Welcome to our online panel & discussion, Circuits of Pleasure: New Visions of Black Cinema. The links below will direct you to Gerald Butters’ online presentation, Vivian Halloran’s webinar, and Cara Caddoo’s video essay (along with her collaborations with filmmakers Ougie Pak and Kevin Willmott).
We will talk about our presentations and answer your questions at the American Studies Association’s annual meeting in Los Angeles next month. But even if you can’t make it out, we hope you’ll join us virtually! We’ve posted our work online because we want to broaden our conversation about black film. If you’re a scholar specializing in race and visual culture, if you’re a film buff, or if you just happened upon our work and it somehow sparked your interest—JOIN THE CONVERSATION!
We welcome comments and questions in advance of the meeting via the comment field under “Leave a Reply” on this blog. On Nov. 8th, we’ll answer your questions and broadcast our discussion live (10-11:45AM PST). You can also send us questions during the discussion via Twitter @BlackFilmASA. Follow us for more information.
p.s. Those planning to attend our panel at the ASA should definitely make sure to view the presentations before the meeting—we won’t have time to screen our work there.
What is Circuits of Pleasure: New Visions of Black Cinema?
In our presentations, we ask how shared, and oppositional responses to black cinema generated new cultural bonds and facilitated the development of black aesthetic practices. From protest campaigns to the emergence of new consumer markets, our panel’s multimedia presentations examine the relationship between twentieth-century black film—particularly its depictions of violence—and the formation of broader social and political networks. Cara Caddoo and Vivian Halloran examine the role of new technologies in the emergence of alterative circuits and sites for the exhibition of black films, which both transcended dominant networks of capitalist exchange, and fostered film practices and artistic productions that sustained the efforts of black filmmakers. Caddoo’s video essay, “Spectacles of Trauma: Black Film after Emancipation” looks at the popularity of black film in churches at the turn of the twentieth century. These spectacular programs, arranged for the larger black public, combined images of disaster—fires, earthquakes, and sinking ships–interspersed with images of black leaders, and Passion Plays. The collective culture of leisure formed around these types of motion pictures, which situated black people as emblems and agents of modern advancement, had important implications for the later race film and Blaxploitation film industries. Halloran’s presentation, “Running Numbers: Blaxploitation Filmmaking and Chester Himes’ Harlem Cycle” examines VHS and paperback novels as mutually constitutive technologies preserving the legacy and financial success of Blaxploitation films and urban crime fiction. While Hollywood products, the two film adaptations of Himes’ novels, Ossie Davis’ Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Mark Warren’s Come Back, Charleston Blue advanced the careers of black writers, actors, and directors as co-creators of an urban argot whose influence continues to this day. Gerald Butters’ presentation, “From Sweetback to Superfly: KUUMBA and the Fight Against Blaxploitation Films in Chicago,” looks at another mobilization formed in response to Blaxploitation films. He examines the campaigns of an older generation of black activists against the “guns, half-clad women, drugs and crime” of Blaxploitation films, and the impact of the Civil Rights movement on cinematic entertainment. The KUUMBA Workshop, a South Side Black Arts organization founded in 1968, took the lead in condemning these films. KUUMBA took a grass-roots approach to fighting what they believed were exploitative motion pictures, often by picketing and protests in front of theaters that showed such movies. But the group also drafted sophisticated political position papers that laid out their objections to certain motion pictures.
By Vivian Halloran, Indiana University-Bloomington (IN)
Watch Vivian’s presentation here: https://connect.iu.edu/p8nkvuwf0a6/
Email Vivian Halloran: email@example.com
Vivian Halloran is associate professor of American Studies and English at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author of Exhibiting Slavery: The Caribbean Postmodern Novel As Museum. She has written multiple articles on food studies, covering everything from competitive eating and Top Chef, to memory work performed by African American cookbooks.
