New U.S. Black Cinema

by Clyde Tayor

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 46-48, 41
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

The best approach to black cinema as art is to see it in intimate relation to the full range of Afro-American art expression. The urgent need at this point is to recognize that black cinema has arrived to take its natural place beside black music, literature, dance, and drama. By black cinema, I am speaking of the independent films made since the late sixties by determined, university-trained filmmakers who owe Hollywood nothing at all.

If the Harlem Renaissance or, better yet, the New Negro Movement that began in the 1920s were to take place under today's conditions, many of its major creative talents would be filmmakers. They would celebrate and join a contemporary black renaissance in films. Consider: Paul Robeson's struggle to bring dignity to the Afro-American screen image is well documented. Richard Wright's interest in films extended beyond the filming of NATIVE SON (1951) to include his search for work as a screenwriter for the National Film Board of Canada and the drafting of unused film scripts. Langston Hughes coauthored the script for WAY DOWN SOUTH (1939) with Clarence Muse and continually sought creative opportunities in Hollywood. In 1941, he wrote with great clarity to his friend Ama Bontemps,

"Have been having some conferences with movie producers, but no results. I think only a subsidized Negro Film Institute, or the revolution, will cause any really good Negro pictures to be made in America."(1)

In 1950, Ama Bontemps tried to stir up interest in the production of black films in the manner of Italian neorealism.(2) About this same time, the Committee for Mass Education in Race Relations was set up with the intent to "produce films that combine entertainment and purposeful mass education in race relations." Among the consultants and members of this committee were Katherine Dunham, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, Eslanda Robeson, Langston Hughes1. and Countee Cullen.(3)

I pinpoint the film involvement of some of the central artist-intellectuals of the New Negro era in order to contrast the lack, with some important exceptions, of a comparable interest among their successors. This short-sightedness is both ironic and painful. Over the last decade, a body of Afro-American films has emerged comparable to the flowering of the "Harlem Renaissance" in their cultural independence, originality, and boldness — their appearance marking perhaps the most significant recent development in Afro-American art.

This body of films, which I call the new black cinema, is distinct from four prior episodes of filmmaking about Afro-Americans: Hollywood films portraying blacks before WW1, Hollywood films after that war, films made by black independents like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams before WW2, and the black exploitation movies of the late sixties and early seventies. What separates the new black cinema from these other episodes is its freedom from the mental colonization that Hollywood tries to impose on all its audiences, black and white.

The new black cinema was born out of the black arts movement of the 1960s, out of the same concerns with a self-determining black cultural identity. This film phenomenon drew inspiration from black-subject films made by white directors in the 1960s such as NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964), COOL WORLD (1963), SHADOWS (1959), and SWEET LOVE, BITTER (1967). It was also fired by the creative heresies of Italian neorealism (following Ama Bontemps's early interest) and ultimately by an expanding international film culture, with a particularly deep impression being scored by African and other Third World filmmakers.

The new black cinema is a movement with many separate beginnings in the late sixties. One was the gathering of a nucleus of young black filmmakers at "Black Journal," a weekly television magazine aired on PBS under the leadership of Bill Greaves in New York. Another was the tragically brief career of Richie Mason, who, without training, took cameras into the streets of New York to make dramatic street films (GHETTO; YOU DIG IT?). Still another was a path-breaking exhibition of historical and contemporary independent black films in New York organized by Pearl Bowser. By the time films of great innovation and energy began emerging from UCLA in the early seventies from Haile Gerima, Larry Clark, and Charles Burnett, it was clear that a new path had been broken toward a liberated black screen image.

What gives this new cinema its particular unifying character? In truth, little more than its determined resistance to the film ideology of Hollywood — but that, as we shall see, is a great deal. Under that broad umbrella of kinship, these filmmakers have produced work of considerable diversity, pursuing various goals of aesthetic individualism, cultural integrity, or political relevance. Despite this diversity, some core features or defining aesthetic principles can be seen to underlie many works of the new black cinema in three directions: its realness dimension, its relation to Afro-American oral tradition, and its connections with black music.


Indigenous Afro-American films project onto a social space, as UCLA film scholar Teshome Gabriel observes, noting the difference between it and the privatistic, individualistic space of Hollywood's film theater. It is a space carrying a commitment, in echoes and connotations, to the particular social experience of Afro-American people. It establishes only the slightest, if any, departure from the contiguous, offscreen reality.

