A first comprehensive look at the work of black Hollywood directors, from the pioneers to current talents.
Hollywood film directors are some of the world's most powerful storytellers, shaping the fantasies and aspirations of people around the globe. Since the 1960s, African Americans have increasingly joined their ranks, bringing fresh insights to movie characterizations, plots, and themes and depicting areas of African American culture that were previously absent from mainstream films. Today, black directors are making films in all popular genres, while inventing new ones to speak directly from and to the black experience.
This book offers a first comprehensive look at the work of black directors in Hollywood, from pioneers such as Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, and Ossie Davis to current talents including Spike Lee, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, and Carl Franklin. Discussing 67 individuals and over 135 films, Melvin Donalson thoroughly explores how black directors' storytelling skills and film techniques have widened both the thematic focus and visual style of American cinema. Assessing the meanings and messages in their films, he convincingly demonstrates that black directors are balancing Hollywood's demand for box office success with artistic achievement and responsibility to ethnic, cultural, and gender issues.
- Chapter 1
- The Pathmakers: Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles
- Chapter 2
- The Visionary Actors: Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier
- Chapter 3
- Black Urban Action Films and Mainstream Images: Gordon Parks Jr., Ivan Dixon, Fred Williamson, Hugh A. Robertson, Ron O'Neal, Gilbert Moses, Raymond St. Jacques
- Chapter 4
- Black Sensibilities and Mainstream Images: Berry Gordy Jr., Stan Lathan, Jamaa Fanaka
- Chapter 5
- Michael Schultz: The Crossover King
- Chapter 6
- Spike Lee: The Independent Auteur
- Chapter 7
- Keeping It Real (Reel): Black Dramatic Visions: Charles Burnett, John Singleton, Matty Rich, Mario Van Peebles, Ernest Dickerson, Albert and Allen Hughes, Doug McHenry, David Clark Johnson, Preston A. Whitmore II, Tim Reid, Robert Patton-Spruill, Darin Scott, Hype Williams
- Chapter 8
- And Still They Rise: Black Women Directors: Euzhan Palcy, Julie Dash, Leslie Harris, Darnell Martin, Kasi Lemmons, Millicent Shelton, Troy Beyer, Cheryl Dunye, Maya Angelou
- Chapter 9
- Not without Laughter: Directors of Comedy and Romance: Oz Scott, Topper Carew, Richard Pryor, Prince, Robert Townsend, Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Wendell B. Harris Jr., Reginald Hudlin, Martin Lawrence, Theodore Witcher, George Tillman, Kevin Rodney Sullivan, Christopher Scott Cherot
- Chapter 10
- Off the Hook: Comedy and Romance with a Hip-Hop Flavor: Reginald Hudlin, James Bond III, George Jackson/Doug McHenry, Rusty Cundieff, F. Gary Gray, Paris Barclay, Lionel C. Martin, Ice Cube
- Chapter 11
- Redefining Crossover Films: Kevin Hooks, Bill Duke, Carl Franklin, Thomas Carter, Forest Whitaker, F. Gary Gray, Antoine Fuqua
After directing five motion pictures in Hollywood, I was still fascinated with its seductiveness and its challenges. Yet, sometimes I couldn't help but think of it as the grand illusion.
In addition to his distinctive career as a professional photographer, Gordon Parks Jr. has also been a published poet, an author of three autobiographies, a novelist, a composer, and a Hollywood director. With an early life filled with racial oppression, restlessness, and violence, Parks could have ended up as so many other blacks did—hopeless, forgotten, and lost. But by his own admission his advantage "was the great love of [his] family—seven boys and eight girls, and a mother and father who cared about [him]."
Without oversimplifying the importance of his family, Parks details in his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror (1990), the many experiences that he encountered from his birthplace of Fort Scott, Kansas—where he was born in 1912—to his travels throughout the United States, Europe, South America, and Africa. His background unfolded like a picaresque novel, and Parks grew to appreciate his privilege to know the people and places that he did. Both in and out of Hollywood, Parks was an unquestioned success. In particular, as a black director, he was a pioneer filmmaker of historical significance, and as an artist, his vision shaped a variety of films enjoyed by an international audience.
The first black photographer for Glamour and Vogue magazines, Parks landed the enviable position as a staff member of Life magazine in 1948. His first assignment was to cover gang confrontations in Harlem, the community that would later serve as the backdrop for his film Shaft. For over two decades, Parks' photographs won him acclaim and brought him in contact with numerous celebrities and politicians, including well-known blacks such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Richard Wright, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X.
