by Demetrius Cope
Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 22-23
In spring 1975, I did some field research on black movies as part of my studies at Livingston College, Rutgers University. I interviewed the manager of a movie house specializing in blaxploitation films, and 150 people at five distinctly different theaters about their reactions to black films. Although the sampling of my survey was far too small to be sociologically valid, from the experience I was able to arrive at some tentative generalizations which in turn could be used for a more rigorous research project.
The theater I was most interested in understanding was the International Cinema Theater, located on Albany Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Located in a predominantly working class black community, the audience is almost exclusively working class and poverty level blacks. The manager was very cooperative in giving me an interview. Before working in New Brunswick for the past year, he had managed a movie house in Brooklyn for 25 years. According to him, the International is a “specialized” theater, catering to a distinct segment of the mass audience, in this case blacks. Describing the audience as young, he said most of them are from lower class families and single. Few families attend the International. He believed that some of the young people mimic the films and act out a similar violence on the street. However, you'll never know, he said, the full impact of a movie “unless you follow the individual home,” where you can observe actions behind closed doors.
Q: Would blacks in this area pay to see white movies?
A: Films of a black nature are made on a low budget, therefore the theater can compensate by charging lower admission. Black films of the past had a limited audience because blacks didn't have enough money. Therefore, they weren't able to get out to see these movies. If I show THE STING or THE GREAT GATSBY, I won't make a nickel through this theater.
Q: What values or images do these black films project?
A: They don't do anything for the image one way or another, except films like CLAUDINE. Fred Williamson, Pam Grier and people like that are trying to get away from meaningless pictures. The pictures’ impact is diluted because the kids are used to seeing sex and violence on the screen. It’s nothing to them. I hope that they will get away from this type of garbage.
Q: Do the people in New Brunswick protest any of these black movies?
A: New Brunswick is not a very socially minded community. They have no CORE or NAACP or any organization as such which blacks would follow.
Q: Would you make any money now off of the early black films of the 70s?
A: MACK, SUPERFLY, and SHAFT would not sell at all if they ran again. Most of the black films today are good, commercial films, even though they are terribly low budget films.
He went on to explain that black people will pay to see violence before paying to see sex on the screen.
When I interviewed different audiences, I chose five distinctly different theaters. The Menlo Park Cinema is in a white middle class suburban shopping center; the Nassar Street is in Princeton, which caters to both the rich and to working class whites from Trenton. The Bleeker Street Cinema in New York City was chosen because it appealed to young, hip, white professionals and students. And I interviewed black students at Livingston College an evening of Black Pride Week during a triple feature of black movies.
The audience at the International in New Brunswick seemed to attend the movies more and more regularly than people in the other locations. Of the 30 interviewed, 10 said they went to the movies twice a month and 14 said they saw three or more shows a month: much higher than at the other locations. In terms of attending martial arts films and black films, the black audiences at the International and the Black Pride Week students responded significantly more favorably. The students were able to name more black films than the International’s crowd, but both did better than the other audiences. Similar and predictable breakdowns were obvious in naming black performers. At the International, Pam Grier and Jim Kelly were mentioned, while at Nassar Street, Sidney Potier and Ossie Davis were known.
The most interesting response from the International was in reply to “what are your impressions of black movies?” I had four categorized responses: no impression, exploitive, realistic, and stereotyped. All the other groups interviewed happily responded to these categories. However at the International, although I know the people knew the meaning of the categories, they responded with words expressing feelings, rather than categories. Typical replies were: “beautiful; corny; good, but immature; white wash; OK; all right; imitation of white films; terrific.”
From the period June 12, 1974 to May 13, 1975, the International Theater showed 32 black films, 27 general commercial films, and 27 martial arts films. For a two-month period (October 22 to December 28) there were no black films at all. The complete screening list follows below.