While shooting BUSH MAMA (Haile Gerima, 1976), for instance, one camera crew was accosted by the Los Angeles police. What was there in the sight of black men with motion picture cameras filming in the streets of south-central Los Angeles (Watts) that prompted the police to pull their guns, spread-eagle these filmmakers against cars, and frisk them? Did they mistake the cameras for weapons — did they sense a robbery in progress, a misappropriation of evidence? Did they suspect the cameras were stolen, being in the inappropriate hands of the intended victims of cinema?

The paranoia of such questions belongs to the mentality of the Los Angeles Police Department. The evidence of their actions is recorded objectively in cinema verite as the establishing shots of the film. These shots make a fitting prologue because BUSH MAMA is about the policing of the black community by school officials, in and out of uniform, who intrude their behavioral directives into the most intimate reaches of its residents. From such a documentary beginning, one is more easily convinced that the daily actions of its inhabitants are constantly policed, in the sense that all actions are regarded with hostility and suspicion except those that reproduce the cycles of victimization and self-repression.

The social space of many new black films is saturated with contingency. Simply, it is the contingency of on-location shooting. But what a location. It is a space in which invasion is immanent. A street scene in these films is a place where anything can happen, any bizarre or brutal picaresque eventuality, as in A PLACE IN TIME (Charles Lane, 1976). An interior location attracts the feeling of prison, or refuge. A door is a venue through which an intruder may suddenly burst, either police or madman. The folklore surrounding this school of adventuresome filmmaking is replete with art/life ironies: a film about a black man trying to live his life without going to jail is interrupted when the actor interpreting the role is put in jail for nonsupport.

The intensities of such dilemmas, sometimes the events themselves, become interwoven into the text of the film. Everyone knows that the anthropologist with a camera alters the reality he/she records. Similarly, "reality" arranges itself differently in the United States for an independent black filmmaker. Nor does this filmmaker always maintain a cool detachment in the face of these rearrangements. The hot rage that suffuses SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAAADASS SONG (Melvin Von Peebles, 1971) is one clue that the film itself is allegorical of the furious ordeal of a black person trying to make a mentally independent film against the resistances that the society will mount in reaction. By Larry Clark's testimony, the sharp-edged racial portrayals in PASSING THROUGH (1977) reflect his frustrations in getting his film completed against such resistances.

So the space occupied by an independent black film is frequently tempered by the values of social paranoia, volatility, and contingency, and by a more knowing acquaintance with these values than the stable tranquility and predictable unpredictability of an U.S. movie set, even when that set is background for a commercial black movie.

The screen and theatrical space of the new black cinema is one the spectator can enter and exit without carrying away the glazed eyes and the afterglow of erotic-egotistic enchantment that identifies the colonized moviegoer. In it, both filmmakers and spectators can move easily and interchangeably before and behind the camera without drastic alterations of character. This is a rare circumstance for Afro-Americans, for as Walter Benjamin notes of another cinema,

"Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves — and primarily in their own work process. In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man's legitimate claim to being reproduced."(4)

It is a space open to wide-ranging possibilities, yet free of the illusionism whose effects make mainstream commercial films so superficially enchanting. To take one convention of the Hollywood cinematic code for example, consider the double pyramid that describes the individualistic perspective. One of these imaginary pyramids extends from the four corners of the screen towards a vanishing point within the scene, reproductive of the depth perception of Renaissance painting. The other perspectival pyramid extends from these same points, converging on the eye-screen of the single observer. Such a perspective has great potential for focusing attention at hierarchically staged points of meaning. These seem to the individual observer to be channeled directly to his mind-screen, a chamber of privileged voyeurism.

The camera of the new black cinema is not similarly obsessed. The focus of its attention is wider, more open to diverse, competing, even accidental impressions. The basic palette of the indigenous Afro screen is closer to that of Italian neorealism and Third World cinema than to Southern California. Charlie Burnett, in KILLER OF SHEEP (1977), for instance, makes effective use of the open frame, in which characters walk in and out of the frame from top, bottom, and sides. It’s a forbidden practice in the classical code of Hollywood (but common in European and Japanese films that he saw as a UCLA student). One further encounters fewer close-ups, suggesting less preoccupation with the interior emotions of individual personages.

