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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

’70s black films created new market, panel says

By Brittany Knauf/reporter

While the audience ate chicken and waffles, Adrian Neely, Theresa Zumwalt, Jerry Zumwalt and Michelle Neely presented Hollywood Blaxploitation Films, the second of two presentations about black films.

The reason for Hollywood Blaxploitation films of the 1970s was to make money, said Theresa Zumwalt, NE Campus film instructor.

“It was just business,” she said.

Forty years earlier, Hollywood had all-black casts for films like Green Pastures and Cabin in the Sky, but these films were not as glamorous as the mainstream Hollywood films.

Pearl Bailey was an amazing actress, but she “later found work as a television star for a steady income,” Zumwalt said.

Movie gigs were “slow and irregular,” she said. “Urban blacks would not relate [to these films].”

The origins of Blaxploitation come from its most controversial film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, said Adrian Neely, RTVB instructor.

Sweetback is a male prostitute raised in a brothel. As the film goes, one night the police arrest Sweetback for murder. For lack of evidence, the police have no choice but to release him. He finds police officers beating on a black man and proceeds to beat the police until they are unconscious. The audience is left to wonder whether the police are actually dead or not.

For the majority of the film, Sweetback is running from the police and performing sexual favors for anyone who helps him. The film premiered in 1971 when Melvin Van Peebles wrote, scored, directed and starred in it.

No one at the time believed this film would be popular, much less generate an entirely new movie genre, Neely said.

“No one thought that a film about a black sex performer would [create any buzz], but it introduced strong political and social roles to independent films,” he said. “The list includes Foxy Brown, Superfly and all Pam Grier films.”

In fact, Shaft was originally written for a white audience, but when movie executives saw the success of Sweetback, they changed their minds. Shaft was a classic Blaxploitation film — it concentrated on the city dwells, which were something people could relate to.

The film had key ingredients: redneck villains, an anti-hero and a “bad fight scene,” Theresa Zumwalt said.

The anti-hero was the central character, who also was a bad guy, Adrian Neely said. He could be the drug dealer who saves the day.

During fight scenes, “the audience would hoot and holler, and get into the movie,” he said.

When Zumwalt pointed out that Grier was in the film, someone in the back yelled, “Who you telling?!” The audience laughed at the outburst.

Jerry Zumwalt said the meal served at the presentation was a traditional part of black culture in the ’70s.

“Gladys Knight was in Hollywood when she said, ‘Chicken and waffles were a treat’ from Atlanta and Harlem.”

The combo was served during the night when night-shift workers wanted something tasty to eat for breakfast and still something filling from dinner.

Although most films have digressed from their roots, some movies still attract black audiences. Theresa Zumwalt showed a clip from Diary of a Mad Black Woman as an example, saying Tyler Perry is a prime example of black film entrepreneurs.

“He did everything himself. He did not start in Hollywood working for someone else,” she said. “Now, Perry’s business savvy allows him to own all profits.”

In Hollywood’s history, most movies had a black character, but he or she was not a main character.

“You could take a film and replace [the black character] with Lassie, and the story’s meaning would not change,” Zumwalt said.

“Blaxploitation films were for black culture, something white films could not [understand].”

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