“America consistently countered the growing concepts of black pride and power with a virtual army of self-sacrificing mammy figures (both male and female), pimps, whores, ‘great black hopes,’ and the Good Negro . . .”
It’s a common assumption that the movie screen provides a vehicle for opening things up, transporting and transforming the viewer with radical shifts of time and space and showing the heights to which humanity can aspire. This may indeed be true for the dominant culture, whose members control the imagery of cinema. But for marginalized groups – mainly women and “troublesome” ethnic and gender minorities – the edges of the frame define the limits of how they can be represented. If movies themselves provide a ritual enactment of social and cultural norms, movie trailers give us the same experience in abbreviated, essential form.
Curator Jenni Olson looks at the history of marginalized groups through one of the most ephemeral cultural forms, the trailer. Previous compilations of coming attractions have been devoted to gay (Homo Promo) and Jewish imagery (Shtick, Schmaltz, and Shtereotypes) imagery. Her latest, the highly instructive Afro Promo (1996), focuses on blacks in mainstream and low-budget Hollywood films from 1946 to 1976. The dreaded “black question” – how mainstream culture could permit a certain amount and perhaps variety of black imagery without undermining the racist status quo – created enormous tensions during this postwar period. And not surprisingly, since blacks had thoughtfully defended the country that oppressed them, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954, and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing by the early ’60s. Still, America consistently countered the growing concepts of black pride and power with a virtual army of self-sacrificing mammy figures (both male and female), pimps, whores, “great black hopes,” and the Good Negro, actually a variation on the mammy character.
In the earliest of these clips, Disney’s Song of the South (1946), the trailer’s narrator says the purpose of the Uncle Remus character is “to gently point up the foibles of folks.” In fact, Uncle Remus is really no more than little white Bobby Driscoll’s comforting mentor, beloved but irrelevant. This character – a wise and kind older black man whose sole raison d’etre is to give moral instruction to a confused younger white male – continues to flourish in today’s Hollywood, most often incarnated by Morgan Freeman, Jr. (In Moll Flanders, Freeman switches gears and protects a young white girl.)
A variant of the reassuring mammy figure is the Good Negro, often represented by Sidney Poitier. In A Patch of Blue (1965), Poitier is the best friend of a blind white woman, played by Elizabeth Hartman. The trailer toys with the sensational concept of an interracial love affair, but the fact that Hartman is blind subtly implies that a white woman would have to be blind to love a black man. In Sounder (1972), Paul Winfield is the doggedly goodhearted, self-sacrificing Southern sharecropper. In the scant seven years between the two films, the black man has progressed to protecting himself and his family rather than some disabled white woman. (But with Driving Miss Daisy, we’ve returned to the Patch of Blue – no, Song of the South – mentality, with the black character again “in his place.”)
In Sounder, Winfield, though free, is still treated like a slave. His “new South” of the 1930s is not much different from Disney’s “Ole South,” which continued to be a popular setting for black-based melodramas for decades. Even during the heyday of modern, urban blaxploitation (1969-1975), movies like Slaves (1969) and Mandingo (1975) insisted on the relevance of this distant time and place for modern audiences. These films exploited white fantasies of erupting black sexuality, evident particularly here in the trailer for Mandingo, which lingers on Ken Norton’s rippling, glistening muscles. The trailer for Slaves shows the film’s inability to completely ignore pressing social trends, as Dionne Warwick, in a nod to black feminism, says of herself, “I am black . . . and comely.”
Zulu (1963) and The Last Safari (1967) revisit a different corner of colonialism: Africa. In The Last Safari, trailer, the seductive terrors of black sexuality are again reprised, as a white man goes berserk on seeing a white woman enthusiastically join a native “mating dance.” Zulu has elements of National Geographic-style exploitation: “See 200 Zulu virgins and 200 Zulu warriors perform their fantastic wedding dance!” But the trailer for this film shows its real hook for mainstream audiences – watching “noble,” outnumbered British soldiers defending themselves against a sea of black warriors.
At some point yet to be determined, blacks became a pivotal element of the “liberal problem picture,” symbols of significant social commentary. Since these films were created by whites grappling with the issues of the day, it’s no surprise that some of these trailers – here, Edge of the City (1957) and Raisin in the Sun (1961) – are ponderously introduced by whites. In this sense, the films are not allowed to “speak for themselves” but must be framed, contextualized, and the images they contain ultimately controlled by white spokespersons.
Black empowerment takes strange forms in these trailers. Blacula‘s William Marshall, a noted Shakespearean actor, is “the Black Avenger.” (Imagine Sir John Gielgud in a role like this to get the full effect of the always precarious position of the black actor.) This satirical film suggests vampirism as a one way to attack white hegemony. The low-budget Pam Grier films Foxy Brown (1974) and Black Mama, White Mama (1973), the latter a sex-role-reversal update of The Defiant Ones, show that at least in blaxploitation, black women could be strong, even vicious. Cool Breeze (1972) expropriates imperialist lingo in the name of the lead character, a dapper criminal called Sidney “Lord” Jones. Fantasies of instant wealth and fame through sports prowess are a constant thread, seen here as early as 1952 in Harlem Globetrotters. This film hints that the black man might find reason to reject the role of “sports clown.” But by 1976, with Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings, such doubts have been laid to rest, as Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams) appears to enjoy making a fool out of himself for the amusement of whites. That same year another black comedy, Norman, Is That You?, included a screeching white queen in its rainbow of stereotypes.
Blacks have contributed to American culture far out of proportion to their numbers, as shown in trailers for musicals like St. Louis Blues (1958) and Lady Sings the Blues (1972). The latter, while no masterpiece, stands out as the ultimate cinematic rarity – a mainstream Hollywood feature based on the life of a black female entertainer. This film is a perfect index for how far we haven’t come. If you think it was unusual then, try to imagine it being made today.