The techniques of the new directors do not exclude inventive camera movements and placements, but these are dictated more often by the need of social reflection than the demands of individual fascination. The treatment of space generally reminds us that linear perspective was an invention and once the exclusive preoccupation of post-medieval Western art. By contrast, in Afro cinema one often finds the nonlinear, psychic space of medieval paintings, oriental scrolls, and other non-Western media. In CHILD OF RESISTANCE (1972), to take another example from the prolific Haile Gerima, the camera follows the central figure, a woman dressed in a robe, hands bound, being transported through a barroom into a jail cell, directly outside of which later appears a jury box filled with jurors. Linearity is rejected as space is treated poetically, following the coordinates of a propulsive social idea — the social imprisonment of black women.

The goals of the new cinema frequently cause it to invade territory familiar to documentary films, though this is an observation that may be misleading. What is shared with documentary is reality orientation. This reality dimension is present even in Afro films of the most intensively dramatic or fantastic content, of which there are several examples, and even in scenes of exquisite visual beauty.

Despite this shared orientation, the term “docudrama” is too loosely employed in discussion of Afro films. Two recent films by Woodie King, for instance, THE TORTURE OF MOTHERS (1980) and DEATH OF A PROPHET (1981), deal with events of recent history, the police frame-up of several black youths in New York in 1964, and the last day in the life of Malcolm X. They aim to be accurate to the historical record and they use actors and nonactors, but their intent is far more to dramatize than document.

Techniques associated with non-fictional cinema appear frequently in indigenous Afro films. One of the most piercing scenes in Ben Caldwell's poetic and literary I AND I (1978) is staged as a documentary interview. Similarly, the dramatic action of TORTURE OF MOTHERS is launched from the setting of a group pooling testimony before a tape recorder. An off-camera voicetrack supplants dialogue in CHILD OF RESISTANCE. And Larry Clark, in making PASSING THROUGH, goes beyond the typical use of archival footage as historical flashback by inventing a documentary-looking sequence that places his hero, Womack, in the midst of the eruption at Attica.

In effect, the responsibility to social reality that presides over the space of the new black cinema has led to a number of films that not only arise out of a "documentary" setting but continue to unfold in a world articulated by the techniques and strategies of non-fictional cinema, as in Italian neorealism, but with an Afro sensibility.

Another support of the realness dimension in Afro cinema is its use of cultural-historical time. The cultural identity of the people in these films may be expressed as that of a people with a certain history. Dramatic time is never wholly divorced from historic time. What time is it is a question that is inseparable from the texture of the scene.

Both black and white independent filmmakers sometimes forsake explicit cultural and historical reference but usually for different reasons. It has been said of the affecting documentary, THE QUIET ONE (1948), made by Sidney Meyers, that “the boy's blackness was not given any special significance.”(5) And NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964), directed by Michael Roemer, omitted reference to the civil rights movement taking place at the time and place of the film's action. In these respects, the themes of these two films, both respected by black cineastes, would probably have received different treatment by indigenous filmmakers. For example, when Haile Gerima downplays the particulars of the legal case in WILMINGTON 10, USA TEN THOUSAND (1978), it is to subsume that travesty within a broader historical framework, that of the continuous struggle of Afro-Americans for liberation, in which ten thousand have been victimized in the manner dealt to the Wilmington freedom fighters.(6)

Even where concrete historical reference is absent, where the action is set in an unspecified present tense, the idea of who black people are historically is implicitly reflected in every communicative action and reflected most consistently with the self-understanding of the cultural group portrayed. This is true despite variations in the sense of history among individual filmmakers.

In Hollywood portrayals of blacks, there is also a historical dimension. But this sense of history is "vaudevillainous" — the play history of musical comedy, costume spectaculars, and sentimentalized biographies. It is not noted often enough that the liberties taken with history for the sake of a more entertaining story in this vaudevillainous cinema have an important connection with ethnic distortions. For when a people are distorted on screen, their history, their collective cultural memory, is disfigured at the same moment.

The subtly implanted sense of who these people are and where they are coming from is thus a major source of the greater internal authority of the new black cinema. This is a cinema in which Afro-Americans are both the subject and the object of consideration. And the relations of those considerations are least tempered with by extraneous manipulations.


In one of the most rudimentary film situations, the "talking head" sequence of nonfiction film, lies a key to another source of the character of indigenous Afro films. When our attention is riveted by the information given by the speaker, as in television newscasts, we may think of the speaker as an interviewee. When this attention is split between the information imparted and the personality of the speaker, the manner of speech, the cultural resonance of the words and images, the social and cultural connotations, the art of the message spoken, when, in short, speech takes on the character of performance, we may likely think of the speaker as an oral historian.

