To evolve into a self-loving Black man in America is not an easy feat. My identity and value has been under assault since I entered earth so many years ago. Every Black man faces this wrenching reality, usually, early on in life. Yet, this realization is not the typical surface level “the world is out to get the Black man” rhetoric usually swept to the side by mainstream critical thought. However, what I offer is an observational conclusion that takes into account historical images that attempts to challenge the definition of Black manhood. American cinematic media images and messages bring into question whether Black men own their social identity construction; or more concretely, if we are in control of the definition of Black manhood.
They caste a counter narrative which emphasized intelligence, courage, moral correctness, and studious endeavor.
There is something too owning the image of Black male definition. From colonial life to the modern American corporate age, white America, possessed by the dominant social framework, has always defined and shaped the definition of Black manhood. However, one of the unexpected benefits of segregation was in the mid-1950s the definition of manhood and masculinity was heavily influenced, if not controlled, by local Black skilled-working men, clergy, scholars, veterans, and business owners. This local influence was juxtaposing with national iconic athletes and artisans of music, theatre, dance, and production. During the 50’s well into the 60’s, we saw the rise in visibility of national “public” socio-political leaders that defiled the Jim Crow image of submissive, sex-craved, content smiling Black men with no intellect. They caste a counter narrative which emphasized intelligence, courage, moral correctness, and studious endeavor. This local and national Black manhood influence was a sub-alternative reality against the overwhelming social and psychological onslaught of white-supremacist scripts that permeated every inch Black male development. The effect: more Black males were inspired by Black leadership, motivated to educate themselves, own proprietary, and alter their living experiences. This created a more politicized group of Black men in these decades.
….politicized Black men ushered social unrest with civil disobedience and protest tactics in order to fight for Black human survival.
At this juncture, the need to control imagery and definition of Black manhood became paramount. King, Carmichael, Malcolm, Young, Abernathy, Powell, Randolph, Moses, Lewis, and many others, were getting a lot of press while subtly inspiring the young Black male thinking and morale across the nation. Politicized Black men advocated for equality, built institutions, and created economic and educational opportunities. More importantly, to accomplish all of this, politicized Black men ushered social unrest with civil disobedience and protest tactics in order to fight for Black human survival. Social unrest effects the economy and protest made the stock market plunder. Jim Crow segregation was losing strength as a viable social control mechanism. Nixon helped spear head the War Drugs campaign to reinstitute a new method of social control. Education administrations begin funding “special education” programs across the nation. It’s not a coincidence that we see private corporations and distributors sponsor behind the scenes low-budget Black film cinema, which introduced a new script to Black male imagery and manhood.
That criteria was intentionally designed to recast the ideal of Black manhood with characteristics that counter the prevalent notion put forth in the previous two decades.
Blaxploitation films arose in the early 1970s on the hills of major social unrest from Black citizens. Corporate movie distributors intentionally sought aspiring amateur “wanna be” film producers/directors and begin funding projects. Funding support and distribution deals were contractual only when films met certain criteria. That criteria was intentionally designed to recast the ideal of Black manhood with characteristics that counter the prevalent notion put forth in the previous two decades. Essentially, class B films were to introduce, or re-introduce, a new design of Black manhood behavior and to allow corporate entities more control over that definition. Behind Blaxploitation films were corporate distributors and funders such as; Paramount Pictures, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Warner Brothers, United Artist, American International Pictures, Exclusive International, Cinerama Releasing Corporation, and few others. In the late 1960’s, majority of the film production companies were 98% owned and operated by white men who had shared stock in wallstreet. Moreover, all of the funded projects had to fit the social framework of how elites white men of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s perceived Black men.
The images had a detrimental psychological effect on young Black males offering a seductive infatuation with crippling activities that became common definitive law to manhood and masculine behavior.
