by Michael Washington and Marvin J. Berlowitz
Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 23-24
There has been considerable discussion of recent blaxploitation films—violent action films aimed at black youth -- but hardly anyone has asked the audience for those films what they think of them. We had the opportunity to do so in a project begun as a social studies class at City Wide Learning Center, an alternative public high school, in Cincinnati. Nine black students’ gathered together with the two of us, who were serving as resource people, to study these films.(1) What follows is the result of the study. First, some general statements which are ours, and not necessarily the students’, are provided for background. Then the students’ conclusions are given in a condensed form. Finally, we offer a perspective on the students’ work.
We use a Marxist model to explore the role of movies in the social psychology of oppression. The Marxist dialectic tends to resolve the controversy concerning the active-passive mode of film criticism. Two observations by Marx in The German Ideology are really central:
It is essential that these statements be interpreted dialectically rather than mechanically, for although the material forces of society are seen as primary, their relation to the cultural superstructure is seen as one of interaction and interdependence. While movies are a reflection of the struggle of social forces in the society, they are at the same time active forces in the dynamics of class struggle.
The ideas developed by Frantz Fanon and Paolo Freire on the social psychology of oppression are at the same time the most neglected and the most enlightening offered by the social sciences.(2) Fanon and Freire believe that it is not so much the efficacy of the brute force of the police state which maintains oppression, as it is those numerous mechanisms which result in the self-depreciation of the oppressed. Such “self-depreciation” is achieved by the oppressed coming to internalize the image of themselves held by the oppressor. Both Fanon and Freire see this being accomplished by the distortion and obfuscation of the history, culture and achievements of the oppressed, by the distortion of their perceptions of their environment and of their struggles.
While the film stereotypes of women, Native Americans, the proletariat, ethnic groups such as Italians and Asian-Americans. come to mind, here we will focus on Afro-Americans. Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a black psychiatrist, asserts:
Any passive image of black youth is shattered by the fact that the irreversible tide of the 1960s’ “Black Pride” and “Black is Beautiful” movements, the cultural manifestations then of the qualitative leap of the Civil Rights struggle, permanently laid to rest the archetypical Stephen Fetchit. Now Stephen Fetchit has been displaced in the marketplace by the Superfly archetype, who at least engages in some form of struggle and occasionally does “get over on the man.”
However, black youth are not to be viewed as passive vessels in which stereotypes are to be poured, but rather as vulnerable to the reinforcement of deviant, self-destructive tendencies generated by their objective state of being oppressed and vulnerable to distortions of their reality. In the final analysis we must realize that movies can equally miseducate as educate.
The economic crisis in which the United States now finds it has forced the search for new markets into hitherto unexplored and/or forbidden territories. We now find staunch “cold warriors” expounding the merits of detente and trade relations with the socialist block. There is a renewed effort to penetrate the economics of emerging African nations, as well as a parallel emphasis on the Afro-American market on the home front. Current developments in the movie industry are merely a microcosm of this entire development. The history behind the sudden explosion of black films came about as a result of financially successful experiments made by the motion picture industry to compensate for the economic slump in which it found itself. B.J. Mason points out:
Immediately following the success of COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, which tapped the previously untested black market and grossed more than $9 million, the trend in black movies began to develop into what it is today.
Many whites attempt to shift the indictment for blaxploitation films onto blacks by asking why black actors and actresses participate in movies so detrimental to the interests of their own people. The question is often a manifestation of white chauvinism, for fewer white liberals ask similar questions of whites working in the so-called defense industries, food additive industries, polluting factories, etc.. They do not see blacks in the entertainment industry as doubly exploited. Because so few blacks have penetrated the U.S. financial oligarchy, black actors and actresses find themselves almost exclusively in the role of wage slaves. They also find themselves facing an extraordinarily restricted market for their talents. Some of them have internalized the ideology of the oppressor, often rationalizing their movies as having the function of entertainment rather than delivering a message. Luci Horton states:
Soul, a newspaper about black entertainers, had this to say about Ron O'Neal’s attitude toward SUPER FLY TNT, in which he starred:
Blaxploitation films -- controlled by white capitalist interests -- distort black reality. They feature the most lumpen, degenerate, criminal elements of the black community to the total exclusion of the black proletarian majority. They set forth as an ideal for black youth the “hustler,” who gets over on the[white] man with women. And the women are shown as degraded by their pimps or at best by the most male supremacist relationships.
The films present any semblance of revolutionary struggle in terms of adventurism, tactics of revolutionary suicide, one dimensional machismo, and violence. They obfuscate black-white unity and questions of class struggle by posing all conflicts on exclusively racial lines. The street hustler and the more respectable social climber alike represent the most petty bourgeois individualism. Blacks involved in organized political struggle are denigrated as buffoons.