One finds oral historians in all segments of U.S. cinema, from the Appalachian coal miners of HARLAN COUNTRY, USA to the interviews inserted in REDS. But the Afro speaker in films is more likely to speak as an oral historian, if only because of inadequate assimilation of the bourgeois broadcast orientation that leaves one voice interchangeable with another. The significant contrast is between the Afro-American oral tradition, easily the most vital vernacular tradition surviving in America, and the linearized speech dominated by Western literacy. In Afro oral tradition, filmmakers of the new black cinema find one of their most invaluable resources.

Because it brashly transgresses the barriers of standardized communication, Afro oral tradition is also a magnet for those inclined to vaudevillize, minstrelize, or sensationalize it. COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970) is typical of the exploitative use of black speech with its gratuitous vaudeville jokes that harken back to the slack-mouthed asides of Willie Best. The humor of PUTNEY SWOPE (1969) relies mainly on a leering treatment of black hipspeech and profanity. And the supposedly left-radical documentary slide show, AMERICAN PICTURES, miserably distorts and dehumanizes its black (and white) informants by framing them within its condescending, self-indulgent liberalism.

But the real thing is abundantly available in documentaries and ethnographic films made by black and white filmmakers about the Afro oral tradition or its related expressions — in films such as NO MAPS ON MY TAPS (1980) (tap dancing), AMERICAN SHOESHINE (1976), EPHESUS (1965), and LET THE CHURCH SAY AMEN (1972) (folk preaching), THE FACTS OF LIFE (1981) (blues), and THE DAY THE ANIMALS TALKED (1981) (folktales), both by Carol Lawrence and the southern folklore films of William Ferris and particularly in jazz films like BUT THEN SHE'S BETTY CARTER (1981), MINGUS (1966), and THE LAST OF THE BLUE DEVILS (1980). In such films one might find a saturation of black values and therefore an edge toward the definition of black identity in films after Stephen Henderson's approach to black poetry.(7)

Contrasting postures toward the representation of Afro oral history are seen in two carefully positioned nonfiction films, Warrington Huahn's STREET CORNER STORIES (1978) and Haile Gerima's WILMINGTON 10, USA TEN THOUSAND. The orientation of STREET CORNER STORIES is observational. Hudlin used cinema-verite techniques, exposing his films in and around a New Haven corner store where black men congregate before going to work, catching their practice of black storytelling and uninhibited rapping, not entirely unobserved, as their occasional straining for effects reveals. The orientation of WILMINGTON 10 is committed. This is nowhere more apparent than in the powerful, impassioned speeches of the women who dominate its text, the wives and mothers of some of the Wilmington defendants who recount chapter and verse of liberation struggles past and present together with their uncensored opinions, directly into the camera.

It is not simply the case of one approach being more political than the other, for both are necessarily ideological and reflective of the ideological diversity and oppositions within the indigenous Afro film movement. Nor is it narrowly a question of technique. Neither film, for instance, uses a voice-of-God narration. Finally, as is usual with nonfiction cinema, it is a question of selectivity. STREET CORNER STORIES derives its Afro oral energies from the witty irreverence of black cracker-barrel humor, its rimes and jibes merely transposed from the porch of the country store to the city. WILMINGTON 10 is much like an updated escaped-slave narrative, with all of the intense political sermonizing familiar to that genre. Both films are valid, essentially successful deployments of black verbal creativity in different occasional modes.

Yet what they have to tell us about the ideological tendencies they reflect is communicated by the hazards of their respective orientations. Hudlin's film was intended as a response to the superficial sociology of works like Elliot Liebow's book Talley's Corner, where black streetmen are portrayed as defeated moral opportunists, sexual chauvinists, and exploiters and compensatory dreamers. Yet Hudlin's own portrait reflects communal self-hatred without interpreting its source in an oppressive society. One cannot contest the reportorial accuracy of his portrayal nor the achievement in his film of a look of unmanipulated realness. Still Hudlin's streetmen impress one much like those on Talley's corner. STREET CORNER STORIES does not overcome the danger of distortion arising from "objectivity" without explanation or the danger of distorting Afro oral tradition by exploiting it voyeuristically while presenting it as pure anthropology.

