Well, whatever plague my son brought home from school this time has finally run its course, but I have to say I didn’t appreciate having my recent blaxploitation horror marathon continuously interrupted by bouts of projectile vomiting. Still, the combination of the two did bring to mind this scene from Queen Kong. (Yes, Queen Kong.)
Yow! I guess good roles for black actresses really were pretty scarce back in the pre-Cosby show days, huh? Maybe Halle Berry wasn’t being blubberingly self-indulgent after all when she won the Academy Award for best actress exclaiming, “it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I'm so honored. I'm so honored. And I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing might flow.”
Okay, so maybe there was a wee bit of self-indulgence in that speech. But it’s hard to blame her too much. You see, even though a purely black cinema can trace its origin all the way back to 1916 when the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first movie company organized entirely by black filmmakers, began producing films which “proved a revelation to those who have never seen our folks in anything but comedies”, it never really garnered much attention outside of the basements of black churches. Instead, Hollywood filled its productions with stereotypical racial characterizations along the lines of Lincoln Perry’s Stepin Fetchit, a bug-eyed trickster who feigned ignorance and laziness in order to avoid having to do anything his white bosses demanded of him. In a 2006 NPR interview, film historian Mel Watkins noted that while many black viewers were in on the joke (kind of like the ladies in the Queen Kong clip) and considered Perry’s character subversive, “black leaders were putting pressure on Hollywood to rid the screen of the stereotype he was responsible for creating.”
Unfortunately, when things finally did begin to change for blacks onscreen during the civil rights movement, collective guilt over past insults resulted in something of an over-compensation on the part of white film makers. As John Silk wrote in Racism and Anti-Racism in American Popular Culture, “the major new black stereotype to appear in the nineteen-fifties and sixties [was] that of the impossibly noble and virtuous superhero – the ‘ebony saint’.” (Those so inclined may insert their own political jokes here cause I ain’t touching it!) So you can see the problem black actors had with their prospective roles as the 1970s approached. You could play a Pickaninny or a Poitier, but precious little in between.
Now you don’t need to know that woefully inadequate history of pre-70s black cinema to enjoy blaxploitation movies like the upcoming (very soon, I promise) Scream Blacula Scream, as they contain enough of the usual tropes of drive-in fare (car chases, kung-fu, etc.) to satisfy just about any B-movie fan. I mean, on the level of pure spectacle, it really doesn’t matter if it's Don “The Dragon” Wilson or Fred “The Hammer” Williamson doing the fighting, just as long as somebody’s punching somebody else in the face. But the backstory does help some if you want to understand these movies’ significance to later generations of black film makers. After all those years of stereotypes and missteps, it was the blaxploitation movie which finally ushered in a period where not only was there movies about black people and black issues from across the social spectrum, but they were movies which people of all colors were actually willing to pay to see. I think it’s safe to say that it was the Pam Griers of yesteryear who kicked opened the doors (literally) and made it possible for the Halle Berrys of today to have the same opportunities as white actresses have to choose to ruin their careers by making a movie like Catwoman.
As a Catholic, the slow evolution of the black image in Hollywood gives me a little hope that one day we could see the same for The Church. Cause we’re not seeing a lot of it right now, that’s for sure. As Deacon Paul Jarvis wrote in the St. Thomas Standard, “Hollywood culture (and the media in general) is toxic to people of deeply held and lived Catholic faith. And because of this, those who write the twisted and silly stories about twisted and silly nuns and priests basically write from nothing… This lack of experience merely perpetuates the cartoonish Catholic stereotypes endemic to our historically anti-Catholic nation. What seems to be needed are creative practicing Catholics who can make it in Hollywood and, in spite of Hollywood, make a difference… We need Catholic scriptwriters who will not only exclude insipid stereotypes from their scripts (think Sister Act), but actually call attention to them when they somehow slip into a script. They ought to make a big stink about them, in fact. We need creative Catholic risk-takers who will conjure up imaginative, faith-inspired stories that resonate with all readers and viewers – while challenging them at the same time.”
I agree with all of that. But I’d also like people to actually watch the movies those “catholic risk-takers” make. Considering what worked for blaxploitation, there has to be some Catholics out there with the wherewithal to make a movie that contains all of the things Deacon Paul called for, and yet still has plenty of time for scenes where somebody gets their face kung-fued. Under the proper requirements of just war theory, of course. Come on, guys, I know you can do it. I have faith.