This 1984 documentary manages to be both history lesson and an opportunity to revisit your assumptions of that history. While Black Hollywood covers much familiar ground, it also opens one’s eyes to some of the pivotal figures in the often exploited, but nevertheless defiant role of African-Americans in Hollywood.
A thumbnail sketch of that role is presented: from the early days of Blacks as buffoons or servants, or as sexually out of control beasts (a sobering and scathing parsing of Birth of a Nation is included) down through the Blaxploitation films of the late 60s, early 70s, a time when it seemed like Blacks were finally taking control of and generating their own cinema, when, in reality, white producers were again making a killing off of the crudest stereotypes. Time is also given over to African-American artists who were able to break the mold, appealing to white audiences and earning dignified roles. Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Lorenzo Tucker (“The Black Valentino”) are given their due.
Lesser known history is just as frustrating and filled with false starts. Within Our Gates was a 1919 film directed by Oscar Micheaux, and was an immediate and contemporary rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s ode to the Klan. Micheaux, one of the first Black filmmakers, certainly took a risk in using his opportunity to make such a bold racial and cultural statement. Birth of a Nation was still a blockbuster, but word was served that Black artists could create their own art, portray dignified roles for themselves if the larger white culture wouldn’t; Richard Pryor, Spike Lee and Russell Simmons can trace their fearlessness back to Oscar Micheaux.
Director Howard Johnson interviews then current stars such a comedian Paul Mooney, Rosalind Cash, who both talk of how Hollywood even in the 80s struggled, in many ways obscenely, to try and find vehicles for Blacks that did not involve drugs or prostitution. There are also generous clips, both of powerful and infuriating portrayals of Blacks through the years.
NFL legend and community activist Jim Brown is interviewed at length, discussing how Black filmmakers could take a cue from Blacks in the music industry, which got the word out through their own labels and radio stations, through word of mouth.
Today there are thousands of African-American owned film and record companies, and the opportunities to relate in art the true richness and creativity of Black culture have never been greater. But obviously some of the same old same old still exists. While Hip-Hop dominates as the most creative force of the past 30 years, what sells most are the same tired images: gangsta rap, big ass divas throwing tantrums, head-bobbers competing with idiot white meth-heads on talk shows and divorce courts. But all those images proliferate in Big Media. And who, yet again, is making a killing off of lowest common denominator images of Blacks?
Black Hollywood (MVD) isn’t so much a call to arms as a quiet, feisty wake-up call. Hollywood needs a sharper kick in the ass, though even when they have come, quick profits usually soften the blow.