But it was in the late 1940s in Italy when Parks first contemplated directing films, as he photographed actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini. However, unable to attain an assistant's position with Rossellini, the opportunity to direct a feature-length movie did not arrive until the 1960s when, at the urging of actor-director John Cassavetes, Parks met with a Warner Brothers executive to discuss directing a movie based on Parks' novel The Learning Tree.
With his first film by the same name in 1968, Gordon Parks appeared intent on becoming an immediate black "auteur," as he served as writer, music composer, producer, and director on the film. Relying on Burnett Guffey as director of photography, Parks presented a film that used the natural vistas of the Midwest to tell the story of a small town and the narrow, racist thinking that affected both the black and white communities.
Set in Cherokee Flats, Kansas, in 1920, the story focuses on Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson), a fifteen-year-old black teen who must face the disappointments and dangers in life. One such danger occurs when Newt and his friends steal apples from a white farmer, and a confrontation erupts between the farmer and Marcus Savage (Alex Clarke), a troubled black boy who lives a tension-filled life with his father, Booker Savage (Richard Ward). When the boys witness Kirky (Dana Elcar), the white sheriff, shoot a black man fleeing from a crap game, Marcus' harsh assessment of whites seems to be true. But Newt's attention is soon drawn to Arcella Jefferson (Mira Waters), a black girl with whom he develops an innocent first love. Eventually, Marcus is sent away to reform school for beating the white farmer, and Newt plunges emotionally when Arcella becomes pregnant by the white son of the town's judge. Toward the end of the film, Newt witnesses the murder of the white farmer, killed by Booker Savage. Afraid that his revelation would begin a racial conflict in the town, Newt allows a white town drunk to be arrested and taken to court for the crime. However, Newt's moral sense wins out, and he confesses what he saw, resulting in the self-inflicted death of Booker Savage.
At the beginning of the film, with its languid, wide-angle shots of Newt walking carefree through meadows and near a lake, Parks suggests that this film will be a sensitive character study. With the title song performed by the smooth baritone of black vocalist O. C. Smith, the gentle tone of the film is underscored, a gentleness seen in both Newt and his family. The threat to that gentleness is shown through Parks' careful editing of sequences that hold both bitter and sweet experiences. Parks suggests that within the rural beauty hide the latent forces of destruction that hunt down black youth to destroy them emotionally and psychologically.
Parks also incorporates effective visual transitions from one sequence to another, unifying the film and shaping memorable images for the viewer. In one scene, Newt looks through a microscope, focusing on the wings of a monarch butterfly. The image of the dark spot on the butterfly's right wing, resembling the dark pupil of a human eye, dissolves quickly into a close-up of the left eye of Marcus Savage staring into the camera. The camera pulls back, and Marcus stands defiantly before the judge who pronounces his reform school sentence. From the wonder of the butterfly, the camera thrusts the viewer into the angry, spiteful eyes of a young criminal. In another segment, Newt gathers at the dinner table with his family, and as his father delivers grace the camera holds on Newt's hands which are positioned in prayer. In a slow dissolve, the camera focuses on Newt's hands in the same position of prayer, but now as he attends a church service. In that moment, the minister admonishes young people to refrain from evil. Even as the minister speaks his words, Newt looks over flirtatiously at Arcella Jefferson.
Overall, The Learning Tree must be viewed as a success on many levels. It was a portrait of African American life in a serious and revealing manner, emphasizing a black teen's perspective. Significantly, it was a project where a black person controlled the creative process, including directing, screenwriting, and music score. More importantly to the interests of Warner Brothers studios, it was a film that completed shooting forty-eight days ahead of schedule.
But despite the tender, dramatic portrayal of black life in The Learning Tree, Parks will be remembered more for his second film—the financially successful and controversial Shaft (1971). When Shaft made it to the theaters, some viewers, black and nonblack alike, saw an entertaining black hero in the James Bond tradition. Others, however, saw an exploitive black male stereotype thrown on-screen to increase Hollywood's profits. For those critics, Shaft defamed black culture—particularly the political and cultural expressions that were present in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
With Sidney Poitier's screen personas dominating the '60s, Richard Roundtree's characterization of John Shaft posed another kind of black masculinity. Unconcerned with integrating or being invited into a white home for dinner, John Shaft refuted middle-class concerns, sensibilities, and desires that lay at the foundation of the integrationist ideal. John Shaft was brash, clever, and sexual, and he was quite content to live in his Harlem community. There was no ambiguity about his politics, allegiances, or virility. He was black—in attitude, language, and psyche—and he constantly reminded other characters (and society) that they were white and subject to his wrath or sarcasm. He knew the codes of survival on the streets and was, possibly, one of the creators of the codes.
