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Uncle Tom characters were common in both white and black productions of the time, yet no director before Micheaux had so much as dared to shine a light on the psychology that ravages such characters. By essentially bowing to the two white men, Micheaux implied that Old Ned was less than a man; an individual whittled down to nothing more than yes-man and wholly deprived of self-worth. At this point in the history of black films, with some of the most flagrant sufferings of blacks exposed to the American public, the only logical path forward that African-Americans could take was to begin making cogent demands to improve their collective social situation.
Slowly, black characters in film took on greater and more significant roles in film. Sidney Poitier was one of the most powerful film stars of the mid twentieth century. In roles like the 1950 film by director Joseph L. Markiewicz, No Way Out. In this film, Poitier is cast in the role of an emergency room physician. Poitier's character, as a black physician, was unusual, even in the 1950s, more than eighty years after the Civil War, and in the emerging Civil Rights era. However, it was Poitier's greatness as an actor, his dignified stature, that perhaps made it impossible to cast Poitier in a lesser; but it was his greatness as an actor that made even a very white focused Hollywood unable to resist him even though there was not at that time any great demand for storylines about blacks featuring an all black cast. White America did not seem ready for that kind of reality, nor had the black community been able to lift itself above the cultural chains of society to become a market force for whom films were made for as a community.
Poitier became a staple of Americans, and was cast largely in roles that helped to destroy the stereotypical images of blacks. In 1952, he was cast in the role of Reverend Msimangu, in Cry, the Beloved Country, a film by director Zoltan Korda about apartheid in South Africa, which served to bring attention to the plight of the majority black South African indigenous peoples to the attention of politicians and civil rights enthusiasts. It was the emergence of films that announced black suffrage on a world scale.
It was, however, Poitier's roles in films like Blackboard Jungle (1955), an adaptation of writer Evan Hunter's novel, and directed by Richard Brooks, that helped to create the demand for Poitier's acting greatness. Americans loved the actor, and many Americans enjoyed the political themes of righting wrong that Poitier was being cast in. It demonstrated an American mindset that was exploring its own treatment of blacks as disenfranchised people in America. These kinds of films helped to advance the Civil Rights movement that was gaining momentum in America, but had not yet been defined as a movement.
In 1959, Poitier was cast as Porgy, in a film about blacks with a black cast, Porgy and Bess, in a film adaptation of Dorothy Heyward's play, and directed by one of Hollywood's premier directors, Otto Preiminger. Hollywood was beginning to take note of the relevance of black storylines in America's historical fabric, and that American history could not be fully told without examining the relationship between white and black culture in America. America was confronting its victimization of blacks in America, and especially of the southern white-black relationship.
Poitier acknowledges the difficulty and lack of roles for black actors in his book, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (). Poitier says, "I mean, in those days, there would be forty-odd plays on Broadway, but none having to do with our culture, our community, our lives (86)." Poitier says that he was proactive in using what influence he had and his trade affiliation to lobby the Actor's Equity Association for more roles and film opportunities for black actors; and the response was to be blacklisted for making too much noise over something that the industry was not yet prepared to deal with (86). Yet Poitier's own work and the American audiences' demand for him in film probably helped to keep Poitier from fading into obscurity. He went on to do other films that won him acclaim as an actor, drew attention to blacks as other than the stereotypical images of Jim Crow, and endeared him to film audiences. Films like Lilies of the Field (Nelson (Dir.) 1963) and To Sir With Love (Clavell (Dir.) 1967) which continued to defy the stereotypical images of blacks, but it was the award winning and acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie (Dir.) 1961) that showed that the plight of African-Americans was not just a manifestation of southern racism, American racism. Poitier portrayed the role of Walter Lee Younger, a young black man from the Chicago housing projects who is part of a family that is the focus of the film, and is the manufactured product of American racism and disenfranchisement striving to overcome the problems disenfranchisement created for them as a family and as individuals. It was also in step with the Civil Rights movement in America, and by 1961, African-Americans were referred to as "black" instead of as Negro or colored (Finlayson 7). While this was progress, it still denoted identifying an ethnic group by color as opposed to their African origins (7), but that distinction as to ethnic heritage was on the horizon.
During the 1960s, as the Civil Rights movements progressed, roles for black actors, while they remained few as far as leading men and women were concerned, began to at least show black Americans in the greater reality of their lives -- as difficult as that might have been for the majority of Americans to have been confronted with. Roles were perhaps even more difficult for black women in film, which continued to stereotypical, portraying them as mistresses to white men. Dorothy Dandridge was, like Poitier, a successful screen actresses, but it was her perhaps her distinctly petite and chiseled features that attracted film watchers more so than her acting talent, or the fact that she was a singer with an amazing range and breadth of vocal ability. Nonetheless, she was able to work in films from the 1930s until her death in 1965; but, as Poitier has said, there was very little work that was about black culture and black American lives throughout that period.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed (King and Jackson 1963). As the Civil Rights movement progressed in America, it generated too many stories, events, and characters that Hollywood could not ignore. Malcolm X (Perl 1972), the life story of the young African-American who came out of prison as a convert to Islam, and who challenged the leadership of the American black Muslim organization Nation of Islam, and whose inspirational leadership during the controversial times when black Americans were demanding their American civil rights; was a film documentary before in 1972, long before it was a dramatized on film. The documentary, narrated by the renowned actor James Earl Jones, featured interviews with famous figures, black activists, of the 1960s Ossie Davis, Vida Blue, and Muhammad Ali, whose conversion to Islam and refusal to be drafted into military service during the Viet Nam war threw the spotlight on civil rights, the black Muslim movement, and the plight of black Americans alike.
It was during the 1970s, in the period following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was beloved by black and white Americans alike, that black filmography gained momentum and recognition in what has become recognized as blaxploitation film; or film that portrays the disenfranchised black culture during their struggle to gain civil rights, and economic progress through illegal ventures like drug trafficking and prostitution. While these films stereotyped African-Americans in roles as prisoners and prostitutes, they were nonetheless well received by white and black Americans. One of the earliest of these films was Shaft (Parks (Dir.) 1971). What is important about Shaft is that it bridged the gap between the black music community and Hollywood, and that bridge has sustained itself into contemporary films, creating new opportunities for musicians and actors alike.
It was, however, in 1977 when the television miniseries was born with the film Roots (Chomsky and Eman (Dirs.)), that a host of black actors were introduced onto the American filmmaking scene. Roots, the adaptation of Alex Haley's book about his African family heritage traced back through slavery to Africa, was perhaps too long to tell as a feature film; or perhaps the producers and directors knew that as a miniseries on televised on American television, it would capture the attention and minds of Americans and further civil rights for the…[continue]
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