History of Black Film Richer Than 'Blacula'

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), February 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

History of Black Film Richer Than 'Blacula'


Byline: Burt Constable

Every February we pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes and other legends of black history.

But there's still room for "Blacula," "Shaft," "Superfly" and other film stars of the "blaxploitation" movies of the early 1970s, says Gerald R. Butters Jr., assistant professor of history at Aurora University.

"I don't think people have ever taken them seriously, but there's a lot of black actors and actresses who got their start in blaxploitation films," Butters notes. "There's a lot of rappers who use lines directly out of these films."

Superfly was telling his enemies, "I'm your daddy," a generation before kids thought to ask, "Who's your daddy?"

Those campy films starred talented performers such as Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree and Yaphet Kotto, and featured music by legends such as Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes.

But the black movie history doesn't start there.

"Ever since the beginning of movies, African-Americans were depicted in very stereotypical ways," says Butters, who has written a book titled "Man and the Hood: Portrayals of Black Masculinity in American Silent Films."

The early movies depicted African-Americans, often just white actors in "black face," as "chicken-stealing, thieving, bumbling fools," Butters notes, adding "black people in films today still tend to be comic relief."

Black writer William Foster of Chicago began making movies in 1912, but it was the anti-black message and positive Ku Klux Klan depiction in D.W. Griffith's 1915 classic "The Birth of a Nation" that gave birth to black filmmakers, Butters says.

"The common theme in most of the black films was redefining the black man," Butters says. "They showed black men as heroes."

From his first silent film in 1918 until his last "talkie" in 1948, Oscar Micheaux set the standard for black movies. …

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