Soul searching: African -American cinema before blaxploitation, 1963–1970
This dissertation examines Black American commercial cinema in the 1960s, from the public pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 to the dawn of the “blaxploitation” cycle in 1970. For decades, few Black film scholars have displayed much interest in the 1960s, in large part because of the commercial (and artistic) failure of most '60s Black-cast films. Yet that failure is illustrative of a complex network of industrial, social, and cultural pressures: pressures that African American filmmakers have always been subject to, but that were intensified during this particularly volatile historical period.
Each the five texts examined in detail within this dissertation— Gone Are the Days (1963); The Cool World (1964); The Confessions of Nat Turner (never produced); Uptight (1968); and The Landlord (1970)—failed commercially for very particular reasons. But one can also isolate a handful of across-the-board factors for their disappointing performances. In social terms, 1960s Black-themed movies were typically unable to satisfactorily represent African American life because of the commercial cinema's inability to anticipate fast-moving cultural trends and its inability to process the divergent ideological strains (from assimilationism to separatism) that were rapidly developing and mutating within the Black activist community. The discourse surrounding the texts under study also reveal many of their makers and marketers to be unsure about whom their target audience was; this uncertainty derived from unrealistic expectations about the interest of Whites in “Black” issues and from mistaken assumptions about the size of the Black movie audience. Furthermore, all of these films were conceived as relatively “serious” treatments of the decade's most pressing domestic matters and therefore had to be sold on artistic worth more so than on the basis of titillating subject matter; consequently, they were doomed in part because of a general lack of critical enthusiasm. Black casts and themes did not become staples of American cinema until early in the following decade, when studios and independents ceased to apply an “art cinema” model to Black-centered projects and began adopting an “exploitation” model for production and distribution.