When black people saved Hollywood | Think Piece

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Last week’s pre-sale tickets for the movie, Black Panther, scored record numbers than any other Marvel Studios film, reported Fandango, a popular online ticket seller.

so much buzz that it has turned into a black cinema moment in which notions of Black power intersect pop culture. A media frenzy instigated by Marvel Studios’ announcement of a movie production years ago, has also been fueled and maintained by fanfare excitement. 

Hashtags, gifs and memes circulated in the buildup, create a growing fanfare in a Trump era of virulent racism. One response that emerged is an overwhelming push for cultural productions that portray people of color and women in an empowering light.

The idea of an imaginary, ridiculously wealthy African kingdom with spiritual superpowers intertwining metaphysical and military that stand up to white supremacist global powers is perfect timing. Especially after President Donald Trump referred to Africa as having “shithole countries” in a January 2018 meeting. Not only are people excited to see how the movie transforms a comic book African demigod with super powers, but also voice the importance of supporting a film showcasing Black people as winning, for once. And looking good doing it.


All the while, Marvel Studios, a branch of Marvel Comics, embarks on an extraordinary promotional campaign for Black Panther. Building on the wave of excitement with its release of trailers and stunning still photos, the studio prepares to bank on its latest installment of superhero flicks.

Directed by Ryan Coogler who also directed the highly popular Creed and breakout movie, Fruitvale Station, Black Panther’s soundtrack will be produced by Compton emcee, Kendrick Lamar. Added, a stellar cast of mostly brown-hued actors representing the African diaspora, the movie prepares to establish a multi-production following similar or stronger than Star Wars, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.

With the last two years of most big budget movies flopping miserably, Black Panther arrives right when Hollywood needs a superhero to save them. However, this is not the first time.

Reviving Hollywood

Cleopatra, 1963, Twentieth Century Fox,

In the 1970s, black audiences and film productions featuring black actors, resuscitated an industry bound to tank. At the time, African Americans made up 30 percent of theater audiences, but large studios paid scant attention to them.

Before then, Hollywood spent lavish amounts on films featuring popular white celebrities that promoted a culture of glamor and luxury.

By the post-war 1960s and a pending Vietnam war, the lavish lifestyle was culturally and politically out of touch. Even more so, the budgets of movies were exorbitant. One egregious fiscal nightmare was Twentieth Century Fox’s $44 million flop, Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1963.

A four-hour epic film, the production was so full of scandal and follies, it was the last huge investment in a system where actors were employees of a studio and had to promote a brand. As well, it was historically inaccurate with Taylor playing an African or Afor-Asian woman. The movie’s protagonist, Taylor, who entered into an affair with Burton at the time of filming said years later:

“It was probably the most chaotic time of my life. That hasn’t changed,” says Taylor, who has seldom discussed the Cleopatra experience publicly.

“What with le scandale, the Vatican banning me, people making threats on my life, falling madly in love . . . It was fun and it was dark—oceans of tears, but some good times too.”

Bankrolling Blackish

In dire circumstances, Hollywood executives began modestly bankrolling films featuring all-black or majority black casts. After, Cotton Comes to Harlem, directed by Ossie Davis in 1969, received a fair amount of commercial success, an experimental formula followed: spend little money, gain much profits from black movies.

While Davis left for Nigeria to direct a screenplay adaption of Wole Soyinka’s Kongi Harvest, an African-American director named Melvin Van Peebles pushed for his film, Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, to be released in Hollywood’s box office in 1971. It received rave reviews, thus ushering into a period in which black movies were at the center of silver screens.

Rise of Blaxploitation

Although, Peebles is known as the father of Blaxploitation, the financial success of the film Superfly shocked Hollywood. Made on a $500,00 budget, Superfly, directed by black photographer, Gordon Parks, earned $11 million at the box office.

Melvin Van Peeples

As a result, the industry flooded theaters with dozens of knockoffs carrying similar aesthetics. However, most directors and filmmakers were white, while the actors black; but it was the first time since Hollywood’s inception that blacks dominated top billed movies.

In response, black moviegoers rapidly consumed flicks that featured blacks in gritty urban landscapes fighting “the man” or “the system.” Once movies emerged casting blacks as leads, and in more nuanced rolls, tickets skyrocketed, breathing economic life back into Hollywood.

According to Ed Guerrero’s work on Blaxploitation, the “profits literally saved Hollywood from total bankruptcy.”

Flawed Gods

Unlike Black Panther, the movie protagonists in Blaxploitation were anti-superheroes, or severely flawed people who often lived in the underbelly of American economy such as pimps, hustlers, drug users, prostitutes and revolutionaries.

