Judge Jennifer Malkowski now has the urge to add "-ploitation" to all nouns ending in the letter x.
"White people put together cheap films, took advantage of a hungry black
moviegoing audience, took advantage of hungry black actors and actresses, paid
very little money and stole all the profits."
The above insight from football-star-turned-actor Jim Brown is one of many compelling points made by a wide variety of interviewees in the 1984 documentary Black Hollywood: Blaxploitation and Advancing an Independent Black Cinema, which is only now getting a DVD release. The 75-minute feature is comprised mostly of interviews with about a dozen of Hollywood's prominent African-American actors, actresses, writers, and producers, supplemented by clips and stills from notable films. As a 25-year-old talking head documentary that's a little rough around the edges, Black Hollywood will probably only appeal to a narrow audience. Those interested in the subject matter, though, shouldn't be scared off by its age: the film makes for a compelling time capsule.
The interviewees speaking with director Howard Johnson include not only stars of the '70s and '80s—Brown, Alfre Woodard, Rosalind Cash, comedian Paul Mooney, and more—but also fixtures in the history of African-American cinema. Vincent Tubbs, for example, a Warner Bros. studio publicist, described himself when he began working as the only black man who wore a tie on the Warner Bros. lot other than Sidney Poitier—everyone else there was working a blue-collar job. Actor Lorenzo Tucker also participates, offering his reflections on being "The Black Valentino" in the '20s and '30s films of Oscar Micheaux.
While these older folks illuminate the history of African-Americans in cinema, the interviewees still struggling for recognition in Hollywood give us reports on conditions in the present (the present being, of course, 1984). Writer/director Oscar Williams exhibits a keen grasp on the economics and double standards of Hollywood in relation to the black community. He helpfully points out that many films with white protagonists—even earlier films—are/were just as violent as the blaxploitation fare, but weren't talked about in such extreme terms because black people with guns are much scarier to white America than white people with guns. White America doesn't seem to understand what black audiences and black Hollywood professionals want, he amusingly explains: "Who cares about 'get whitey'? Even whitey doesn't care about 'get whitey.'" Actress Rosalind Cash also offers some of the film's most memorable insights, discussing the limited variety of roles offered to black actresses, with "prostitute" being highest on the list. Adding insult to injury, she explains that black women don't even get to play interesting, complex prostitutes. Alluding to Klute, Cash challenges, "Give me a part like Jane Fonda. I will consider it."
One of the retrospective pleasures of watching Black Hollywood a quarter-century later is to measure the hopes and fears aired in 1984 against what actually happened in the years that followed. It's nice to know that while Jim Brown expresses resentment for the blaxploitation period he was involved in here, he would go on to star in Keenan Ivory Wayans' vengeful parody of the period, I'm Gonna Get You Sucka a few years later. Many of the interviewees place their bets for the future of black cinema in America on independent features made outside the big studios; sure enough, Spike Lee's breakout feature She's Gotta Have It, produced through such a strategy, was just around the historical corner in 1986. Paul Mooney's amusing stand-up routine about what would happen if Jesse Jackson actually ran for president ("dead white people will get out of their graves to go vote") also has a different flavor in 2009 with Barack Obama in the White House. Other results are less optimistic. One interviewee in Black Hollywood notes the scarcity of Academy Award wins for black actors and actresses. It's disheartening to realize how long it took Hollywood to begin righting that wrong—all the way until 2001, when Halle Barry and Denzel Washington took home a pair of acting Oscars (and neither of them played a maid, even!).
The DVD itself offers only a barebones release. There are no special features, and the picture and sound quality are quite rough, with lots of visible grain and scratching as well as a rather washed-out color palette and an image that jumps around in a few places. Watch for some funny interview set-ups, as well, including one that makes Oscar Williams look like he's got a plant sprouting from his head. Still, the technical weaknesses shouldn't spoil Black Hollywood for those interested in the history on display here.
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