Two influential African American men in the film industry passed away recently, leaving their mark on the film industry and inspiring all who have had the opportunity to witness their work. Although popular from different decades — Sam Greenlee was famous in the 1970s and Herbert Jeffries in the 1930s and 1940s – Greenlee and Herbert were able to leave their mark on Black cinema.
Sam Elder Greenlee, Jr.
Best known for the controversial 1973 film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, poet, film-maker, playwright, author, and social activist Sam Elder Greenlee, Jr. passed away in Chicago on May 19th at the age of 83. The film, about a militant Black ex-C.I.A agent, Dan Freeman, who leads a Black power movement, was based on his novel of the same name that was released in 1969. Greenlee co-wrote the screenplay with director, actor, and producer Ivan Dixon. An article in the New York Times stated:
The film, with the same title as the novel, achieved cult status as one of the few to portray the black power movement of the 1960s and ’70s from a militant’s point of view. Mr. Greenlee helped write the script, which, like the novel, drew on his experiences working abroad as a State Department employee.
Christine Acham and Clifford Ward’s independent 2011 documentary about the making of the critical film, titled Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door, examined why United Artists pulled the film shortly after being released at theaters across the country. The documentary highlights how the film was one of the most important underground Black productions of the Blaxploitation era, with its oppositional narrative and representation of Blacks who are ready to fight for their freedom and their beliefs.
The film has been screened at Indiana University and Greenlee has visited the IU campus and the Black Film Center/Archive on different occasions as well. The film was screened in March 2010 as a part of a two-day spring symposium, hosted by the BFC/A, that was devoted to the study of “Cinematic Representations of Racial Conflict in Real Time.” In a press release about the symposium from March 18, 2010, BFC/A Director Michael Martin stated, “‘The Spook Who Sat by the Door’ addresses the plight and potential revolutionary role of the black underclass in urban America.”
Greenlee visited on March 22, 2011 to screen his film The Spook Who Sat by the Door at IU and stopped in for an interview with Michael Martin and David Wall. Greenlee spoke about how his experiences as a former employee of the United States Information Agency and growing up in the ghetto of Chicago influenced who the primary target audience of his novel and film would be. Speaking about Greenlee’s visit and the film’s controversial release, an excerpt from the May 2011 Black Film Center/Archive publication “The (W)rap Sheet” stated:
Though many critics peg Greenlee’s film to be about a war against whites, Greenlee describes the film as a war of liberation of the poor of America, which goes beyond the issues of race. While the class-war film was consistently pulled from theatres across the United States because of the feared (a) revolutionary protest, Greenlee, along with a large audience, was able to view the film at IU Cinema.
Greenlee will be remembered for his ability and courage to highlight racial issues in his work that are familiar to Black Americans — such as the “Token Negro,” racial oppression, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ notion of “double-consciousness” — and span across all generations and time periods.
Herbert “Herb” Jeffries
Known as Hollywood’s “only Black singing cowboy,” Hebert “Herb” Jeffries passed away due to heart failure at the age of 100 in Los Angeles at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center, reported OurWeekly, a local online Los Angeles newspaper. Born in Detroit on September 24, 1911, Jeffries, often referred to as the “The Bronze Buckaroo,” was a famous jazz singer and actor who performed with Duke Ellington and was featured in a series of all-Black Westerns for Black audiences from 1937 to 1939: “Harlem on the Prairie,” “Two-Gun Man From Harlem,” “The Bronze Buckaroo,” and “Harlem Rides the Range.” In 1997, Jeffries shared with American Visions, a publication on African-American culture, that he wanted to make the Black cowboy movies after seeing a young Black boy cry after his friends wouldn’t allow him to play cowboy, when in reality one out of every four cowboys was Black. However, there were barriers in the film industry at that time based on race. Speaking about some of the racial barriers in the film industry and the tendency for white singers to cover songs first scored by Blacks, an NPR article stated:
With a mellow voice and handsome face, Jeffries became familiar to jazz fans, but segregation in the film industry limited his movie career. He scored a big hit with Ellington as the vocalist on “Flamingo,” recorded in 1940 and later covered by a white singer, the popular vocalist Tony Martin.
An article on the website Mixed Races Studies, on the history of Jeffries’ career, noted how his fair skin tone (as his parents were of mixed races) could “pass” for several different ethnicities and/or nationalities as he was often mistaken for a Spaniard, an Italian, a Mexican, a Portuguese, an Argentine, and occasionally a Jew. The article continued stating, “He has scrupulously elected to pass for nothing but what he is—a light-skinned Negro.” Further in the article, they share Jeffries’ reasons and response for not attempting to pass for other races, after a movie producer asked why he wouldn’t want to pass if he had the ability to be anything:
“I have been. I’m a chameleon. But I decided some time ago that the Negro people need all the good, intelligent, unbelligerent representatives they can get in this world, and I’m trying to be one. If I thought the Jewish people needed it more, I’d be a Jew.’ That’s what I told him, and that’s how I feel.”
Although Jeffries had to face racial limits during his career, for instance performing in the South with Earl Hines for segregated audiences in the 1930s, he still managed to find a place in Hollywood. Recently, he was honored by having a star dedicated to him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004. Following that honor in 2006, “The Bronze Buckaroo” was rereleased on a revived DVD titled “Treasures of Black Cinema” and was hosted by Richard Roundtree along with other “race films” produced for Black audiences in the 1930s and 1940s.
Both Jeffries and Greenlee will be remembered as their work continues to circulate and spark discussions in later generations.