As black oral history, many of the scenes in WILMINGTON 10 are unsurpassed in the projection of strong, committed black speech and personality, offered straight from the soul with earthy articulateness. The folk songs and prison blues of its sound track are hauntingly supportive of the film's eloquence. Yet the film is excessively rhetorical, specifically in its last sequences where unidentified black activists of no clear connection with the Wilmington struggle make political speeches while sitting in abstract isolation on pedestals. Their inclusion is gratuitous, an inorganic coda to the Wilmington scene, from which the earlier speakers drew their spontaneous vitality. Ironically, the ideological tendencies of both films are pushed towards enervation by their urging too much of one kind of text without sufficient, balancing context.

In Afro-American "orature" one can generally find many distinctive and richly expressive characteristics, including a tolerance for semantic ambiguity, a fascination with bold, extravagant metaphor, a "cool" sensibility, a funky explicitness, and a frequently prophetic mode of utterance. The centrality of this tradition to the new black cinema is only understood when we realize its presence in the speech and "performance" of the participants in nonfiction films. In addition, the tradition is also visible within the total configuration of both nonfiction and dramatic works, in characterization, camera strategies, principles of montage, tempo, narrative structure, and so forth. One can even find its features in Charles Lane's wittily silent tragi-comedy, A PLACE IN TIME. As in Afro orature, narrative structure in the new films is often more episodic and non-sequential than the well-made plot dear to Western popular drama and more concerned with tonal placement arid emphasis. In its search for its own voice, for a film language uncompromised by the ubiquitous precedents of the dominant cinema, the new black cinema is making productive explorations into the still undominated speech of black people.


To turn from black oral tradition to black music is really not to turn at all but only to allow one's attention to glide from the words to the melody of a people's indivisible cultural expression. But what has been said about the influence of oral tradition has been inferential. The impact of black music on the new black cinema is clearly intentional and well documented. Of about twenty black filmmakers I have interviewed recently, roughly three-fourths of them stressed black music as a formative and fundamental reference for their art.

The involvement with black music probes deeper than laying a rhythmic sound track beneath images of black people (tom-toms for the rising redemptive energies of the collective), though the musical sound track is a good place to begin.

Western music will menace a non-Western film with cultural compromise. Not intrinsically, not inevitably. Charles Lane, for one, uses "classical" music effectively in his silent farce, A PLACE IN TIME, with no loss to its Afro character. But who can have escaped the subsidized imposition of European superiority as communicated by its musical "classics" which are hawked and hustled everywhere. They underwrite, for instance, the insistent Europeanness of so many, say, French new wave films with their Bached and Mozartized scores or not noticed the introduction of nonclassical music for comic or pastoral diversion? For the new black filmmaker, the technical invention and development of the art of cinema in the West poses a burden and challenge to his/her creative independence that is lifted once he or she turns to the question of music. Being artists, living under cultural domination, they will be privy to the open secret that the definitive musical sound of the twentieth century originates from their people.

What is more revealing is the way music is used. Ousmane Sembene, Africa's most independent film innovator, accurately  observes that

“the whites have music for everything in their films — music for rain, music for the wind, music for tears, music for moments of emotion, but they don't know how to make these elements speak for themselves."(8)

But, recognizing in their music an invaluable precedent of cultural liberation, Afro filmmakers have not pursued, with Sembene, a "cinema of silence." (Although Woodie King effectively omits music from THE TORTURE OF MOTHERS, a taut reliving of a series of brutal racist incidents.)

Instead, their use of music in films is less sentimental and less literary than conventional Western practice. To get to the core of the difference, we should recall Richard Wright's contrast between the false sentiment of tin pan alley songs and lyrics, with their twittering about moon-croon-June, and the more adult, realistic directness of the blues. Mass film entertainment in the United States has never outgrown the musical shadow work of the silent film era where piano or organ sententiously telegraphed the appropriate emotion to the viewer regarding the character, place, and event on the screen. Such a use of music channeled the viewer's aural responses toward a self-pitying individualism, much as the visual cinematic code cultivates egocentric perspective.

In Afro film, music relates to screen action more like the relation of guitar accompaniment to sung blues, broadening the primary narrative statement with commentary that sometimes modulates its directness but just as frequently establishes an ironic, parallel, or distancing realism. When used as sympathetic accompaniment, the music in Afro cinema frequently shares connotations with its audience of collective, cultural-historic significance, in contrast to the music of bourgeois, commercial egoism. Though subject to abuse, the motif of tom-tom signifying communal resurgence nevertheless illustrates this less privatistic musical intention.