Despite the negative criticisms of John Shaft's image, Parks emphasized the positive in his film, which in his opinion was a movie that provided a younger black audience with a dynamic hero suited to the turbulent times. As for the critics’ concerns about the wave of new black films, Parks concluded that "[i]t is ridiculous to imply that blacks don’t know the difference between truth and fantasy and therefore will be influenced in an unhealthy way. . . . These movies are serving . . . [a] therapeutic function."
Shaft is an action film that focuses on the cool-under-pressure titular black detective (Richard Roundtree) who is hired to return the kidnapped daughter of Bumpy Jones (Moses Gunn), a black mobster who runs Harlem's illegal activities. Jones perceives himself merely as a businessman, but Shaft reminds him that he is a destroyer of the black community. Shaft's loyalties are to black people, and when it becomes apparent that the kidnapping has been instigated by white mobsters, Shaft takes the case to avoid a violent gangster war in the community.
White screenwriter Ernest Tidyman generously peppered the script with the street expressions of the day, such as "funky," "right on," "dudes," "you dig," and "we're straight, baby." As the story follows Shaft, in his fashionable clothes and trademark black leather jacket, he moves between the white and black worlds. In his investigation of both worlds, John Shaft maintains a take-charge, no-nonsense approach as a matter of form. He bickers defiantly with white detectives; gives the "finger" to a white cab driver; indulges in recreational sex with black and white lovers; commands respect from white vendors and doormen; and stands confidently against white mobsters. But, then, despite his hard edge, Shaft gives money to a shivering black child sitting outside a Harlem apartment building, and he teams up with black revolutionaries as comrades-in-arms in their confrontation with the white mobsters—that is to say, the white power structure.
In his direction of the film, Parks reveals John Shaft's attitude, suaveness, and sexuality through camera shots that constantly frame Richard Roundtree's features and athletic frame. A former college football player turned model and actor, Roundtree's handsome looks, mischievous smile, voice quality, and abrupt emotional outbursts work well with Parks' camera. Whether long shots tracking Shaft along Harlem streets, medium shots during dialogues, or close-ups for the sake of catching Roundtree's dark features from a different angle, Parks integrates Shaft into the environment, making him inseparable from the allure and edginess of the urban community.
Though slow-paced by the standards of a '90s action movie, Parks creates pacing by crosscutting between exterior shots with physical movement and interior shots in predominantly tight, confined spaces. There are no exploding cars or breathtaking stunts, but tension builds as Shaft charges into dangerous and unknown situations. At the same time, throughout the film, Parks remains aware of the effect that colors have upon the viewer. He deliberately chooses colors that are subdued, giving a preference to blacks, browns, and grays to both match the winter setting and the toughness of John Shaft's world. Then, in the climactic sequence, when Bumpy's daughter is rescued, the place of confinement has red-colored walls, which stand out in bright contrast to set the battle of crashing glass and gunfire during the violent rescue.
Even more important than his pacing and production design, Parks respects the power of music in this film. He relies on the outstanding contribution of "Isaac Hayes's great theme music, which later won an Academy Award for best song—the very first for a black composer." The signature theme for John Shaft becomes a basic ingredient to define the character's mood and energy. The music is full-blown like Shaft's ego, and it possesses an "in-your-face" arrangement, enticing and thumping with its rhythmic patterns of horns, synthesizer, wah-wah guitar, and percussion.
The ability to move from the rural, Midwest setting of The Learning Tree to the urban streets of Shaft demonstrated Parks' skills with visual storytelling. But for MGM studios, Parks proved something more crucial: he could direct a profitable film with black-oriented themes. On its $1.2 million cost, Shaft had grossed $18 million by the end of 1971. Parks understood that with the financial success of Shaft, "Hollywood had the green light for black suspense films—and they [Hollywood studios] exploited them to a mercilessly quick demise with a rash of bad screenplays."
Since Parks had turned such a profit with Shaft, an MGM studio executive sent Parks the script for the sequel—Shaft's Big Score! (1972). With Richard Roundtree secured to repeat his role as John Shaft and with another screenplay by Ernest Tidyman in hand, Parks completed a sequel that had a "paint-by-numbers" feel to it: all the elements were on the screen to fulfill the genre—action, sex, violence, and John Shaft's attitude. However, to his credit, Parks gave this installment of Shaft much more physical action than the first. Again, the action would not stand up by comparison to '90s carnage, such as that provided by directors John Woo (Broken Arrow, 1996), Michael Bay (The Rock, 1996), or James Cameron (the Terminator series), but for its time, the film presented some exciting sequences. And, importantly, at the center was always John Shaft, the black hero.
