It is with a great degree of embarrassment that I admit that up until very recently, I didn't even know that the documentary Black Hollywood: Blaxploitation and Advancing an Independent Black Cinema existed. Having produced my own documentary on the subject, published a magazine dedicated to the subject, co-authored a book on the subject, and having worked on other projects for other people, all revolving around black films of the 1970s, it seems ridiculous that I knew nothing of Black Hollywood. It also seems equally ridiculous that in years of research, and with countless conversations and interviews conducted, not a single person ever mentioned this movie. It was as if it never existed. But here it is, newly released on DVD, after what I can only imagine has been a long time of existing in a limbo of barely remembered films.
To date, there have only been a handful of documentaries about blaxploitation (mine included). These films have had their strengths and weaknesses (mine included), but most were nostalgic glimpses at the black film craze of the 70s that relied heavily on film clips and interviews that never quite packed too much of a political punch (mine excluded). In fact, during my many years of trying to raise completion funds for my film, one bone of contention between myself and would-be funders was the political stance my film took, and the way it addressed racism in the film industry. "That's not what people want to see when they think about blaxploitation," was what I was told time and time again, until I simply gave up on getting money, and decided to do things my way. But during the years I spent making my movie, I always wondered why it was that no one else had ever made a documentary about blaxploitation films. As it turns out, some did.
Black Hollywood was made in 1984 by a filmmaker named Howard Johnson and produced, as near as I can tell, for England's Channel 4. With Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" providing the opening song, the film takes place during the curious time shortly after the death of blaxploitation, just as hip-hop was making its way into the mainstream, Richard Pryor was still the most sought after black actor in Hollywood, and Eddie Murphy was just rising to superstardom. This was essentially the dead time of black film in Hollywood. Spike Lee had yet to make She's Gotta Have It, The Color Purple had not come out yet, and John Singleton was still in high school. The memories of the blaxploitation era were still fresh in the minds of most blacks in the film industry, but everyone was still wondering with uncertainty what the future would hold. And all of this and more is what Johnson captures in Black Hollywood.
Relying heavily on interviews with an eclectic mix of actors, producers and directors--only a handful of whom were actually involved in blaxploitation movies--Black Hollywood examines the origins of the explosion of black films in the early 1970s. Amazingly enough, the documentary manages to offer an incredibly comprehensive overview with a minimal use of films clips, and almost no mention of any films from the era. Rather than relying on a clip-heavy showcase, the documentary takes an intellectual approach, explaining the origins of the black exploitation movies, going all the way back to the silent era, and then discussing what needs to be done in the future. Tremendous insights are offered by Jim Brown, Vonetta McGee, Oscar Williams, the late Rosalind Cash, and D'Urville Martin, who died shortly after being interviewed for this film. The list of impressive interviews also includes comedian Paul Mooney, publicist Vincent Tubbs, and Lorenzo Tucker who, known as the "black Valentino," worked with pioneer black director Oscar Micheaux during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
Black Hollywood: Blaxploitation and Advancing an Independent Black Cinema will be for some people a revelation in terms of how it addresses the subject matter that is more often than not dissed or dismissed. For others it will be a welcome chapter in a history of film that has been largely either neglected, misrepresented or merely misunderstood. It is a crucial bit of filmmaking that still packs a powerful punch twenty-five years after it was made. True fans of black cinema will find this to be required viewing that offers profound insight into both the history of blacks in film, but how race and racism plays out in Hollywood.