About the webinar, Running Numbers: Blaxploitation Filmmaking and Chester Himes’ Harlem Cycle :
In Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Ed Guerrero compares the advent of the VCR in the late 1980s to the rise of the paperback novel, in the context of increased informal circulation systems: “a film that otherwise could be permanently marginalized can now be passed from person to person, viewed in small groups, viewed repeatedly, and easily taught and appreciated in classrooms” (206). As affordable media, both paperbacks and VCRs increased the circulation of both art and entertainment beyond a small, privileged community of elites and, ironically, made it feasible for commercially profitable genre fiction and films to be elevated to canonical status in the classrooms of the U.S. academy. The advent of video-recording technology and affordability of VHS rental tapes in the 1980s and 1990s had a similar winnowing effect, preserving and distributing a de-facto canon of the best-known and more commercially successful films for later viewers to discover, appreciate, and share. The wide availability of such films eventually jump-started a new phase of the black film industry where African American directors once again shone the spotlight on Himes’ paperback genre fiction.
This paper takes as its focus the mutually constitutive relationship between Blaxploitation films and the popular crime genre fiction written by the expatriate African American novelist. Both films and fiction were produced and imagined for, as well as marketed to, a primarily-black audience, though they had huge cross-over appeal. I contend that despite being Hollywood products, Blaxploitation films celebrating “black-focused themes and narratives” (Guerrero) and portraying a distinctive black visual aesthetic during the height of the Black Arts Movement, the two Blaxploitation film adaptations of Chester Himes’ novels, the financially successful directorial debut by Ossie Davies, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and the money-losing Come Back, Charleston Blue, directed by Mark Warren, advanced the careers of black artists—writers, actors, and directors—as co-creators of a new urban argot whose influence continues to this day.
Though Himes’ fiction was foundational to this vision, to some degree, his involvement with the films’ actual production was indirect, through the writing of the source material. Although the film rights to both 1970s films were optioned by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. himself, who then asked Himes to adapt the novels into screenplays, this arrangement ultimately did not prove successful. However, as an early example of cross-over movie advertising, the source novel for the second motion pictures, Pink Toes, was re-released by the publisher bearing the movie’s new title, thereby attesting to the mutually-beneficial arrangement of black-directed films based on African American urban fiction. The continuing availability of Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back, Charleston Blue first in VHS, and then in DVD, gave rise to a whole new generation of Blaxploitation fans and Chester Himes readers and paved the way for a neo-Blaxploitation resurgence of sorts with the 1991 adaptation of A Rage Comes to Harlem, also directed by an African American, Bill Duke.
By Gerald Butters, Aurora University (IL)
See Gerald Butters’ online presentation: Dropbox link
Email Gerald Butters: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gerald R. Butters Jr. is a Professor of History at Aurora University. He specializes on the intersection of gender and race in American popular culture. His books include From Sweetback to Superfly: Race and Film Spectatorship in Chicago’s Loop, 1970-1975 (2014), Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915-1966 (2007), and Black Manhood on the Silent Screen (2002). A Fulbright scholar, Dr. Butters is currently editing an anthology on Blaxploitation cinema.
About From Sweetback to Superfly: KUUMBA and the Fight Against Blaxploitation Films in Chicago:
Black-themed motion pictures burst upon the scene in the early 1970’s in Chicago’s Loop. Thousands of young African-American moviegoers traveled to the Loop, the location of Chicago’s largest and most historic theaters, to witness African American actors in portrayals that had never been seen on screen before. A number of these films were deemed “Blaxploitation” films by their critics. The emphasis on guns, half-clad women, drugs and crime in this body of films drew the ire of an older generation of African Americans who had participated in and witnessed the civil rights movement. The Kuumba Workshop, a South Side Black Arts organization founded in 1968, took the lead in condemning these films. Kuumba took a grass-roots approach to fighting what they believed were exploitative motion pictures, often by picketing and protests in front of theaters that showed such movies. But the group also drafted sophisticated political position papers that laid out the group’s objections to certain motion pictures. These papers are important cultural documents of the time because they demonstrate that black support for Blaxploitation films was not universal. Kuumba became one of the leading forces against Blaxploitation films in the country, with an impressive Board of Directors that included historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., poet Gwendolyn Brooks and editor and theoretician of the Black Arts Movement, Hoyt Fuller. This presentation will recreate a forgotten chapter in the history of Chicago and will discuss the impact of the Civil Rights movement on cinematic entertainment.