In the opening sequence, black businessman Cal Ashby (Robert Kya-Hill) is killed in an explosion before his scheming partner Kelly (Wally Taylor) can locate $250,000—money that Kelly has stolen to repay a debt to white mobster Gus Mascala (Joseph Mascolo). When Ashby is killed, Shaft is pulled into solving the murder because he respected Ashby (even though he and Kelly were running numbers in Queens) and because Ashby's sister, Arna (Rosalind Miles), has been Shaft's lover.
When Mascola muscles in on Kelly's business, Kelly goes to Harlem crime boss Bumpy Jones (Moses Gunn). Kelly plays the black mobster against the white mobster, and in the middle of it all, Shaft struggles to protect Arna and recover the money, while keeping the police under control. Along the way, Shaft has a tryst with Rita (Kathy Imrie), Kelly's live-in lover, and she later becomes Shaft's ally as he single-handedly defeats the white mobsters while wearing his trademark black leather outfit.
Parks returns to some favorite visuals in this sequel: the long static shots; a two-shot during dialogue with minimum crosscutting; extended slow-paced scenes; and extreme close-ups of Richard Roundtree's face. In this sequel, there appear to be more interior shots, particularly apartment interiors that are well lit and detailed in production design. In an opening pan of Shaft's bedroom, Arna's underclothes lead a pathway to the bed, and on his nightstand, Shaft has a copy of Ebony magazine. In other words, John Shaft stays black even in the bedroom and especially in his reading. Later in the movie, while in his living room planning strategy, Shaft goes to a bookcase filled with books. Before the viewer can read the titles in his small library, Shaft tugs at the shelves, removing the facade to expose his special assault rifle and ammo hidden within. In other words, John Shaft is prepared to read the last rites to any mobster who crosses him.
Although the winter backdrop in the sequel is similar to that in the original, here the somber tones do not dominate as much. The emphasis with the sequel seems to be action rather than suspense and emotional tension, and two sequences stand out as indicative of this action priority. The first occurs at a private club where Shaft goes to find Kelly. The club is owned by Mascola, and the entertainment features black women dancers, costumed sensually and exotically. In an alleyway in back of the club, several of Mascola's men corner Shaft and beat him severely. Parks crosscuts from the exotic dancers—their faces grimacing with ecstasy and pleasure—to the bloody face of John Shaft, as his beating unfolds in a strobe effect with jolting, abrupt movements. The physical intensity of the scenes contrasts in tone. The dance of pleasure in the interior is smooth and sensuous, while the dance of pain in the exterior fight is harsh and disjointed.
The second, at the film's finale, consists of an extremely long chase scene that begins on the street—Shaft drives a bright red sports car with a black racing stripe. From the street, the chase continues on foot, and then onto a speedboat that is shadowed by a helicopter. Reminiscent of the helicopter chase scene with James Bond in From Russia with Love (1963), John Shaft, on foot, outmaneuvers a helicopter flying dangerously low to the water as well as in and around a vacant shipyard. Even here, Parks doesn't utilize numerous quick cuts or askew angles to heighten the chase. But, at one point, Shaft runs into an abandoned hangar, and as the helicopter pursues inside, it fires constantly. In a tracking shot, Shaft in black leather runs through the hangar, the spraying bullets sparking and ricocheting in the darkness, while the echoing gunfire reverberates loudly inside the empty hangar. The movement of man and machine in combination with the echoing din in the dimly lit hangar create a rush upon the viewer's senses. Then, unable to exit the closed end of the hangar, the helicopter reverses and goes out the same way it entered, but the elusive Shaft waits outside and brings the helicopter down explosively with his assault weapon.
Parks moved away from the black world of John Shaft with his next film, The Super Cops (1974). This film has to rank as Parks' weakest work, based on the lackluster critical reviews, as well on Parks' dismissive identification of it in his autobiography as a movie completed for MGM Studios. Although the movie is based on the deeds of two real-life New York City policemen, one critic of the time dismissed the movie as "a loud and clumsy film about two [white] cops . . . who buck the system. . . . On the screen, though, their heroics look lame. We expect our cops to be either a good deal meaner . . . or at least stronger fantasy projections. . . . [H]ere [they] are neither real enough nor romantic enough."
