This dual articulation between an American creedal narrative of equality and the linking of 1960s U.S. politics to global politics of decolonization takes place within the film industry, albeit articulated quite differently in each case. Historically black filmmaking in the United States had long been a segregated industry, with ‘race films’ made with African American casts playing in African American theaters. This lasted until Micheaux’s The Betrayal in 1948, and was followed by a dearth in African American film production. Between The Betrayal in 1948 and Story of a Three Day Pass in 1968, no African Americans were able to make feature films, and this latter film was made outside of the United States entirely. Melvin Donalson points to two main reasons:
“(1) the history of stereotypical screen images of blacks, and (2) the lack of a power base by blacks in the business of filmmaking.”
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In the 60s as the Hollywood industry takes up the political sentiments of civil rights in its drive for greater African American representation, however, its response to these two issues reinforces American exceptionalism, rather than incorporate the more radical approach of Carmichael and Hamilton. Sidney Poitier’s films during this period provide excellent examples of such integrative representation, as in films such as The Defiant Ones (1958), Lilies of the Field (1963), or In the Heat of the Night (1967). But principally it’s a studio film and a white director, the immensely popular Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, distributed by Columbia and directed by Stanley Kramer, that serves as a key case study for its affective positioning of race relations.
Later lambasted by van Peebles in Watermelon Man, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner responds directly to Lipset’s ideology of equality and achievement; it does so through dramatically questioning and then affirming liberal values. The film depicts the single day in which the wealthy San Franciscan Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) returns from a trip to Hawaii with the world renowned Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) to tell her parents that they are going to get married. The central drama revolves around the Draytons’ acceptance that their daughter might marry a black man (and so suddenly: they met 10 days prior and the film establishes a deadline structure by requiring the Draytons to accept or reject the situation that day). The Draytons are conflicted, because they raised their daughter according to America’s creedal narrative of equality. As Joanna describes her father:
“my dad is a lifelong fighting liberal who loathes race prejudice and has spent his whole life fighting against discrimination.”
Nonetheless, when confronted with a situation that asks him to enact these ideals, beyond referring to their black maid Tillie (Isabel Sanford) as “family,” Mr. Drayton’s (Spencer Tracy) indecision spans the entirety of the film. The film ends with an emotional monologue wherein he understands their love by remembering the genesis of his relationship with Mrs. Drayton (Katharine Hepburn), decreeing:
“and if it’s half of what we felt… that’s everything.”
The remainder of the monologue is spent decrying the racist responses they will no doubt receive, and arguing that ultimately they must prevail. Such a speech is a clear analogy for the civil rights movement and an appeal to the creedal narrative.
The film cuts between all of the characters during the delivery of this final monologue, as the rapt soon-to-be family looks on, with tears on the eyes of Mrs. Drayton and Mrs. Prentice (Beah Richards) – no doubt the intended response of the audience as well. The thick pathos of the scene depends upon and accentuates an American exceptionalism that is affirmed in these moments: only in the United States could such a progressive stance be taken, and audiences are, presumably, emotionally moved by their own affirmation of core American values in the scene. Unceremoniously, the scene ends with Mr. Drayton bantering,
“Well, Tillie, when the hell are we going to get some dinner?”
This line’s incongruity only serves to reinforce the emotional refrain that has just taken place, and they are ushered into the dining room with Jacqueline Fontaine’s rendition of “The Glory of Love.” The emotional end is no surprise in cinema’s melodramatic navigation of domestic conflict standing in for larger societal issues, but its affirmation of Mr. Drayton’s speech serves to obfuscate the critical race politics articulated by more radical civil rights leaders. In addition the film illustrates the two reasons Donalson gives for a dearth in African American filmmaking: stereotypical representation and lack of a power base. Poitier’s character is undoubtedly a ‘good stereotype,’ but is nonetheless a stereotype. As van Peebles put it,
“Sidney was a wonderful actor, and we were proud, but nobody could really relate because the characters he was given to play were surreal, more from heaven than the ‘hood.”
