Black noir: 10 essential black performances in film noir and neo-noir

The history of black actors in film noir in 10 key performances – from occasional stereotype-busting roles in classic noir to blaxploitation to the 90s wave of neo-noir thrillers.

9 November 2016

By David Parkinson

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Film noir did much to change the way black characters were depicted in American cinema. During the 1930s, a narrow range of racial stereotypes had been imposed upon Hollywood directors by a combination of the Production Code and the commercial concerns of studio heads reluctant to offend southern white audiences with affirmational African Americans.

But, while thousands had been forced out of their communities to scour the country for work during the Great Depression, it was the camaraderie forged between white and black servicemen during the Second World War that expanded many people’s racial horizons and prompted filmmakers to reflect the everyday realities facing “hyphenated Americans” in problem pictures and film noirs.

There were still stock characters, like the Pullman porter in Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952). But, in keeping with its transgressive reputation, noir was much more progressive in its presentation of the various maids, waiters, shoeshine boys, lowlifes and jazz musicians who kept cropping up throughout the classical period. They may not have produced many outright black heroes, but pictures such as Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (1950), Russell Rouse and Leo C. Popkin’s The Well, Joseph Losey’s The Big Night (both 1951) and Phil Karlsen’s The Phenix City Story (1955) produced few irredeemable villains either.

Yet, despite the struggle for civil rights intensifying, no black filmmakers emerged to build upon the race film legacy of Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams. Actor Ossie Davis was sufficiently impressed by Charles Martin’s If He Hollers, Let Him Go! (1968), however, to cast its lead, Raymond St Jacques, in another hard-boiled Chester Himes adaptation, Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). This film, along with Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1971), helped spark the blaxploitation craze that showcased a new generation of African Americans taking control of their destinies with a newfound confidence and freedom.

But blaxploitation was predominantly a studio phenomenon, and another decade was to pass before the “LA Rebellion” of the 1980s evolved into the New Black Cinema movement of the 1990s, when independent spirits like Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem, 1991), Albert and Allen Hughes (Dead Presidents, 1995), Charles Burnett (The Glass Shield, 1994) and Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995) began using the techniques of noir and neo-noir to explore issues of inequality, bigotry and normalcy to create what critic Manthia Diawara has called “black noir”.

Frances E. Williams in The Reckless Moment (1949)

Director: Max Ophuls

The Reckless Moment (1949)

Shortly after becoming the first African American woman to run for the California State Assembly, activist-cum-actor Frances E. Williams changed the way black screen domestics were perceived in this masterly Max Ophuls noir. As Sybil the maid, Williams may not have many lines, but Ophuls’ use of the mise-en-scène technique means that she is forever in the background, eavesdropping on Joan Bennett’s efforts to protect her headstrong teenage daughter’s reputation from blackmailer James Mason. Breaking with convention, Williams is devoted without being subservient. Moreover, having realised that the bourgeois Bennett is just as oppressed as herself, Williams helps her recover some incriminating letters and flee a crime scene.

James Edwards in The Set-up (1949)

Director: Robert Wise

The Set-Up (1949)

When RKO chief Dore Schary approved Robert Wise’s adaptation of Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem, former welterweight Canada Lee (who had impressed alongside John Garfield in Robert Rossen’s 1947 boxing noir, Body and Soul) was considered for the role of ageing pug Stoker Thompson. However, when Howard Hughes bought the studio, he insisted on Robert Ryan taking the lead, and the debuting James Edwards was cast as Luther Hawkins (an early draft dubbed him Chocolate Brown), the talented newcomer who chats with Ryan in the locker room. Luther wishes him luck before his bout, but his energetic warm-up only convinces Stoker that he is washed up.

Sidney Poitier in No Way Out (1950)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

No Way Out (1950)

A star was born with the line, “Don’t cry, white boy, you’re gonna live.” Despite being fourth billed, the debuting Sidney Poitier dominates Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s seething social noir as hospital intern Luther Brooks, who treats wounded street punk Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) in spite of his foul-mouthed bigotry. Aware that it would provoke controversy, 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck sanctioned this “powerful propaganda against intolerance” and encouraged Mankiewicz to depict the African American characters “as human beings” enduring hatred in “a white man’s everyday world”. He also insisted on the race riot ending in a black victory. Unsurprisingly, the picture was cut by local northern censors and banned across the Deep South.