By contrast, Parks' next feature, Leadbelly (1976), attained a great deal of praise from film critics, but a peculiar rejection by its studio, Paramount Pictures. A victim of changes in leadership at the studio, Leadbelly received only minor marketing and support despite winning first place at the Dallas Film Festival, which prompted a Los Angeles critic to write: "You can't kill art. It is indeed a fine film, and it will live on."
Leadbelly tells the story of famed bluesman, Huddie Ledbetter, a black musician who survives rough times in the early twentieth century and who writes popular folk and blues tunes, such as "Good Night, Irene," "Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie," and "The Rock Island Line." Throughout the film, Parks blends areas that he explored in earlier films—the rural South, a true-life story, black music, and the theme of survival.
The film begins in 1934, as the shirtless, muscled body of Huddie Ledbetter (Roger E. Mosley) glistens sweatily beneath the sun as he breaks rocks in a prison yard. Then, interviewed by a white professor and his assistant who are collecting folk songs for the Library of Congress, Ledbetter is given a guitar and asked to sing his songs and relate his life into a recorder. Using a blurred screen to transition into the past, Ledbetter narrates his story, beginning around 1907. A country boy, he escapes to the city of Shreveport, Louisiana, and quickly falls prey to the bustling energy of Fanning Street and Miss Eula (Madge Sinclair), the madam of her own house of prostitution. Touching his hard stomach muscles, Miss Eula christens him "Leadbelly," and following a police raid, Leadbelly jumps a freight train and winds up in Texas, where he picks cotton, chases women, and composes music. Soon, he meets the musician Blind Lemon Jefferson (Art Evans); the two become friends and perform together on the road. Eventually, Leadbelly attempts to lead a stable life, but killing a man in a drunken fight leads to years on the back-breaking chain gang. After a short taste of freedom, Leadbelly stabs a white man in self-defense, which lands him back in prison, as the film lap dissolves back into 1934.
In addition to some fine performances, notably Roger E. Mosley as Leadbelly, Parks provides a story that has an effective balance of drama, humor, and musical energy. In one scene, Leadbelly arrogantly slaps down a ten-dollar gold piece and challenges anyone in a bar of black revelers to outsing or outplay him on the guitar. A drunken old man accepts the challenge, picking up a twelve-string guitar to match Leadbelly's six-string. In a sequence reminiscent of the "dueling banjos" scene in Deliverance (1972), Parks cuts between two-shots of both men playing and their individual hands on the frets and strings, as the old man gives young Leadbelly a public lesson.
And along with its captivating musical energy, the film possesses a number of artistic moments—tableaux that serve as aesthetic achievements in and of themselves. One such moment appears during a sequence following a country dance where Leadbelly has played his guitar and fought over his girl, Margaret (Dana Manno). A long, tracking shot follows Leadbelly and Margaret on horseback. Their figures, atop the horse, glide across the fields that are washed in the reddish-orange color of the sunrise. The light filtering hazily across the landscape is soft, and the mood is calm in juxtaposition with the frantic dancing of the night before. Later in the film, Parks' eye for still photography becomes apparent again. Immediately following a scene where Leadbelly has worked in a sun-drenched cotton field, the film cuts to the early evening—a wide angle shows gray-colored clouds filling the sky and, just beneath them, the lonely outline of a shanty on the horizon line. Then, from left to right, a solitary figure leads a horse across the horizon line toward the shanty, and with the muted grayness and open space in the foreground, the scene evokes a peacefulness and serenity. These types of images pepper the movie, reminding the viewer of the filmmaker's craft, but not detracting from the characters and the story line.
In fact, Parks does not allow the viewer to forget that Huddie Ledbetter is the focus of the film, as he dominates each scene from beginning to end. And as Leadbelly moves from scene to scene, from experience to experience, he comes to understand how his music and the hardships of his life as a black man—and as an unskilled laborer—are inextricably bound. In addition to the diegetic songs performed, Parks lays many of Leadbelly's songs over the action of the film, as the lyrics sung are connected to the events or characters in a specific sequence. The music, then, is used to show the various dimensions of Leadbelly's personality, as his music emanates from the character's nature, which is variously strong, weak, confused, and victorious.
At the same time that Parks delineates Leadbelly's individual story, he comments upon the larger racial and cultural stories of African Americans. In one case, as Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson travel together through the countryside in a car, Parks orchestrates a montage where the expansive fields and long dusty roads of the rural areas take on an alluring natural quality. But the captivating charm of the countryside clashes with the broken-down shanties and dirt yards where black people work and live.
