioneers of silent cinema, but a privileged Kentuckian childhood and the tall stories of his Confederate war hero father left the director with a very skewed grasp of his country's history. This found its most unfortunate expression in Birth of a Nation, a hugely successful 12-reel historical melodrama which depicted the Ku Klux Klan as noble heroes, and black males as hyper-sexualised beasts obsessed with white women.

Any black characters sharing scenes with white women were played by white actors in blackface, and Walter Long played the worst of them, Gus, a depraved soldier who tries to rape a white woman, who jumps off a cliff to escape him. Griffith's film was full of the worst kind of racial stereotypes, and many of its black characters were depicted as lazy and simple-minded fried-chicken-chewing illiterates.

But it wasn't all doom and gloom in the silent era: in 1915, George and Noble Johnson founded the first African-American-owned studio, The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which became the first producer of 'race movies', dramas featuring all-black casts and aimed exclusively at black audiences. And in 1916, the great vaudevillian comedian Bert Williams became the first black performer to write, direct and star in his own films.

By and large, however, it was the stereotypes that persisted, and the position of black artists within Hollywood was not very much improved by the arrival of sound. And while it might have seemed like a breakthrough when actress Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar in 1940 for Gone With the Wind, she did so playing that oldest of stereotypes, a sassy but fiercely loyal black maid.

McDaniel was heavily criticised by some black commentators for playing the Hollywood game and choosing demeaning roles, but her response was simple. "Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one." The problem is, she was rarely cast as anything else for the remainder of her career.

In 1942, Lena Horne became the first African-American actress to sign a long-term contract with a major studio (MGM). But because of her colour, she was only cast in small parts that could be easily cut when a film was shown in the Jim Crow South. After the end of World War Two, however, things slowly began to change.

When Disney released their musical extravaganza Song of the South in 1946, they cannot have expected the storm of controversy that would greet it. Loosely based on the Uncle Remus stories, it starred James Baskett as a kind old black man who tells children stories about magical animals, and sometimes breaks into song. But Remus talked in an idiotic 'negro' dialect, and was a grinning, wide-eyed caricature. Song of the South is now rarely seen, and has never been released on DVD or video.

By the early 1950s it was becoming clear that these old Southern tropes were no longer fit for purpose, and that a new approach would be required to deal with the black urban experience. Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge emerged as major stars during that decade, but would endure very different experiences at Hollywood's hands.

Dandridge earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her spectacular turn in Otto Preminger's 1954 musical Carmen Jones, in which she played a confident and sexually liberated black woman. She seemed set for a glittering career, but was badly advised by her lover, Preminger, and ended up being marginalised.

After a three-year absence from films, she returned in 1957 in Robert Rossen's drama Island in the Sun, playing a drugstore clerk who begins a romance with a governor's aide. In a brief scene, Dandridge shared Hollywood's first interracial kiss with John Justin, which caused uproar.

Sidney Poitier would become a major force for change in Hollywood, but at first found himself fighting the usual typecasting. After catching the eye playing a rowdy high school student in Blackboard Jungle (1955), Poitier became the first African American man ever to be competitively nominated for an Oscar in 1958, for his performance opposite Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer's jailbreak drama The Defiant Ones.

But in the early part of his career, Poitier tended to play honourable, self-sacrificing characters that played second-fiddle to white leads. When he began to take control of his destiny in the early 1960s, he challenged himself in films like A Raisin in the Sun (1961), a tense drama about a poor black family that moves into a white neighbourhood. Poitier did his best work in that film, but was given his Oscar for the far more white-friendly 1963 film Lilies of the Field, playing a self-effacing handyman who befriends a group of mendicant nuns.

He would later become one of the first big black directors, but his most significant screen moment came in 1967, when he slapped the face of a redneck sheriff who slapped him in Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night. That single blow reverberated around America.

In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles directed, produced, scored and starred in a violent crime drama called Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Made for just $150,000, it earned over $15m at the box office and encouraged other producers to begin targeting films at black audiences. For better or worse, the Blaxploitation era was born.

Hit films like Shaft, Super Fly, Foxy Brown and Across 110th Street would follow, and while some claimed that Blaxploitation was a kind of cultural empowerment, others believed it was a cynical money-making exercise that reinforced stereotypes about violent and criminal African-American males.

In 1982, at the age of just 21, comedian Eddie Murphy was paid $1m to star opposite Nick Nolte in the hit crime drama 48 Hours. In a key scene, he produced a memorable line, telling a drunken redneck "I'm your worst f***king nightmare, man - I'm a n**ger with a badge!".

He would become a huge star through the 1980s, blending his Brooklyn attitude with peerless comic timing in films like Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. But Murphy tended to play characters who were defined by their colour even if they were proud of it. In the 1990s and 2000s, African-American actors like Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Viola Davis and Denzel Washington would begin to escape the confines of their skin colour entirely.

The character Freeman plays in The Shawshank Redemption was originally a red-haired Irish-American in Stephen King's novel. Freeman's 'Red' is a key character in Frank Darabont's much-loved prison drama, but his ethnicity is irrelevant. With the obvious exception of Driving Miss Daisy, Freeman has continued to choose mainly race-neutral roles ever since, and become known as a great actor rather than a black actor.

But he has tended overall to appear in supporting, character roles. And though the likes of Forest Whitaker and Halle Berry have won Oscars in recent years, it's Denzel Washington who's arguably emerged as the first real bona-fide African-American A-list star. He now gets offered roles that would otherwise go to white stars like Tom Hanks or Bruce Willis, and has the clout to carry a film merely by adding his name.

For Washington, colour is no longer an issue in professional terms, but it's still a struggle for most African-American actors, and particularly women, to shake free of predictable and stereotypical roles.

 

THE GREATEST AFRICAN-AMERICAN STAR

Quietly and calmly, Denzel Washington has broken the mould for black actors by becoming as big a star as any of his white contemporaries. He got his first big break in the early 80s when cast in the TV drama St. Elsewhere. That led to film roles, and in 1987 he got an Oscar nod for his portrayal of Steve Biko in Cry Freedom. In 1989 he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in the Civil War drama Glory.

Through the 90s he played the starring role in Spike Lee's Malcolm X, co-starred with Tom Hanks in the AIDS drama Philadelphia, and played framed boxer Rubin Carter in The Hurricane. He had avoided playing criminals so as not to enforce racial stereotypes, but made an exception in Antoine Fuqua's 2001 thriller Training Day. His scintillating portrayal of corrupt undercover cop Alonzo Harris won him the Best Actor Oscar. He was equally good playing Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott's 2007 epic American Gangster. But more recently he's starred in films like Flight (2012) and The Equalizer (2014) in which his race is absolutely irrelevant. At 60, he's still at the top of his game, and is one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

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