For van Peebles, the integration of Poitier’s characters into the film industry served only as postwar “flag-waving to unite the nation,” which illustrates van Peebles’ acknowledgement of the industry’s posturing in relation to American exceptionalism.
I turn now to analyze Story of a Three Day Pass, Watermelon Man, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to provide examples of a different response than the 60s studio films from white directors. Van Peebles’ films operate according to a critical race politics that acknowledge but refute industry operation along the lines of the creedal narrative outlined here. In doing so, they opt for a transnational politics of emancipation, rather than integration without equality. Through navigating the 60s and early 70s political economy and exploiting dominant aesthetic and industrial practices, van Peebles deftly maneuvers cinematic models of international art cinema, commercial cinema, and independent cinema respectively. I argue that he does not prefer one of these modes over the other, but that he finds ways in which to exploit each in order to find the ways in which an African American voice can build upon the representational opportunities offered by each.  Rather than the heavenly surrealism of Poitier, he presents a diverse set of images that contribute to the larger conversation surrounding and critiquing American Empire.
Second, first, third: aesthetics out of joint and the
transnational navigation of cinematic industries
The most significant aspect of van Peebles’ early career is not only that he ended a 20-year gap in African American feature film production, but that he navigated three different modes of production to do so. This includes global sites of film production, France and America, but also industrial and aesthetic frameworks, first, second, and third cinema following Solanas and Getino’s manifesto for a new form of political cinema. I take up the framework from Solanas and Getino’s landmark essay, “Towards a Third Cinema,” because of van Peebles’ explicitly political motivations in entering the film industry, as well as the historical accuracy by which their framework describes the types of filmmaking that van Peebles navigates, and the fact that their thinking is contemporaneous to the moment in which van Peebles operates. His transnational movement and transition from commercial to independent production was necessary for breaking into feature film production in the 1960s, however, because he was black.
These career moves resonate with the issues Donalson raises when describing impediments to African American film production: first, van Peebles turned to filmmaking with his short films produced in 1950s San Francisco in order to correct negative stereotypes of African Americans in the U.S. film industry; second, he navigated the lack of a power base of African Americans by leaving the United States entirely. While moving abroad allowed him to uniquely maneuver the U.S. film industry, it is also significant that he approached each industry he worked in critically rather than simply working in the mode of said industry. By playing each industry in a minor key, an appropriate analogy for van Peebles who was also a musician, he actively engaged with global movements towards decolonization and implicated the United States’ colonial past in the politics of the 1960s and 1970s.
Solanas and Getino published their manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema” one year after making their film which would embody its principles, Hour of the Furnaces (1968). The manifesto, with a specific interest in the ways that cinematic practices from the United States influenced Argentinian film production, denounced neocolonialism for overwriting local cinematic styles and bringing with it American ideologies as well. The authors considered cinema in this regard to be no less than part of the larger neocolonial apparatus by which North America exerted control over and exploited the resources of South America. They called for a radically different type of cinema in terms of production, exhibition, and the ways in which politics were delivered cinematically, which they would call third cinema. They argued that this type of cinema “can be found in the revolutionary opening towards a cinema outside and against the System, in a cinema of liberation.” They acknowledged that in Europe, art cinema was being produced in a distinctly different style from the commercial cinema of the United States, and they called this second cinema. For Solanas and Getino, second cinema had political potential but ultimately could not deliver a political message because these filmmakers “have already reached, or are about the reach, the outer limits of what the system permits.” They called Hollywood first cinema, not because of a particular historical trajectory, nor because of cold war frameworks that might position the United States as part of the ‘first world,’ but because of the position of power Hollywood occupied in a larger neocolonial hierarchy that spanned from commercial cinema that supported majoritarian economic and ideological models, to art cinema/second cinema that was individual and potentially political, and finally to a cinema of decolonization/third cinema that directly critiques structures of power.
In their manifesto, Solanas and Getino argue that the role of third cinema is consciousness raising, also an important part of the radical black politics of the 1960s, which are reflected in van Peebles’s cinematic politics. Solanas and Getino introduce the concept of the ‘film act,’ an understanding of film-viewing as an event that includes three facets:
- "The participant comrade, the man-actor-accomplice who responded to the summons [of the film/filmmaker];
- The free space where that man expressed his concerns and ideas, became politicised, and started to free himself; and
- The film, important only as a detonator or pretext."
