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Examining Black and White on the Silver Screen

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” released in 1971, was an industry phenomenon. It was, noted New Yorker film critic Penelope Gilliat, “made by a black man for blacks . . . a boot in the face for moderates . . . a shock to the cinema.”

Though it has been called a revolutionary film that launched the so-called blaxploitation genre, it did not just spring out of thin air. So states Van Peebles in “Melvin Van Peebles Classified X,” less a documentary than a provocative, impassioned and uniquely subjective history lesson released this week on videocassette on the WinStar Home Entertainment label. “Sweetback’s” was the product of, and answer to, nearly a century of denigrating portrayals of African Americans on screen.

At the heart of “Classified X” is this paradox posed by Van Peebles: “How could America set itself up as a bastion of liberty and equality on one hand and treat its colored citizens so shabbily on the silver screen and get away with it?”

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The 60-minute film echoes the format of “The Celluloid Closet,” which used film clips and commentary to chart the evolution of how gays and lesbians have been portrayed on screen. What did Hollywood’s myth-making images teach moviegoers about how to feel about blacks, and how did they make blacks feel about themselves?

Van Peebles sets the scene with a montage of comic scenes: a black bartender caught in the cross-fire of the drunken members of the Ale & Quail Club in Preston Sturges’ “The Palm Beach Story,” Shirley Temple rebuking Stepin Fetchit, Adolphe Menjou directing shuffling black bumpkins toward the watermelon and “the chicken house.”

All in fun? “Maybe-kinda-sorta if you are white,” Van Peebles states in the film. “What some folks find funny, other folks find tragic.”

If “Sweetback’s” was a boot in the face, “Classified X” is, to quote one of the film’s more disturbing images, a boot in the pants. The project, completed earlier this year, originated as a TV show commissioned by French-German television to be broadcast during a tribute to Van Peebles.

What was his inspiration? “As Cole Porter would say, my biggest inspiration comes five minutes after a phone call from a producer,” Van Peebles said in a phone interview. “Someone gave me an opportunity. I thought it would be very interesting to show where I came from and what went into creating ‘Sweetback.’ ”

In the film, Van Peebles, who wrote, hosts and narrates, invites the audience to “take off those rose-colored glasses and I’ll loan you a special pair of colored folks’ shoes. Let’s see how they feel to you.”

Through clips spanning Thomas Edison’s first images nearly a century ago to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” he illustrates the sense of shame he felt from watching movies whose images of African Americans were at gross variance with his experience growing up in Chicago.

“Colored folks in the movies were always quakin’, ‘Yassah boss'-in’ and shufflin’,” he notes in the film. “They didn’t bear any resemblance to the majestic, hard-working black folks struttin’ around the South Side, where the men were tough and fearless and the women were regal queens.”

Elaborating over the phone, Van Peebles said, “There was a subliminal residue [from these films]. That’s why Jesse Jackson [in his signature speech], makes people repeat ‘I am somebody,’ because the movies are telling them that they aren’t.”

One humorous aside is a tip of the hat to Dooley Wilson’s Sam in “Casablanca.” “It was the first time I remember seeing a black character go through an entire movie without having to kiss ass,” Van Peebles states, adding that appreciative black audiences made projectionists run Wilson’s scenes back several times.

Selecting these illustrative clips for “Classified X” was not difficult, Van Peebles said, so pervasive has been racism in Hollywood films. “The same images repeated in film after film, shot after shot. It’s not like these particular films were the only time I have seen this,” he said.

More insidious than the blatant racism of what he calls “the old Negro films” were the “new Negro films” of the 1940s and ‘50s. Blacks were allowed to portray more three-dimensional characters, Van Peebles states, “but they became a vehicle for moral lessons about justice and tolerance, always with a sympathetic white character to mediate the experience [such as James Whitmore in “Black Like Me”]. The white character carried the same paternalistic attitude that the kindly old slave owners became famous for in the old Negro movies.”

On screen, musical production numbers became black performers’ bastion of dignity. But these routines, Van Peebles points out, were often incidental to the plot (“End of song, beginning of story,” Louis Armstrong sings in “High Society”), so they could be edited out by exhibitors, as witness a before-and-after example featuring Lena Horne.

Tired of being portrayed on screen as slaves, servants or loafers, and desperate to see themselves as heroic, African Americans could find some justice in films made by black independent filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams. But this era of segregated cinema was anything but golden. The story of these artists, Van Peebles states, “is one of struggle, stuttered starts and stunted careers, a courageous file of brothers and sisters who sacrificed to bring a few precious seconds of black humanity to the silver screen.”

Most of these performers, who were never given the opportunity to cross over to studio films, are largely forgotten today. “All that talent wasted,” he ruefully mourns.

Van Peebles scoffed when asked if black filmmakers today didn’t enjoy more opportunity in Hollywood. Not unless they make films about accepted subjects or in commercial genres, he claimed. “They don’t give you a slate and say to make whatever you want.”

Case in point: “Panther,” which was directed by Van Peebles’ son, Mario, and for which Melvin wrote the screenplay: “No one would finance it. Between the two of us, we could not get a studio to move on it unless we changed the ending,” which they refused to do. (The film was released by Gramercy Pictures.)

Likewise, “Classified X.” “I could have never made this movie in the States,” Van Peebles said, laughing. “It would have had to be ‘balanced.’ Balance, my ass. This is the way I see it. I work from a subjective palette. This is just my take. That’s why I call it ‘Melvin Van Peebles Classified X.’ ”


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