And as the film ends, realizing his songs will be preserved in a library, Leadbelly returns to the rock pile, lifts his hammer, and swings it down upon the stones, declaring aloud: "You ain't broke my mind, you ain't broke my body, and you ain't broke my spirit." Parks freezes on Leadbelly's strong physique as he lifts the hammer high into the air to bring it down to break another rock. Here, Leadbelly cries out as an individual man defying the system that incarcerates him, but at the same time, he speaks as the voice for all African Americans whose spirits will not be destroyed or taken away.
After Leadbelly, Parks directed a television movie for the American Playhouse series, entitled Solomon Northup's Odyssey (1984), based on the slave narrative of the title character. From his most recent autobiography, Parks appears reflective and appreciative of his accomplishments, but not driven to attain further money or fame. Over his lifetime, he has been awarded twenty-four honorary degrees; the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1972; the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 1988; and accolades from dozens of his peers and filmmakers who followed him through the studio doors. He writes of himself: "I've been given several names—Mr. Dreamer, Mr. Striver, and occasionally Mr. Success. I've tried on all three for size. The first fit rather well; the third still has a slight feel of discomfort." Whether prepared for it or not, Gordon Parks should accept the praise for the historical and cultural significance of his film directing, which has served as an exceptional model for black directors who have followed.
Melvin Van Peebles
One of the reasons I originally wanted to make films was that I got tired of what they [Hollywood filmmakers] were doing. . . . I knew I could do better. At least, I knew it wouldn't be hard to do better than that … It took me ten years to get a chance to do it their way, and what I discovered at Columbia Pictures is that their way gets in my way … I just did my best and got on with my own independent career.
—Melvin Van Peebles
It may be difficult to measure the extent to which Melvin Van Peebles shaped black filmmaking, and perhaps even more difficult to assess to what degree Van Peebles has inspired African American artists in general. Van Peebles has attained legendary status among creative people who view his success as a testament of perseverance and self-belief. At the very least, Van Peebles represents a pioneering independent vision that forced Hollywood studios to be aware of a new approach to the cinematic renditions of African Americans.
Born in 1932 in Chicago, Van Peebles went to Ohio Wesleyan University, receiving his B.A. degree in 1953. In 1955, he met Maria, a woman from a rich, white liberal family, and together they had three children, including a son, Mario. Van Peebles went into the air force and became an aviator, and after three years in the service he settled in San Francisco, where he began to make short films—one entitled Three Pickup Men for Herrick completed in 1958.13 Finding that his talents were not welcomed in Hollywood, Van Peebles eventually made his way to Holland to study astronomy at the University of Amsterdam, where he studied acting as well. Facing marital problems, he journeyed to Paris, where he once again was drawn to filmmaking. Knowing he could get financial support from the government as a French filmmaker, Van Peebles taught himself French and wrote several novels to make a name for himself. His strategy worked, as he went on to make the French film The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), a film that received critical attention at the San Francisco Film Festival. From there, Van Peebles was able to make his way back to Hollywood.
Between 1968 and 1989, Van Peebles directed four feature films besides Three-Day Pass: Watermelon Man (1970), Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), Don't Play Us Cheap (1973), and Identity Crisis (1989). The films offer a startling variety in tone, showcasing the contrasts between Van Peebles' work inside and outside the studio system.
The Story of a Three-Day Pass is a film that explores an interracial love affair between a black American serviceman and a white Parisian woman, emphasizing the racial consciousness of the black soldier and the racism of fellow white American soldiers. When the film was screened at the San Francisco Film Festival, it received some enthusiastic responses. One journalist acknowledged that "[s]ome of Van Peebles direction [was] good, especially where he gets across the idea that what people do and what they think may not run along the same lines." However, other negative criticisms surfaced, and these mixed reactions to Van Peebles' first film were indicative of the oppositional responses he would continue to receive throughout his career, as critics, both black and white, have resisted Van Peebles' expressionistic, excessive visual style.
When Van Peebles completed Don't Play Us Cheap (1973), an adaptation from his own play, the response was lukewarm, as exemplified by one critic who concluded that "the film remains stagebound but engaging in sharing the ambiance of a Saturday night in Harlem." This film remains one of Van Peebles' least-known works and was generally ridiculed by those reviewers who made the effort to evaluate it.
However, his three films Watermelon Man, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and Identity Crisis are his most accomplished. The first movie, Watermelon Man, by its very title, prompts a reaction that taps into America's racial history and African American stereotypes. Scripted as a comedy by white writer Herman Raucher, the intention of the film was to provide a satiric look at the alleged liberal suburban notions of equality.