The deeper possibilities of black music for furnishing a creative paradigm for Afro cinema have been advanced in Warrington Hudlin's film concept of "blues realism," a defining attitude and style of life.

“It seems to me that if black films are to continue to be called black films, they will have to develop an aesthetic character that will distinguish them in the same way that Japanese films, Italian neo-realist films, or even the French new wave films are distinct. I think the blues provides an aesthetic base and direction. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I feel my efforts in STREET CORNER STORIES and the achievement of Robert Gardner in his exceptional short film I COULD HEAR YOU ALL THE WAY DOWN THE HALL (1976) are the beginnings of a new school of filmmaking, a new wave, if you will.”(9)

In retrospect, Hudlin's formulation of blues realism betrays the adventitiousness of artistic theory developed in the course of resolving particular aesthetic problems, then promoted too broadly as a vehicle of self-definition. Blues realism relied too narrowly on the blues concept of novelist Ralph Ellison and was applied too strictly to too few films. Perhaps recognizing this, Hudlin has since distanced himself from the concept, partly, I think, because his subsequent films, CAPOERIA (1980) and COLOR (video, 1982), have moved away from the cinema verite technique of STREET CORNER STORIES that he associated with blues realism and partly because, at the time of its formulation, he had not seen several Afro films, particularly West Coast films, that might have modified or challenged his definitions.

Blues realism as articulated by Hudlin needs to be respected, nevertheless, as a premature sally onto sound grounds. We do not need to discard it, but to amplify and extend it to many different blues sensibilities and many different registers of black musical sensibility which help us realize an understanding of Afro films in their variety. STREET CORNER STORIES, for instance, captures the tonal reference of an amoral, all-male blues world moving from country to city on a trajectory roughly parallel to the course from Lightin' Hopkins to Jimmie Witherspoon. Alternatively, WILMINGTON 10, as already noted, vibrates most completely to the blues of the southern prison farm. It also realizes on the screen the equivalent of its sound-track employment of the woman-supportive, country/folk singing of "Sweet Honey in the Rock." One must understand music in Afro-American culture as a constituent element of thought, perception, and communication.(10) Many of the new filmmakers attempt to transpose the tonal/ structural register and cognitive framework of several varieties of black music. The works of others seem attached to specific black musical worlds by virtue of their having tapped dimensions of black experience congruent with certain musical precedents. Hugh Hill's LIGHT OPERA (1975) offers an example from the "pure" end of the visual music spectrum with his exposures and editing of light and images in New York's Times Square, orchestrated nonnarratively to the music of Ornette Coleman and to the more abstract explorations of New Jazz. The fictive-emotional world of Bill Gunn's GANJA AND HESS (1973) is embedded in the resonances of a literary, self-conscious form of gospel music. The visual imagery of Barbara McCullough's experimental WATER RITUAL #1 (1979) emerges out of a funky New Jazz, saturated in African cosmology.

Ben Caldwell's I AND I, another film deeply implicated in black music, is best understood as a meditation in blues mode on identities of Africa in America. Its title further notes a debt to reggae-Rastafarian consciousness. Framed by the passage of a spirit-woman protagonist from Africa through experiences and revelations in America, its structure rests principally on three "stanzas" or "choruses." First, the protagonist becomes a black man mourning/ cursing his coffined white father. Next, she witnesses the oral narration of an old black woman, recounting the lynching and murder of her grandfather. Finally, she metamorphoses into a contemporary black woman, imparting a cosmological heritage to her son.

The distinct contribution of I AND I to the repertory of music-based black cinema is its impact on improvisation. Still photos of urban and rural black life are interspersed among explicitly funky dramatic vignettes and lyrical-prophetic stagings in an order hovering between narrative closure and abstract association. One idea or image gives birth to another in the manner of an instrumental jazz soloist's far-flung, highly colored variations on a traditional blues theme. The semantics of this film are akin to those of the instrumental jazz theater, in which the performer calls the audience together to celebrate shared passages of life through his/her voicing of a familiar tune. In I AND I, blues realism is extended to blues prophetism in a register my ears would place close to the spiritualized, Africanized blues of John Coltrane or Coltrane-Ellington.

