Black Hollywood History – 2
Sidney Poitier was so acceptable to white audiences that he received his first Oscar Nomination for Best Actor in the 1958 film, The Defiant Ones. Despite the humiliation of playing Porgy & Bess in 1959, the following year Poitier played the leading role of an Army sergeant in his next movie, All The Young Men. That was followed by arguably, his best film work in Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning play adapted to a 1961 movie, A Raisin in the Sun. That milestone movie featured an ensemble of multi-dimensional black dramatic characters: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett Jr. BTW, Sidney Poitier and the Tony-award-nominated McNeil should have received Oscar nominations for that ageless work.
Afterwards, Claudia McNeil could only get bit roles in movies or TV. Diana Sands, a Shakespearean actress, struggled to find an artistically meaningful movie roles. When she finally got a break as lead actor cast in the TV show, Claudine, cancer forced her to drop out. Before dying in 1974, she recommended her friend Diahann Carroll as her replacement. Of course, Diahann Carroll went on to become big TV star and Best Actress Nominee for Claudine in 1975. Fortune was kinder to Ruby Dee and Ivan Dixon who went on to play a number of interesting roles. After playing many bit roles, Louis Gossett Jr. won a Best Supporting Actor Award in 1983.
Sidney Poitier took it to another level in the 1960s, rivaling Paul Newman as the top box office draw. He won the 1964 Best Actor Award for his work in Lillies of the Field. He was so graceful on screen we named a dance in his honor. In 1965, played the black man who helped Jesus carry his cross to Calvary in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Poitier and his brave movie producers deserve credit for other movie milestones. He was the first black actor to hit a white man and live to the end of a major movie. In fact he did it twice, Band of Angels (1957) and In The Heat of the Night 1967. You can’t imagine how liberating both scenes were to black audiences. Those cinematic moments also established something else — an intelligent, courageous and just Brother could emerge as the hero. Also by 1967, the “Black Hunk as Leading Man” role was thrust forward by the brawny ex-football star, Jim Brown.
The 1970s began with promise and ended with disappointment for Black Hollywood. Critically acclaimed Sounder and a national anthem movie, Cooley High, connected with Black audiences nationwide. The Great White Hope addressed the racial challenges of America’s first Black heavyweight boxing champion in a drama. Pam Grier, James Earl Jones and Richard Roundtree joined Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte with successful movies about heroic or funny characters. Gordon Parks Sr., Sidney Poitier and Charles Schultz directed a number of modestly successful films. Ivan Dixon played in the socially significant film Nothing But A Man and became a respected TV movie director.
In 1970, Melvin Van Peebles directed the modestly successful Watermelon Man and landed a 3-picture deal with a Hollywood movie studio. But studio executives refused to fund his pet project about a black revolutionary wronged by the LAPD. So he wrote, produced, directed, acted, co-edited and skirted white-only union practices by employing a multicultural production staff to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song in 1971. TV star, Bill Cosby loaned him money to help complete the independent film. Melvin Van Peebles promoted his film on black radio and distributed it to Detroit and Atlanta – initially. Only two theaters would play his X-rated feature. Black audiences craved seeing an unvarnished hero on the silver screen. The Black Panthers made it required viewing by all members. Despite its low-budget artistic flaws, the film made more money, $15 million, than the movie studio’s big-budget movie, Love Story. At the time, it made more money than any independent movie in history.
Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweetback represents a milestone in Black Hollywood. Like chameleons, studio executives saw Melvin Van Peebles’ low cost-high return structure and black sexual superhero as a new formula to exploit. “Blaxploitation” was born. Unfortunately, they blackballed the genre originator, Melvin Van Peebles. Soon, nearly every movie studio was producing a narrative-bankrupt, black stud, gangster, pimp or pusher movie. To studio executives these $250,000 to $500,000 films brought home $3 to $10 million to offset losses by bigger budget movies that tanked at the box office.
Though Shaft, Sounder, Cooley High, Lady Sings The Blues, Claudine, Buck & The Preacher and a couple other quality movies were notable exceptions, most writers and directors of good black drama/romance need not apply. Unfortunately the underperforming, big-budget Motown-backed Wiz also hurt. It failed to meet box office expectations, in part, due to a miscasting age 30 Diana Ross for the teenage role of Dorothy. Age 17 Stephanie Mills, who played the same role to roaring Broadway success, should have been cast. Dramatic Hollywood roles for African Americans sank to a new low. Top black actors, writers and directors, fed up with Blaxploitation, left for Broadway or European cinema.
Then the morally uplifting Roots TV series in January 1977 brought Blaxploitation to a crashing end. With a new sense of black drama possibilities, African Americans stopped patronizing movies that blatantly exploited them. Unfortunately, Blaxploitation failed to create an movie industry ecosystem prepared for What’s Next. Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier, Gloria Hendry, and Fred Williamson had to work Hollywood bit roles and European indie movies to survive or do like Tamara Dobson, retire.
One exceptional talent crossed-over from Blaxploitation to mega-star, Richard Pryor. After building his resume with Lady Sings The Blues, The Mack, Uptown Saturday Night, Car Wash, Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings movies, and co-writing Blazing Saddles, in 1976 Pryor landed a defining role opposite Gene Wilder in Silver Streak. On the social side, he dated Pam Grier – not too shabby.
In 1977, Richard Pryor had a hit TV show that was pulled after only 5 episodes by the censors, but his record albums were huge hits. He followed up with moderate movie hits Greased Lightening, Which Way Is Up, and Blue Collar before playing in the Wiz. When Stir Crazy, a comedic romp and commercial triumph arrived in 1980, it featured Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder directed by Sidney Poitier. Pryor became Hollywood’s most bankable star. It was the first film directed by an African-American to gross $100 million in domestic box office (worth about $220 million in 2020). After his well-publized third degree burns in 1980, Pryor never regained his box-office punch. Nevertheless, his success proved that black comedic talent could produce big green.