Van Peebles' sensibilities as an independent filmmaker are obvious in this film. Although Watermelon Man has a polished look in places, Van Peebles—serving as both director and music composer—consistently strikes a satiric chord with a heavy-handed experimenting in visuals and sound. The story centers around a white middle-class insurance salesman named Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge in whiteface makeup at first). Gerber, an outspoken racial bigot and sexist, awakes one morning to discover that he has turned black. In his shock and initial denial, Gerber believes that an overexposure to his sun lamp has caused the darkening of his skin; consequently, he uses extensive showers, bleaching creams, and even milk baths in futile attempts to regain the white complexion he worships. Inevitably, he endures a set of experiences with various white people in his life who display their hypocrisy, racial prejudice, and belief in racial stereotypes. After losing his family, job, house, and lifestyle, Gerber finally accepts his new blackness and all life's lessons that have come with it.
Unfortunately, the film contains awkward visual and aural expressions that weigh down an already vaporous script that relied too much on cutesy one-liners. The most memorable aspect of the film becomes the performance by Godfrey Cambridge. Required to pull off physical and verbal humor, as well as the pathos of an emotionally lost man, Cambridge is consistently radiant in a rather enigmatic role.
When looking for directorial areas to note, several are scattered throughout the film, even though the coherence of the entire film falters. One such area is centered in the visual metaphor of the "running black man." Van Peebles sets up this icon early in the film as Gerber goes through a daily ritual of jogging along the sidewalks in his suit and tie to beat the city bus to a distant bus stop. As he easily scurries past the bus, the bus's white patrons urge the black driver to hurry along to beat Gerber in his arrogant display of physical fitness. But when Gerber turns black and goes running through white neighborhoods, the reactions by whites alter—white women scream in fear, white men watch suspiciously, and eventually white police officers detain Gerber, believing he's running away from a crime scene.
The image of the "running black man" carries both a historical meaning (escaping slavery to freedom) and a political meaning (blacks running from racial hegemony). It works effectively in revealing the burdens imposed upon black men by a system that will always qualify and punish their blackness. This visual of the "running black man" surfaces again in a more jolting manner in Van Peebles' next film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
When Sweet Sweetback was first released, it ignited outbreaks of discussions and arguments both within and outside the African American community. With an X rating for its elements of graphic sex, and with its nihilistic content, the film was either panned as cinematic trash by some or heralded as cinematic radicalism by others. And since its late-1960s release, the debate over the film's value has continued into the 1990s, and the film has assumed a cult status by young black filmmakers and the hip-hop generation.
Sweet Sweetback follows the exploits of a black man who demonstrates such exceptional skills during his preteen sexual initiation that his older lover anoints him with the name "Sweetback." His sexual prowess continues into adulthood, as he becomes a featured performer at an underground sex theater. But when he intercedes and beats two white policemen who were pummeling a black revolutionary suspect, Sweetback becomes a fugitive. He embodies the "running black man" who escapes the ghetto streets, to reach the rural countryside, and finally to reach and cross the Mexican border.
Giving the historical context of Black Power during the late '60s and the growing Black Arts movement, the objectives of Sweet Sweetback—with its revolutionary messages and black hero figure—were appropriate and timely. However, the final film carries such provocative content and displays such an unusual visual style that it was doomed to controversy—a controversy that made it a financial success.
Black historian Lerone Bennett Jr. labels the film as "tasteless," suggesting its value was that it was "an obligatory step for anyone who want[ed] to go further and make the first revolutionary black film." Augmenting that negative assessment, one black critic complains that the film "shows the moral decadence of some black folks, but never at any time does he [Van Peebles] reveal the social and political forces responsible for that decadence. . . . Van Peebles pictures sexual freakishness as an essential and unmistakable part of black reality and history—a total distortion and gross affront to black people." From another viewpoint at that time, Huey Newton, a leader of the Black Panthers, would refer to the film as revolutionary black art, echoing the praise that many viewers attributed to the film.
From a contemporary perspective, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song certainly stands out as an independent venture that became an impressive commercial accomplishment. Van Peebles raised $500,000 from his directorial earnings from Watermelon Man and various investors, and the film grossed over $10 million in its first run.19 Even by today's accounting, that kind of twenty-to-one return can only be viewed as remarkable.
