At Bradford's "Bite the Mango" Film Festival next week, such Afro-American cinema is put into context by cultural critic Mike Phillips, alongside rare screenings of films by Blaxploitation greats Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles. Original Gangsters, a self-conscious recycling of the genre recently released by Larry Cohen, also gets an airing.
Blaxploitation movies are often, mistakenly, hailed as the first movies to be made by black directors for black audiences. "Afro-American cinema started around 1918," says Phillips, "with hundreds of movies made for segregated ghetto theatres." They were mostly morality tales, and much of the work was aspirational, advertising "the coloured Mary Pickford" or "the black Sherlock Holmes".
By the 1940s, Hollywood had begun to pursue the black dollar, casting the likes of Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters as "entertainers" for an imagined white audience. A raft of racial "problem" movies followed which bolstered the liberal stereotype of the noble, doomed negro. Even "the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s went unrecognised by Hollywood", according to Phillips, and it took Melvin Van Peebles's seminal Sweet Sweetback's Baaad Ass Song to reflect the reality of black life.
"For the first time people saw the real relationships between black people and the police. Characters were using street language, and that had a massive impact," says Phillips. Shaft and Superfly came in close behind, films with a high-grossing energy that made Hollywood sit up.
"These films were as much to do with style as what people said," admits Phillips, and that meant genre soon became formula, as the studios hired white directors and writers to churn out more of the same. Phillips mourns the fact that Blaxploitation ended up "discrediting and excluding black creative control in movies" by filling screens full of "sex and violence, gangsters and macho men". Ironically, "for many years Blaxploitation was seen to be what black directors did, even though it was done by whites." Blaxploitation may have provided the original gangstas, but it was a double-edged sword for black cinema.
Bite the Mango runs at the Pictureville Cinema, Bradford (01274-732277) 15-26 NovReuse content