In 1919, Oscar Micheaux directed Within Our Gates, a powerful response to D.W. Griffith’s Klan-exalting Birth of a Nation. Micheaux’s film and subsequent career were dedicated to the restorative representation of the “New Negro” through film, and his life was a testament to the virtues of self-determination and enterprise. He did not wait for the market to come to him. Micheaux was an artist who made it so, and he used his hard-won business opportunities to advance an important social mission.
Ninety years later, viewers are able to turn to VH1 and follow the ongoing adventures of Tiffany “New York” Pollard. “New York” has starred on numerous reality shows for VH1, most notably on Flavor of Love, which disturbingly features a meat market of women who are given new names and branded and demeaned in various ways before being sent home.
The highest prize of this minstrel show is the affection of Flavor Flav. “New York”, however, has parlayed her success on the show into various other programs on the network, all of which revolve around supposedly risqué sexual competition and conquest, but in fact resemble the exchange of human chattel.
That we have descended from the “New Negro” to “New York” over the better part of a century is indeed a sign of the overall coarsening of the culture. It is important to note that neither of the examples entirely defines its era, and that one could point to a range of alternatives that upset the comparison.
However, as it concerns the visibility and economic power of the black performer, “New York” has become, for many, an ideal. That VH1 continues to give Pollard opportunities (more on her latest show a bit later) is a sign that there is power in her brand, as there once was for Micheaux’s performers.
Black Hollywood: Blaxploitation and Advancing An Independent Black Cinema
Oscar Williams, Jim Brown, Rosalind Cash
(US DVD: 19 May 2009)
All artists and actors want an audience for their work, but Howard Johnson’s Black Hollywood: Blaxploitation and Advancing an Independent Black Cinema questions whether the available jobs are worth having at all. What is the value of being “seen” if one has to sacrifice his/her spirit?
Shot in 1984, the documentary preserves a too-brief moment in time, when the myriad commercial and social reactions to so-called Blaxploitation films made feasible the rise of a robust, intelligent, and independent black cinema in the United States. As actor Jim Brown says in an interview, Blaxploitation films were successful because they catered to the hunger of black actors and audiences. The cultural impact of such works might not have been redeeming, as they featured already well-worn stereotypes about pimps, prostitutes and gangsters.
The films’ popularity, however, proved that there was plenty of “business” to go around, and that it was possible to employ and entertain often-neglected performers and consumers. If such films provided at least a decisive foot in the door, then an entire body of minority-friendly film should have naturally followed.
Black Hollywood reveals that, unfortunately, the popularity of black exploitation films did not translate into lasting economic power for black artists. In a series of compelling interviews, occasionally highlighted with footage from related films, the interviewees take stock of their contributions to, and place within, the American film industry.
Tiffany Pollard in her Marilyn Monroe getup.
Filmmaker Oscar Williams discusses how economic protectionism is primarily to blame for keeping black artists (as well as women and young white artists) out of the system. His straightforward allegation that Hollywood prizes its “hold on the established order” carries not a hint of paranoia or sensationalism. By framing his argument as that of an insider/ outsider—an industry underdog—Williams makes several convincing points about the self-defeating risk aversion of the film business.
One of his most entertainingly stated (though sadly accurate) remarks in the documentary is that sociological assumptions influence the reception of films with a mostly black cast. He says no one calls Little Caesar an inherently violent film, but with a black cast it would be labeled as such, and that “if you had a black cast in The Deer Hunter, it would have been called Black Exploitation”.