The idea of black film as music is also given wide syntactical exploration in Larry Clark's dramatic feature, PASSING THROUGH. Here, the dramatic theme is black music, the struggle of musicians against the exploitations of gangster entrepreneurs. More subtly fulfilled than its story is its visual exposition through musical montage. Each sequence is introduced or segmented by music. Musical cues dominate its architecture. Typically, in the middle of a tenor saxophone solo played by the protagonist, Womack, the camera closes in on the bell of the horn, which becomes an iris perspective, framing the documentary flashbacks mentioned earlier, the dogs of Birmingham, black nationalist/police shootout in Cleveland, Attica. Clark's montage suggests visual references for the solo's nonverbal expression, offering a visual exegesis of the way improvised jazz solos reflect individual and group experience.

I AND I and PASSING THROUGH, together with the briefer explorations of Barbara McCullough and Hugh Hill, offer the widest, most far-reaching illustrations of the integral relation of black music and film. In these works, we recognize the representative palette of the new black filmmaker as a keyboard. The greater dimension of performance in the identity of the African and Afro-American artist also extends to the new black filmmakers. We should visualize them as shaping their compositions by selectively playing, with more or less emphasis, the available elements of documentary realism, the several modes of Afro oral tradition, musical structure and coloration, and dramatic intention.

Two useful perspectives can be gained by viewing the new black cinema as a creative "renaissance." Some fruitful bearings can be found in considering the recent film movement alongside the Harlem Renaissance, the best-known art movement launched by black Americans. One is then further drawn to the fundamental relatedness between this body of films and other forms of black art.

The independent films of Afro-Americans since the late 1960s, it should be clear by now, have made a departure from all prior examples of black imagery sharp enough to be considered a distinct aesthetic phenomenon. History has not favored the new film movement with a reverberating social and artistic era in which it might achieve its full resonance. Many Afro-Americans have lamented the virtual adoption as pets that happened to the writers of the twenties by white patrons and faddists, yet ironically they remain mute when an indigenous film movement emerges without benefit of such dubious blessings.

Without the buoyancy of a vogue or the nostalgia of an era consecrated in popular mythology, the new black cinema has managed a transformation of imaginative possibilities comparable in scope, diversity, and creative verve to the literary twenties. Over the last decade, Afro independents have produced over two hundred films of varied length, including a score of dramatic features and an equal number of documentary features — an output rivaling the literary output of the Harlem Renaissance.

The singular accomplishment of the literary awakening of the 1920s was to establish an Afro-American voice for literary art, the recreation of a cultural identity in literary form, more solidly in poetry than prose, and principally through the reappropriation of Afro vernacular in speech and music. The writers of that period advanced a fertile decolonization from Western aesthetic norms. Almost without notice, the contemporary filmmakers have gone further toward decolonization of a more blatantly colonized medium. They have not only planted a new body of Afro-American art, they have done this while freeing that art of colonial imitation, apology, or deference. And while the observations made here fall far short of exhausting the characteristics that give these films their cultural identity, they might point the way to the realization that the new cinema, unlike any other, is a representative expression of Afro-American life.


1. Arna Bontemps — Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967, ed. Charles H. Nichols (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1980), p. 89.

2. Ibid., p. 273.

3. From a brochure in the files of the Schomburg Library, New York City.

4. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), p. 232.

5. Lewis Jacobs, The Documentary Tradition (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 187.

6. The Wilmington ten were defendants in a celebrated case of official misjustice. The ten North Carolina political activists were charged with firebombing a grocery store during a time of racial tension in 1971. They were convicted on the basis of pressured testimony, later recanted by some of the supposed witnesses. They were given unusually harsh sentences. At the time of the film, all but the Reverend Ben Chavis had been released. Chavis himself is now free.

7. Understanding the New Black Poetry (New York, 1973). By saturation, Henderson means a density of reference and tone by which the observer can recognize the cultural Afro-ness of a work, even in the absence of explicit verbal clues. Henderson finds saturation, for instance, in Aretha Franklin's "Spirits in the Dark."

8. "Film-makers Have a Great Responsibility to Our People: An Interview with Ousmane Sembene," Cineaste 6, no. 1, p. 29.

9. "Interview: Warrington Hudlin," by Oliver Franklin, program brochure for Black Films and Film Makers, Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, Philadelphia, PA.

10. See Clyde Taylor, "Salt Peanuts: Sound and Sense in African/ American Oral/ Musical Creativity," Calaloo, June 1982.