The disparity between the reality of the achievements and lifestyle of blacks and their portrayal in the media has reflected and continues to reflect culturally the social relations which serve to subjugate them. The most advanced African civilizations which flourished while Europeans were still cannibals, the heroics of Afro-Americans in armed struggle against the Southern slavocracy and in the service of this country from the Revolutionary War to the present, their brilliant political leadership of the abolitionist movement, Reconstruction governments, and the Black Congressional Caucus, inventions, the Black Renaissance, etc. -- all these are shamefully reduced to the level of Tarzan’s adversaries, the black-faced Stephen Fetchit archetype, BIRTH OF A NATION, and a flood of other criminal slanders, including Superfly.
Using historical materialism we can trace the change in material conditions which led to the movement of Afro-Americans from chattel slavery and semi-feudalism in the Black Belt to the post-war migration in which they took their place in the urban, industrial proletariat. Ninety-four percent of the Afro-American population is part of the working class, with fifty percent working in basic industry.(7) Thus blacks have become an essential part of the most advanced social class, the proletariat, which is in Marx’s terms, the “revolutionary vanguard.”
The careers of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X represent in microcosm the recent Afro-American struggle. Malcolm X moved from a narrow position of black nationalism based largely upon religious separatism, to a position of advocating unity, proletarian internationalism, anti-imperialism, and organized political struggle. Martin Luther King moved from a narrow advocacy of civil rights by moral persuasion to organized political struggle, proletarian internationalism, anti-imperialism, and concrete intervention in labor struggles. These trends are paralleled by the upsurge of black caucuses in labor unions and the drive to organize the unorganized, with special concentration on minority workers. A qualitative leap in the black struggle against the forces of imperialism was signaled by the participation of our own Anti-Imperialism Movement in Solidarity with African Liberation in the recent Sixth Pan African Congress.
The citywide class held discussions for approximately three months whereupon they decided to spend the next three months presenting and exchanging their ideas with randomly selected classes in each predominantly black high school in the city of Cincinnati. The taxonomy presented below is a summary of their observations and conclusions. The project was unique in that the students assumed the dual role of subject and researcher. Such a methodology not only departs from the mainstream of our social sciences in general but is particularly apt for oppressed minorities, for they have often been studied by those representing the dominant strata but the research has often produced little more than pejorative speculation.
SUMMARY OF STUDENT OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS:
Blaxploitation films have two basic themes, both of which present false and detrimental ideas about basic aspects of black life: the black community, the black family, religious and moral training, and education. The first type of film glorifies the lumpen elements of the black community; the second presents the Superhero of Justice idea. When the first type of blaxploitation films generated strong criticism from black community and intellectual leader, the Superhero theme was presented seemingly to counter the objections. The Superhero launches a one-man (occasionally one-woman) campaign against the dope pushing syndicates preying on the black community. However, these Superhero films are fantastic, presenting unrealistic solutions to genuine problems.
Glorification of Lumpen Elements Theme:
False ideas about the black family
SWEETBACK -- The detrimental effects of totally neglecting the family, which has historically assumed such a key role in the black nation, are compounded by the debauchery of sex role definitions assigned to blacks. Sweetback emulated the role of the “supermenial” sexual athlete. For him, women’s sole purpose is to serve as a vehicle of sexual and ego gratification.
SUPERFLY -- For Superfly the only role of the family is to spawn aspiring “dope pushers.” The deleterious effect of drug traffic on the family is not even touched upon, much less the role of the family as a base for struggling against drug abuse.
THE MACK -- The mother is stereotyped as a totally unaware naive practitioner of some laissez-faire mode of child rearing. The ideal maternal relationship is one in which the son “gets over” on the mother, maintaining and taking advantage of her naiveté.
TRICK BABY -- Family life is not only conspicuously absent, but for Trick Baby the only significant people and relevant frames of reference are those which have their origins in the life style and space of the “street hustler.”
False ideas about the black community
SWEETBACK -- For Sweetback the struggle for black liberation, equality and freedom is abandoned for striving to emulate the racist “supermenial” caricature of “the lover” and “whore monger.”
SUPERFLY -- Superfly not only abandons the black liberation struggle but becomes actively complicit in the enslavement of the black community by projecting the role of “dope pusher” for white mobsters as the only feasible means of social mobility from the ghetto. In one cafe scene he thus mortifies three black “freedom fighters” by means of a scathing verbal attack.
THE MACK -- The film abandons the struggle against basic problems in the black community by projecting the fantasy world of the “street pimp” as the sole means of social mobility and esteem.
TRICK BABY -- Despite the persistent exploitation of the black community by thieves, con-men, gangsters and other lumpen elements, this film has the audacity to project them as a viable component of the black community.
False ideas about religious and moral training
SWEETBACK -- Throughout his continued evasion of authorities, Sweetback’s language and deeds persistently advocate vanity and an oppressive attitude of lust and exploitation toward women. His attitude clearly denies religious training.
