Be black, baby! An overview of Black Power on film

The revolution was not televised, but has it been filmed? With BFI Southbank screening a restored print of Herbert Danska’s Right On!, a powerful document of radical black politics in America at the end of the 1960s, Ashley Clark looks back over cinematic representations of Black Power.

Ashley Clark
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Right On! (1970)

Right On! (1970)

The BFI’s African Odysseys strand exploring the African roots in world cinema continues with an extremely rare screening of Herbert Danska’s Right On! (1970). Filmed guerrilla-style across various lower Manhattan locations, it features the original lineup of pioneering rap group The Last Poets performing 28 pieces adapted from their legendary appearance at New York’s Paperback Theater in 1969.

Rarely seen in the last 30 years, it was recently restored (from its original 35mm negative) by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and arrives in London fresh from a short NYC run earlier this year. An exceptionally entertaining mixture of music, poetry and politics, Right On! offers a valuable window onto the era’s artistic representation of the Black Power movement, which reached its peak in the late 1960s and early 70s. But what, exactly, do we mean when we use the term ‘Black Power?’

1. The roots

The key lies in the context. America in the 1960s was a tumultuous place, especially in the arena of race relations. The campaign for civil rights, traditionally seen as headed by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), had fought a battle for black equality, largely based in the country’s south, which culminated in the dual legislative victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yet the situation for blacks still left a lot to be desired, leading to the rise of alternative, radical voices from within and without. Many younger, radical activists felt more attuned to the incendiary views of Malcolm X than the peaceful, non-violent ideas of King. It was Stokely Carmichael, a charismatic young member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – at the time affiliated with the SCLC – who was first credited with the popular use of the term ‘Black Power’ at a rally in 1966.

Right On! (1970)

Right On! (1970)

Though Carmichael saw Black Power as a means of solidarity between individuals within the civil rights movement, the term came to mean different things to different people. Some saw it as a call to militant activism (The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, who fully understood the importance of iconography, formed in Oakland, CA, in 1966), some took it to mean a pathway to racial separation, others a clarion call to class solidarity.

Yet within the many ideological interpretations of the term, we can discern a constant: a concerted effort to engender racial pride, and the creation of black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote black collective interest.

If the true political impact of ‘Black Power’ is difficult to quantify, it is safe to say that the movement had a profound cultural impact, eventually becoming a national, mainstream concern. Its most prominent initial cultural branch was the Black Arts Movement, which, according to historian Kalamu ya Salaam, was “the only American … movement to advance ‘social engagement’ as a sine qua non of its aesthetic.”

Focused largely upon community-based pursuits like literature, performance poetry, and the theatre, the movement made prominent figures of the likes of Amiri Baraka (whose play Dutchman – a claustrophobic, astringent take on interracial relationships – was filmed in 1966 by British director Anthony Harvey).

As Right On! reveals, Black Power was also intensely connected with music. Soul and Afrocentrism were key terms, and a host of artists like The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott-Heron proudly declared their association.

But what, in all this revolutionary art and culture, was the role of the cinema?

2. Representation rules

Perhaps because of its fundamentally socially-engaged remit (and disinterest in commercialism and profit-making), there is little in the way of black-authored fiction filmmaking in the peak time of the movement. After all, movies are expensive to make, require specific resources and, ultimately, theatrical distribution – a tough ask for politically radical cinema at the best of times.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1970)

Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1970)

Instead, documentary was the movement’s key filmic component. The era gave rise to a number of independent black documentarians including St Clair Bourne and William Greaves (whose Symbiopsychotaxiplasm [1968] is a superb example of playful, countercultural meta-vérité) but, as observed by historian James Snead, “most documentaries about the … Black Power era were made by white filmmakers, many of whom worked for radical newsreel organizations.” It would seem that access to resources, and a natural external journalistic interest in a political movement were the key drivers for this situation.

One of the key white documentarians was Chicagoan Howard Alk, who made a pair of perceptive, boots-on-the-ground films on the era: 1969’s American Revolution 2 (about the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the formation of an alliance between the Black Panther Party and the Young Patriots Organisation) and 1971’s The Murder Of Fred Hampton, which follows the charismatic 21-year-old deputy chair of the Illinois Black Panther Party until his murder by the police, at which point it turns into a furious exposé of corruption.

Other non-black filmmakers made fascinating documents of the movement’s key figures. When in Algiers to film the Pan-African Cultural Festival in 1969, transplanted New Yorker William Klein crafted an intimate documentary portrait of the Black Panther’s then-exiled communications chief Eldridge Cleaver (who, incidentally, later went on to design a luxury codpiece entitled the ‘Cleaver Sleeve’) entitled Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther.

William Klein and Eldridge Cleaver: Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970)

William Klein and Eldridge Cleaver: Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970)

In the realm of fiction, Frenchman Jules Dassin delivered the Cleveland-set Uptight (1968), an astonishing, criminally underseen re-imagining of John Ford’s The Informer (1935). Set in the direct aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, it follows the last few days in the life of a poor young urban black man, Tank (played by civil rights activist Julian Mayfield), who finds himself hopelessly caught between his family, the bottle, and his radical black activist friends. It is exploratory rather than diagnostic filmmaking, and beautifully dramatises the jagged psychology of being caught inside an explosive political climate without having decided into which basket your eggs are headed.

Even more startling was then-neophyte/avant-gardist Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970), which digressed from its main narrative to present ‘Be Black, Baby!’, an extended “documentary” in which a group of black actors in whiteface show an audience of nervy, blacked-up WASPs what it’s really like to be black, with disastrous consequences. Hilarious and shocking, it’s both a skewed take on the avant-theatre of the Black Arts Movement, and a fascinating capsule of a time when issues around race relations were pushed into the public (well, white establishment) consciousness like never before.