The theme resonated with African-Americans who largely moved from the rural south to cities by the 1970s. As whites departed metro areas for the suburbs in a roughly 20-year exodus called “white flight,” blacks migrated en masse into the urban north and west. The shift in demographics also created a black working-and-middle class with money for leisure activities.

For the first time, blacks could enjoy movie watching in a desegregated U.S. During segregation, there were designated areas and times African-Americans could view. The areas gained pejorative nicknames such as “nigger heaven.” As well, the viewing times for blacks in some places followed the last showing for whites; thus, creating a late night fanciful affair at the movies called, “midnight ramble.”

Just as African-American actors began to enjoy some level of celebrity and exposure from the 70s, Blaxploitation became an unnecessary cash cow.

Unfortunately, it did not make it out of the decade, and was tucked back into Hollywood’s film archives. Guerrero says that by 1972, Hollywood “was fat again,” just off of two years of black-centered films. By 1975, Blaxploitation era died due to a “calculated demolition.”

The Big Pay Back

Black movie audiences were de-prioritized after Blaxploitation until the late 1980s, early 90s when filmmakers such as Spike Lee followed by John Singleton and The Hughes Bros emerged in an era of street movies.

Around that time, and slightly before, another collective of black filmmakers began producing work in the early 80s, but did not receive commercial backing, for their movies stayed within the theme of resistance and revolution. Black directors from the UCLA film school consisting of people such as Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and Ben Caldwell created works considered brilliant today.

In front of the movie theater, Chicago, Illinois, 1941. Photo credit: Russell Lee

The quick rise and hard fall of Blaxploitation speaks of Hollywood undermining black filmmaking and theater ownership throughout the history of US cinema. In early film, there were other cinemas than Hollywood that represented the filmic interests of European migrant populations and languages.

Hollywood was losing to these industries; especially during war time. To position itself, Hollywood, a rising production system out of California, implemented a sinister system of elimination for industries on the east coast of the country. French cinema and Italian cinema were effectively banned because of its foreignness. Their aesthetic was not patriotic; thus, stereotyped as bad communism or socialism.

Next, Hollywood connected with policy makers to ban filmic imports. However, they could not do that to African Americans who enjoyed citizenship. As soon as black people could afford equipment, they began to shoot their own films.

Making Movies

There are about a dozen periods in which African-Americans poured out a significant number of movies.

Starting from race movies and gospel-stage plays in the early 1900s, to singing black cowboy westerns in the 1930s, and black musicals of the 40s and 50s, leading up to gangster flicks and indie black new wave in which director Ava Duvernay is linked. The earlier production waves of black filmmakers provided blacks with alternatives in a segregated climate that existed in both the north, and south.

Nonetheless, they still watched cultural productions made by blacks. Hollywood would not be able to survive so the industry destabilized black movies that competed with major studios through various tactics such as limiting distribution or threatening theaters that their relationships with Hollywood would be terminated if they continued to show films by smaller, black-owned companies.

Today, to make a black-centered movie with a big budget, people must go to a major studio system or funder.

Game Changer

Digitalizing films dramatically changed the filmmaking business. Now more movies are made with smaller costs; however, Hollywood monopolizes distribution and marketing, for now. Other global industries such as Bollywood and Nollywood, film production behemoths that produce more films than Hollywood have anchored themselves onto U.S. territory. Bollywood, a collective of production systems saturated film markets throughout the world, is followed by Nollywood, a West African co-op of production systems eking its way into black populations of the globe.

The Rise of Global Cinemas

Bollywood movie set. Photo credit: Naganath Chiluveru

In the 2000s, Hollywood began to implement Bollywoodesk and Indian-diaspora aesthetics into films, creating Indian-light casts that mildly represented the vast traditions of South Asian culture. Like the hotels catering to British or the British competition shows reincarnated with Mumbai flavors.

Now, U.S. film is experiencing another wave—Afrofuturistism—a mesh of African and diaspora aesthetics set in the backdrop of the future. Evident in Black Panther, it is also the base for the coming movie, A Wrinkle in Time, directed by Duvernay, which overlaps African and Indian aesthetic.

Afrofuturism popped up much earlier. In jazz musicians such as Amen Ra to South Africa’s Kwaito house culture, the concept of placing African bodies in the future is a revolving theme of people who are often smudged out of history. As Hollywood, once again, attempts to find its economic grounding, movie audiences look for something different. Something that reflects its diversity, and more truth in the how the world looks and moves.

Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.


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