SUPERFLY -- Superfly explicitly advocates the use of drugs as well as the enslavement of the black community by the lucrative sale of drugs, as the means of salvation and resolution of life’s problems. The religious dimensions of the black community are excluded.
THE MACK -- Religious training is clearly contradicted by the glorification of the Mack’s lifestyle in which the exploitation and sale of women is central.
TRICK BABY -- Concepts of “brotherly love” are clearly countervailed by an emphasis on “con games” as the sole and preferred means of making a living (“fast buck”). These exploit the “brothers and sisters” of the black community.
False ideas about education
SWEETBACK -- Sweetback is a one-dimensional “supermenial” totally denying the relevance, enlightenment, or even existence of education.
SUPERFLY -- SUPERFLY projects an image of education in which lumpen criminal activity is the curriculum and the streets are the classroom.
THE MACK -- The lifestyle of the pimp is overwhelmingly portrayed as glamorous, luxurious, and fulfilling. Some feebly contrived lip service is briefly paid to the notion that youngsters should not emulate the pimp. More typically, this is explicitly rebutted in a scene in which he extols the virtues of the pimp lifestyle while pejoratively contrasting it with his brother’s revolutionary aspirations.
TRICK BABY -- For Trick Baby, education is only relevant insofar as it facilitates the “quick hustle.”
Superhero of Justice Theme:
Films with heroes: SHAFT. SHAFT'S BIG SCORE. HELL UP IN HARLEM. GORDON'S WAR. BLACK CAESAR. TRUCK TURNER. SLAUGHTER SLAUGHTER'S RIP OFF. SUPERFLY TNT. THREE THE HARD WAY. HIT MAN
Films with heroines: COFFY. FOXY BROWN. CLEOPATRA JONES. BLACK BELT JONES
Summary of false ideas:
Religious and moral training -- The “heroic” use of continuous profanity and violence motivated by vengeance are projected as the only possible means for effectively defeating mobster foes.
Education -- Although the struggle against drug abuse is allegedly the prime mover in these movies, education is never considered as even a secondary tactic.
Black family structure -- Although the family has played a crucial role in the black liberation struggle, its only role in these movies is to provide a source of vengeance, when a family member is assassinated by the “mob.”
Black community -- The struggle against lumpen elements as projected in these movies is as detrimental as their glorification in terms of the common element of projecting totally fantastic strategies and tactics as viable forms of struggle.
CRITICISM OF STUDENT OBSERVATIONS:
Although the students were extremely insightful, their observations are characterized by some serious oversights. As a minority group decimated by oppression, blacks have been forced to depend much more upon institutions such as the family and the church, to which they have been limited. However, male supremacist features of family relations must not be overlooked. Lenin observed that in the context of the family under capitalism, women are oppressed by the limitations of household drudgery.(8)
While the black church has been exceptional in its role as a focal point of political struggle, producing such leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and many others, and generating organizations such as PUSH, SCLC, etc., its metaphysical ideological base still serves the function of pacification, which Marx referred to as “the opiate of the people.” While the church has served as a bastion of morality against lumpen elements, its morality has also assumed repressive dimensions.
Although the achievement of and maintenance of free, public compulsory education has been a product of proletarian struggle in general, as well as the black liberation struggle specifically, the limitations of public education must also be pointed out. Its role as a vehicle for social mobility has often been overstated. And not only has it failed to relate to minority subcultures, but it plays a major role in facilitating their internalization of the ideology of the oppressor.
We can be confident that the tide of negative stereotyping will continue to be reversed. Historically, we have seen that as minorities such as Italians and Jews have gained inroads into the U.S. financial oligarchy, their cultural images have improved. If the trend of rank and file black caucuses take hold in the Actors Guild and the Projectionists Union, then even more decisive gains will be made. However, the most powerful forces will be reflected in improved images of blacks generated by the further progress of the black liberation struggle specifically and the general movement toward a socialist transformation in this country.
1. The students were Carolyn Lamb, Patti Little, Lisa Little, Marie Peeks, Phyllis McMullen, Sharon Foster, Robert Williams, Michael Owens, and Michael Shaw.
2. Karl Marx. German Ideology. NY: International Publishers, 1947.
3. Alvin Poussaint. “Stimulus/Response: Blaxploitation Movies -- Cheap Thrills that Degrade Blacks.” Psychology Today, February, 1974, pp. 22-26.
4. B.J. Mason. “The New Films: Culture or Con Game?” Ebony, December 1972, pp. 61-70.
5. Luci Horton. “Battle Among the Beauties.” Ebony, November 1973, pp. 145-146.
6. Fitz G. Bartley. “Ron O'Neal—The Actor, the Director, and the Man Behind Them Both.” Soul, September 1973, pp. 2-5.
7. Roscoe Proctor. Black Workers in the Class Struggle. NY: New Outlook Publishers, 1972, p. 7.
8. V.I. Lenin. Emancipation of Woman. NY: International, 1972, p. 27.