The final credit at the movie's end informs the viewer that the film was written, composed, produced, directed, and edited by Melvin Van Peebles. With hindsight, that accomplishment as a black auteur must be admired, but with that same hindsight, the goals that Van Peebles set out to achieve are not that perceptible. Without a doubt, the black man breaking his shackles and running for freedom connects Sweetback to his racial ancestors, as well as the use of gospel music, blues, jazz, and the call-and-response chorus over the final sequences of the film. Van Peebles does a noteworthy job of linking the protagonist to a list of nameless black men who preceded him. In addition, Van Peebles emphasizes the ongoing friction between black men and police officers that surfaced again in the \'90s with regard to Rodney King and O. J. Simpson.
The political messages of black unity, pride, and determinism falter, however, when weakened by the gratuitous and explicit sex in the film. Although the filmmaker wants to suggest the notion that sex has been the one province given to black men to display their competence, this notion itself is rooted within a racial stereotype nurtured during the slavery era. Van Peebles appears to be validating that sexual stereotype, even as he insists that other racial stereotypes are faulty. In particular, this sexual generalization carries another message in the film—black women are promiscuous. The filmmaker constructs black female characters that are either passive mother figures or lustful sexual figures, undercutting its proclaimed revolutionary dimensions. The latter images remain the most prevalent, assigning a rather narrow significance to black women and their place in the community and within any political activism. In four separate scenes, black women characters eagerly engage in sexual intercourse with Sweetback, suggesting, even if unintentionally, that black women are lascivious.
Even when the filmmaker attempts to present sex as a political weapon, the camera's lingering lens over naked flesh makes a different type of statement. In the sequence when Sweetback and the black revolutionary are fleeing the city, they are confronted by a gang of white bikers. When Sweetback is given his choice of weapons to challenge the gang leader in order to win his freedom, Sweetback chooses sex. The bikers' leader is a white woman—a blond Amazon—and as the woman and Sweetback strip and have intercourse in the circle made by the bikers, Van Peebles is obviously confronting the historical taboo of miscegenation. The scene is presented with frontal nudity and close shots of gyrating bodies until the white biker queen screams out Sweetback's name in orgasmic pleasure. Sweetback, and by association black men, has defeated the white bikers and the racial taboo, but the victory is only transitory, won through the phallus and not the spirit and intellect. Van Peebles reduces the political potency of the sequence to mere sexual potency. The black hero is just a black stud.
Nearly two decades after Sweet Sweetback, Van Peebles directed Identity Crisis (1989), based on the script by his son, Mario. The film presents the story of a deceased, gay French fashion designer who moves in and out of the body of a black rap performer. The gimmick here is that a street witch grants the request of the dying gay designer to live on, so his spirit is transferred into the body of the black rapper. The transformation is a bit incomplete, however, and consequently, whenever receiving a physical bump to the head, either the personality of the rapper or the designer dominates. Both the elder and younger Van Peebles understood that such a premise was outlandish and fantastical, as the film displays the tongue-in-cheek warning before the opening credits: "weird crap from Melvin and Mario." The film lives up to its warning as it parades a menagerie of characters: rappers, a nerd, Sikh drug smugglers, homeless witches, a dominatrix, a mute mud-wrestling Amazon, and a narrating cop who speaks in rhymes.
Other than the use of superimposition, when the narrating cop (Melvin Van Peebles) appears in a ghostly fashion over the action, or the use of black-and-white film images in various sequences, the elder Van Peebles does not distinguish himself as a director in this movie. Instead, the film appears to be a vehicle to showcase the screen presence of the younger Van Peebles, as Mario portrays both the streetwise urban rapper and the gay French designer.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Identity Crisis within the collective works of Melvin Van Peebles can be found in the title itself. As with his earlier films, Van Peebles returns to the theme of identity—how complex it can be, but how simplistic and limiting when reduced only to race. He seems to be asserting that black people have survived those limitations, and that white people destroy themselves and others around them by maintaining those limitations.
In a notable fashion, Melvin Van Peebles has survived as a filmmaker despite the controversy and the limitations thrown at him. He appears to have shaped his film career in the same manner as a number of his films—elliptically, sporadically, but always controlled his way. The quirkiness and frenetic energy of his visual style has influenced many directors that have followed him, and certainly his maverick and often radical approach to completing films has inspired just as many directors, regardless of their racial identity.
“Donalson’s pioneering text . . . will become an indispensable resource for general students, undergraduate and graduate students, and the general reader. It will be a major contribution to American and African American film studies and popular culture.”
Wilfred D. Samuels, Associate Professor of English, University of Utah