By Cara Caddoo, Indiana University-Bloomington (IN)
Watch Cara Caddoo’s video essay here: https://vimeo.com/108829633
Watch filmmaker Kevin Willmott’s film here: https://vimeo.com/108758635
Watch filmmaker Ougie Pak’s video here: https://vimeo.com/108829885
Cara Caddoo is a filmmaker and Assistant Professor of American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She writes about African American and black diasporic history, cinema, mass media, religion, and migration. She is the author of Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Harvard University Press, 2014) and a recipient of a 2014-2015 Faculty Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
About the video essay, “Spectacles of Trauma, Symbols of Progress: Cinema and the Aesthetics of Black Modernity,” and Caddoo’s collaborations with filmmakers Kevin Willmott and Ougie Pak:
Caddoo’s video essay and her collaborative projects with directors Kevin Willmott and Ougie Pak are an exploration of the aesthetics and intentions of early black filmmakers. At the turn-of-the-twentieth century, black Americans transformed their churches and schools into motion picture theaters during off-hours. These entertainments raised money for black institutions and provided black folk the opportunity to have fun together. But what type of films did black Americans produce? What films did they watch together?
The motion picture programs of this era are largely lost to us, but other records reveal some important facts about early black cinema culture: black film exhibitors edited together their own moving picture shows, which usually included several short films or clips from various motion pictures. White companies originally produced many of these films. But by combining white-produced footage with music, lectures, slides, and black-produced films, African Americans created programs tailored specifically for black audiences.
Caddoo’s video essay focuses on a type of black motion picture show that was especially popular before 1910. Black film exhibitors combined black produced motion pictures depicting racial advancement with white-produced “disaster films,” and Passion Plays. For example, black exhibitors edited together films of events such as the 1908 Augusta Flood, the San Francisco Earthquake, and the sinking of General Slocum ship, with images of black leaders and clips from religious motion pictures.
While it’s impossible to reconstruct the specifics of these film exhibitions, Caddoo’s video essay and her collaborations with filmmakers Willmott and Pak intend to shed light on the creative possibilities, authorship, and possible meanings of turn of the century black film. This project considers the spaces of exhibition, editing techniques, and films available to turn of the century black film exhibitors that Caddoo first encountered when writing her book, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life.
Caddoo’s video essay, and Willmott and Pak’s films incorporate footage that matches black press reports of early African American film exhibitions. Willmott and Pak worked with a set of previously agreed-upon limitations as they re-imagined footage from four turn-of-the-century films that featured images of black soldiers, trains, the San Francisco Earthquake, and a Passion Play. Their dramatically different approaches to the project vividly illustrate the possibilities of early black cinema. Willmott’s film, Colored Men! Written and Directed by Oscar Micheaux re-imagines the footage as part of a lost film by black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Willmott’s “lost” Micheaux film tells the tale of Corporal Charles Baltimore of the 24th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers who is persecuted by racist police officers in Texas. Although all of the footage in Colored Men! was originally produced by white production companies, Willmott’s clearly reflects the director’s aesthetic sensibilities and his interest in counterfactual history, as seen in his earlier films such as C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004). Colored Men!” critiques America’s history of anti-black violence, and its legacy upon the present. We might note, for example, that Willmott’s film was produced during the height of national and global protests against the death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
While Willmott’s film has a clear narrative structure, Pak’s film The March is more circuitous. The experimental film shows a loop of the same footage that appears in Willmott’s Colored Men!” but the hypnotic music and repetition of black soldiers and fire combine to create a moving image that appears both ephemeral and constant. Pak describes his film in terms of themes, especially that of “never-ending war” and the role that people of color and poor people have played in the United States’ military interventions.
Finally, Caddoo briefly outlines the history of early black cinema and introduces Pak and Willmott’s projects in her video essay by utilizing the same films that she provided to the filmmakers (paired with other archival images). In doing so, her video essay might be seen as a third example of the diverse messages that can be attached to certain moving images, and the means by which editing contributes to film authorship.