Obviously a much deeper study of audience attitudes is needed to do justice to the International’s audience and to understand what films they like and why and what kind of films they would enjoy which are not now being made, or shown in their area. One conclusion I believe I can safely make, however, is this: the International’s audience goes to the movies basically for entertainment. They mentioned both martial arts and non-violent movies as films they liked, and black films along with sex and comedy films. At the other locations the audiences named types of films which might be more highbrow—foreign, classics, satires, cultural, experimental—but they also mentioned entertainment films: love stories, monsters, westerns and gangsters. Actually I suspect that this may just mean that people at the other locations are more conscious of raising their taste for an interviewer (as they consistently raised their class position). The International audience, in contrast, is honest about its taste for movies that are above all entertaining.
6/12-18 THE ARENA. SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASSSS SONG
6/19-25 THE BLACK SIX. MAN CALLED SLEDGE
6/26-7/2 HANDS OF DEATH. MELODY JONES
7/3-9 BLACK VOODOO EXORCIST. SCREAM BLOODY MURDER
7/10-16 TRUCK TURNER Co-feature (not known)
7/17-23 TOUGH. DOBERMAN GANG
7/24-30 BLACK EYE. EMPEROR OF THE NORTH
7/31-8/6 RETURN OF THE DRAGON. CHINESE HERCULES
8/7-13 GOLDEN NEEDLES. BARON BLOOD
8/21-27 THREE THE HARD WAY. FEARLESS FIGHTERS
8/28-9/3 EDUCATION OF SONNY CARSON. SUPERFLY, T.N.T.
9/4-10 BLACK GODFATHER. AFRICA BLOOD & GUTS (AFRICA ADDIO)
9/11-l7 TOGETHER BROTHERS. LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE
9/18-24 POLICE WOMEN. KUNG FU MAMA
9/25-10/1 SAVAGE SISTERS. KARATE KILLER
10/2-8 UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT. CHINESE PROFESSIONALS
10/9-15 BLACK SAMSON. BLOOD ON THE SUN
10/16-22 CLAUDINE. BLIND MAN
10/23-29 CAGED HEAT. WOMEN IN CAGES
10/30-11/4 TONG FATHER. FORCED TO FIGHT
11/5-12 STING OF DRAGON MASTERS. ATTACK OF KING FU GIRLS
11/13-19 NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER. WOMEN AND BLOODY TERROR. NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR
11/20-26 LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH. FANTASTIC PLANET
11/27-12/3 GREEN HORNET. BUSTING
12/4-10 TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. MAD MOVIE MAKERS
12/11-18 THE FAMILY. BIG BAD MAMA
12/19-24 AMAZING GRACE. HICKEY & BOGGS
12/25-30 AMAZING GRACE. Co-feature (not known)
12/31-1/7 BLACK DRAGON. SHAFT IN AFRICA
1/8-14 THE KLANSMAN. THUNDERFIST
1/15-21 TRIAL OF BILLY JACK. HAMMER OF GOD
1/22-28 MACON COUNTY LINE. DILLINGER
1/29-2/4 TAKING OF PELHAM 123. DUEL OF IRON FISTS
2/5-11 BLACK HOOKER. TRICK BABY
2/12-18 ABBY. FOXY BROWN
2/19-25 ABBY. FOXY BROWN
2/26-3/4 BOSS NIGGER. INVISIBLE FISTS
3/5-11 THE DRAGON DIES HARD. THREE THE HARD WAY
3/12-18 WOMAN HUNT. CASTLE OF FU MANCHU
3/19-25 STREET FIGHTER. HONG KONG CAT
3/26-4/1 T.N.T. JACKSON. QUEEN BOXER
4/2-8 ENTER THE DRAGON. FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH
4/9-15 BLACK GESTAPO. TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE
4/16-22 DRAGON SQUAD. BLOOD FINGERS
4/23-29 BLACK CONNECTION. SHANGHAI KILLERS
4/30-5/6 STUD BROWN. BLACK GODFATHER
5/7-13 REVOLT OF THE DRAGON. THAT MAN BOLT