Indicating the importance of iconography and imagery, the cinematic movement that Black Power is now most commonly (and arguably erroneously) associated with is Blaxploitation, a long-running ethnic subgenre of cheapjack exploitation films.

Blaxploitation was effectively launched by Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1971), a grimy low-budget thriller in which, among other activities [description c/o film historian Ed Guerrero] “superhero Sweetback uses his cocksmanship to outfornicate the white female leader of a motorcycle gang”.

Though the film inspired great debate and controversy (many despaired at its lowball drudgery and misogyny), Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton was a big fan, dubbing it “the first truly revolutionary Black film ever made … presented to us by a Black man” – his words an unambiguous reflection of a key Black Power tenet: self-actualisation.

Superfly (1972)

Superfly (1972)

Iconic, style-heavy films like Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972) and Foxy Brown (1974) followed and a new cinematic code of black representation was born. However, argues Guerrero, “[it] allowed for the crystallization of a ‘filmic’ formula for the representation of blacks…. Hollywood was able to play on black people’s new found identification with its increasingly politicized and militant underclass”.

With the co-option of black masculinity (and, to a lesser extent, femininity) by Hollywood market forces a reality, the field opened up for a thrilling new cinematic voice on Black Power discourse, and it duly arrived in the shape of Ivan Dixon’s 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door, based on the bestselling novel by Sam Greenlee. In this still jaw-dropping thriller, Lawrence Cook stars as a man recruited by the CIA as a token black, who then proceeds to learn (and forcefully apply) the techniques of urban guerrilla warfare on the streets of Chicago.

A sharp take on black activism and the slipperiness of identity, it was a huge initial box office success. Sadly, it drew the attention of the FBI, who destroyed almost all of the prints, nearly rendering it a ‘lost’ movie. (It is now available on DVD and screened at the BFI Southbank in 2012.) It seemed that this attempt to address black masculinity – and the physical, visceral ‘Power’ element of the movement – in a radical, incisive way was simply too provocative for the mainstream cultural protectorate.

Shaft (1971)

Shaft (1971)

3. Here and now and then

Broadly-speaking, the late 70s and 80s were not a fertile time for black-authored American cinema, and particularly not for representation and discussion of Black Power. By this point the movement and its iconography had faded from the popular consciousness, and black Hollywood cinema in the Reagan era revolved around the star personae and comedies of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.

The extent to which Black Power was seen as a safe target in Hollywood was exemplified by the lamentable 1986 race-swap com Soul Man (Google the plot synopsis yourself if you must). By the end of the decade, however, the emergence of one-man cottage industry Spike Lee offered a resuscitative shot to the heart of Black Power’s revolutionary spirit.

His Do the Right Thing (1989), while famously knotty and dialectically-inclined in its politics, was utterly unambiguous in some respects: see/hear Public Enemy’s anthemic clarion call to black activism, ‘Fight the Power’, which features prominently on the soundtrack. Spike’s remit was to uplift the race, and – chiming with the aims of the Black Arts Movement – he was hell-bent on enlisting black crew, and inspiring black artists to tell their own stories.

In more recent times, engagement with Black Power has again predominantly been the preserve of documentary, and again largely from outsider filmmakers, who have examined the fallout of past incidents and ongoing injustices associated with the era’s politics.

Brit Marc Evans’s engaging if undercranked In Prison My Whole Life (2008) looks at the life of imprisoned political activist and former Black Panther member, Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose death sentence for killing a police officer was overturned in 2001 due to technical errors made during his original sentencing hearing in 1982.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

2008’s Salute, by Australian Matt Norman, explores the famously controversial Black Power salutes by black American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics through the lens of the director’s father Peter (the third man on the podium).

Sweden’s Göran Hugo Olsson had already made the fascinating Am I Black Enough for You? (about the little-known activist side of ‘Me & Mrs Jones’ crooner Billy Paul) when he emerged in 2011 with The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, a compelling collage of archive footage shot by Swedish reporters, and featuring news reports and interviews with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and scholar Angela Davis. Its most memorable sequence is an intense, politically charged interview between a Swedish reporter and the then-imprisoned Davis. Davis, one of the few prominent female figures in a male-dominated environment, was the subject of Shola Lynch’s celebratory documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012).

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012)

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012)

Black Power themes have occasionally appeared in fiction filmmaking. One particularly pertinent example is Kasi Lemmons’s underrated gem Talk to Me (2007), which boasts a typically fine performance from Don Cheadle as Petey Greene, the legendary Washington DC-based activist and shock jock Petey Greene. (For a sample of Greene’s most entertaining work, type ‘Greene’ + ‘Watermelon’ into your YouTube search bar.)

And then, in outrageous 70s-set Blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite (2009), our eponymous, chiselled hero (Michael Jai White) finds it no trouble at all to seduce the initially hostile Gloria (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), a hardline, tightly-afro’d Black Power activist. Satirical it may be, but the role of women in the movement is begging for a more serious mass-cultural appraisal.

Epilogue

There is no doubt that ‘Black Power’ as a socially dynamic concept and an aesthetic, iconic force of nature, has greatly influenced popular culture. But if we consider the sheer number of films made about, say, Paris in 1968 (Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air being just the latest example), it becomes clear that there remains a Black Power-shaped gap in large-scale, politically-engaged, fictional cinema. The great film about the Black Power movement is just waiting to be made. Who will take up the mantle?

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