Blaxploitation films introduced another scheme of Black manhood imagery. Not only did it consciously challenge prototypical characters of the 1960s such as Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, Stokely Carmichael, or James Foreman, but it appropriated some national icons like Jim Brown and Bernie Casey. Blaxploitation infused many tropes into the films, recasting images of Black manhood that contradict local and national definition of the 1960s into this supposedly gritty reality of “urban” city life. Not all but too often, men were casted as pimps and women hustlers as seen in Super Fly 1972, Mack 1973, Trick Baby 1973, or T.N.T. Jackson 1974. Black Caesar 1973 and The Black God Father 1974 idolized the triumph of Black men becoming high ranked crime boss that dealt with drugs and prostitution. Several main characters in numerous films shared a common sexual prowess or bravado toward women. In the case of Melvin Van Peebles “Sweet Sweetback Badass Song” 1971, an orphaned Black male is raised by prostitutes and experiences a “coming of age” by loosing his virginity to an older women. As an adult, the character works in a whorehouse performing sex shows for audiences. While the context of the film centered around this Black man’s escape from corrupt LAPD officers, it did not moderate its over indulgence in nude perversion and the promotion of Black male sexual prowess.
A large portion of Blaxploitation films demonstrated a clear sexual objectification of Black (and others) women elevating a star-role crown to a couple, such as Pam Grier and Margret Markov, who managed to expose enough nudity or perform several censored soft porn to land numerous roles. Ironically, several characters became the emblem of Black machoism which was counter to the passive non-aggressive smiling sambo trope offered by mainstream Hollywood of the 1960s. Richard Roundtree in Shaft 1970 introduced this new macho definition of Black men followed with several characters such as Jim Brown’s “Slaughter” 1972, Robert Hook’s “Trouble Man” 1972, Rod Perry’s “The Black God Father” 1974, and Jim Kelly’s “Black Belt Jones” 1974. More often, a single Blaxploitation film will cover multiple images of casual drug usage, illusive dignity of sexual promiscuity, and aggressive tendencies as the acceptable conduct of Black manhood. The images had a detrimental psychological effect on young Black males offering a seductive infatuation with crippling activities that became common definitive law to manhood and masculine behavior.
Blaxploitation films sculpted this Black manhood definition that is completely predicated upon aggressive violence, apathy, greed, sexualized characteristics, and misogyny,….
I rather think of it in terms of cinematic images and the perceived reality it creates for young and older Black men. Whether we admit it or not, music, movies, books, and other media outlets are agents to what we interpret as acceptable normal conduct as men. Movies in particular introduce an alternative depiction in visual form. If we see Idris Elba as the suave, muscular, cunning, aggressive king pin in the “Wire” 2005, quite of few Black men will buy into these characteristics. This is the case for Shaft, Dolemite, Slaughter, or any of the cinematic images of the 1970s. However, in regards to violence, machoism, or woman exploitation, I don’t down grade the role frontier westerns have contributed to cinematic history. The point here is to create the link between 50’s and 60’s Black male imagery and the direct link to class B Blaxploitation films of the 70’s. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Combined, an even part and parcel some may argue, Blaxploitation films sculpted this Black manhood definition that is completely predicated upon aggressive violence, apathy, greed, sexualized characteristics, and misogyny, which informed cultural expression in the succeeding decades. Interesting enough, the Hip-Hop industry, the direct offspring to 70’s cinematic media and music, has undergone the same corporate influence as the Blaxpoitation film genre and has since become a similar agent of Black manhood distortion.
There have always existed a dialectic between social media influence and what is nurtured in family and community life in regards to Black male identity. It’s debatable of how much weight we can offer to either side. As of late, Black masculinity and manhood has resurfaced in public discourse. If we are to see another rise of political conscious Black men in critical mass then there have to be a few questions answered. How do Black folk continue and largely control the images of manhood and masculinity? How do we reconstruct a new narrative that support Black manhood identity in the 21st? What methods of media outlets can be harnessed for this end? What resources are needed to combat negative stereotypes depicted in mass media and Hollywood productions? What role do Black male actors, directors, and producers in this dialogue and reclamation? I have only listed what comes to my mind. But as we examine the decades from the 70’s to the new millennium, I’m certain there are more critical questions that has to be addressed in order for efforts to ensue.