Juano Hernandez in The Breaking Point (1950)

Director: Michael Curtiz

The Breaking Point (1950)

Such is the bond between charterboat skipper Harry Morgan (John Garfield) and black first mate Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez) in Michael Curtiz’s reworking of Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not that Harry encourages daughters Amelia (Sherry Jackson) and Connie (Donna Jo Boyce) to hold hands with Wesley’s son Joseph (Juan Hernandez) at the bus stop. Moreover, Harry’s affinity prompts him to bar Wesley from a people smuggling trip. But he’s powerless to prevent gangsters from killing Wesley and throwing his body overboard, and the subtly subversive closing shot of Joseph waiting patiently for his dad on the dock is devastating.

Harry Belafonte in Odds against Tomorrow (1959)

Director: Robert Wise

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) poster

While most Hollywood films were black and white in their discussion of race, noir often dealt in shades of grey. Closing the classic cycle, Robert Wise’s adaptation of William P. McGivern’s novel was produced by Harry Belafonte’s own company to explore the tensions between ex-con Earle Slater (Robert Ryan) and nightclub singer Johnny Ingram (Belafonte) after they join forces on a robbery. According to Belafonte, Ryan’s southern bigot “hates everybody”, while his gambling addict is “no stereotype of sweetness and light”. Even so, contemporary audiences were shocked when a morgue attendant asks who is who after a disfiguring refinery blaze and an NYPD cop shrugs: “Take your pick”.

Melvin Van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1971)

Director: Melvin Van Peebles

Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1971)

Shot on a shoestring in 19 days and dedicated to “all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the Man”, Melvin Van Peebles’ landmark eulogy to black urban power was hailed as a “revolutionary masterpiece” by Black Panther Huey Newton, while Spike Lee claimed that Sweetback’s socio-political education while fleeing the LAPD “gave us all the answers we needed”. Adopting avant-garde techniques to distance his noirish revision of the runaway slave narrative from the Hollywood mainstream, Van Peebles succeeded in doing “something that wasn’t Uncle-Tommy” and, despite being “rated X by an all-white jury” (as much for its sex scenes as its politics), it changed African American filmmaking forever.

Pam Grier in Coffy (1973)

Director: Jack Hill

Coffy (1973)

Long before Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016), AIP director Jack Hill exposed the War on Drugs declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971 as nothing more than an act of black oppression. This grindhouse noir, therefore, allows Pam Grier’s Nurse Coffy to dish out some payback to the white crooks flooding black neighbourhoods with drugs (hooking Coffy’s 11-year-old sister on heroin in the process) and the corrupt community leaders blithely letting it happen. Despite stashing weapons in her afro and exploiting her sexuality, Coffy is a morally conflicted vigilante. As Roy Ayers’s title track puts it: “Coffy, baby, you can’t see right from wrong.”

Laurence Fishburne in Deep Cover (1992)

Director: Bill Duke

Deep Cover (1992)

Unlike the youthful gangstas in ghettocentric black noirs like New Jack City, Boyz n the Hood (both 1991), Juice (1992) and Menace II Society (1993), Laurence Fishburne’s Russell Stevens Jr in Deep Cover is an adult grappling with his concept of black manhood, while seeking to avoid falling into the traps that destroyed his addict father by serving his community with the LAPD. However, by going undercover as dealer John Q. Hull, he encounters endemic corruption and institutionalised bigotry. Moreover, he realises how decent men are being drawn into crime by racial oppression and how his own morality is being compromised by the decisions he is compelled to make in order to survive.

One False Move (1992)

Cynda Williams in One False Move (1992)

Director: Carl Franklin

Much of the fury of the 90s wave of black cinema was sparked by the Rodney King incident. But Carl Franklin showed that neo-noir could be just as political, as he uses a fugitive gang’s arrival in Star City, Arkansas to explore America’s gender, racial and geographical tensions. The story is told from the perspective of Lila Walker (Cynda Williams), a backwater woman who has abandoned her child and her dreams of Hollywood stardom to reinvent herself as a femme fatale named Fantasia. Cynical and weary, she curses that “looking guilty is being guilty for black people”. But a chance of redemption comes when she slips away from her gangmates and heads home.

Mekhi Phifer in Clockers (1995)

Director: Spike Lee

Clockers (1995)

In adapting Richard Price’s novel about low-level pushers who trade around the clock from street corners and park benches, Spike Lee harnesses noir conventions to show how drug culture merely offers young African American males an illusory escape from the dead-end blend of poverty and bigotry that is their daily reality. Harassed by the cops and boss Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), Brooklyn project clocker Ronald “Strike” Dunham (Mekhi Phifer) has developed an ulcer and is torn when Rodney offers him promotion in return for a murderous favour. Affectingly played by the debuting Phifer, Strike is a classic noir antihero – morally repugnant, but also trapped, vulnerable and all too human.

Black Star, a celebration of the range, versatility and power of black actors on film and TV, took place in cinemas nationwide, on DVD and on BFI Player, October to December 2016.

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