Rather than provide the commercial experience of film as entertainment, third cinema aspires to create events that cross the lines between film viewing and a political rally. The viewer, in their perspective, should leave the experience critically engaged, quite the opposite of a creedal affirmation insofar as creedal narratives affirm dominant ideologies. Broadly speaking, this suggests a relatively straightforward alignment between van Peeble’s critique of American exceptionalism and third cinema, but I do not want to over-determine this relation because there are at least two key differences: First, rather than privileging a non-commercial space for the transformation of subjectivity, van Peebles sneaks this experience into as many markets qua modes of production as possible. Second, van Peebles delves deeply into the subjectivity of his characters, an approach that Solanas and Getino align with the auteurist second cinema and critique as only “an attempt at decolonization.” As Rachel Gabara argues,
“Third Cinema, to the contrary [of art cinema], was interested in the People, in popular history and living conditions, and not at all in individual psychology.”
In Contemporary Political Cinema, I argue that that the approach of so-called ‘minor cinemas,’ which I here suggest resonate with van Peebles’s work, aligns with many of the political principles of third cinema, but it departs in its emphasis on individual stories or subjectivities. Likewise, van Peebles’s approach deftly navigates a number of industrial frameworks, but even extends the principles of third cinema as well, by illustrating how the political aims of third cinema might come from within any industry, if the director acts as interlocutor by making decisive breaks with the modes and practices of said industry.
In this way, van Peebles directly responds to the ideological structures that determine practices and aesthetics that emerge from the industries he works within. Comolli and Narboni, in their famous essay “Cinema/ Ideology/ Criticism.”, posit a number of approaches political cinema might take in response to the ideological structures of film industries. In this essay, the authors give seven categories of political cinema, A through G, with varying levels of political content. But first, they argue, “Every film is political, inasmuch it is determined by the ideology which produces it,” though there are certain forms which are undoubtedly more political than others. If we think through van Peebles first three feature films using Comolli and Narboni’s framework, it reveals how quickly and adeptly he navigates a number of approaches to political cinema, moving towards the more critical end of the spectrum with each film.
His first film, Story of a Three Day Pass, conforms to their category D: films having “explicitly political content… but which do not effectively criticize the ideological system in which they are embedded because they unquestioningly adopt its language and imagery.” Story of a Three Day Pass was made within the context of and is at least similar to the French New Wave, which its jazzy, youthful style reflects, albeit with a narrative that focuses explicitly on race. Watermelon Man operates according to category E:
“films which seem at first sight to belong firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner… the films we are talking about throw up obstacles in the way of ideology, causing it to swerve and get off course.”
At first sight, Watermelon Man appears to be a typical studio comedy, although van Peebles consciously throws up obstacles that begin to break down the ideological function Comolli and Narboni associate with studio films. Finally, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song achieves category B. These are
“films which attack their ideological assimilation on two fronts. Firstly, by direct political action, on the level of the ‘signified’… linked with a breaking down of the traditional way of depicting reality… Economic/political and formal action have to be indissolubly wedded.”
In this film, political form and content are wedded, thus it is no surprise that here van Peebles produces the most radical political message of his films, a message to which Huey P. Newton and the Panthers responded.
Before providing a political analysis of the form and content of van Peebles’s films, I will quickly situate each in its historical moment in order to provide the context of how he navigates the previously mentioned categories. I provide this historical trajectory separate from individual analysis of the films in order to clearly articulate van Peebles’ political development in relation to global geopolitics. In this respect, I answer Christina Gerhardt and Sara Saljoughi’s call in 1968 and Global Cinema to think outside a “center-periphery model” and instead to “consider the relationships among social movements globally,” and to consider “how the global interplay of the 1960s shifted film language.” In the case of van Peebles, I argue that he moves between different spaces and industries, but rather than keep them distinct in his films, he modifies one with the other in order to critique whichever industry he currently works within.