The disappearing black image: a challenge for filmmakers

This year, black performers have starred in only eight movies - and Richard Pryor accounted for almost half of them single-handedly. Not one black actress took a leading role. Black activity also languished behind the cameras, with few nonwhite filmmakers engaged on the Hollywood scene.

These facts, recently summarized by the trade newspaper Variety, point to a sad but unmistakable conclusion: The wave of black film that surged 15 years ago has washed out almost completely. In contrast with the early 1970s, movies with major black performances are rare. Movies built on black attitudes and concerns have slid from rare to virtually nonexistent.

Some 39 pictures starred blacks in 1972, and the number jumped to 45 a year later. Although many were quickly made action movies, others were aimed at wide audiences, while still others were documentaries and performance films.

In 1982, Hollywood's flirtation with black sensibilities has ended. Besides reducing minority opportunities in the film industry, this change effectively screens out the cinematic expression of minority viewpoints. As critic James Monaco suggested in his 1979 book ''American Film Now,'' the movie establishment vis-a-vis blacks has reverted to its ''historical norm, in which the industry is controlled by a relative handful of people, and propagates a prescribed and often distorted image of the American scene.''

Comforts can be found. Some small gains made in the late '60s and early '70s - during the so-called ''blaxploitation'' boom - have lingered into the '80s. Combing through its massive store of movie data, Variety finds a ''steady . . . modest flow of supporting roles for blacks in features,'' though it is indeed modest when compared with the hundreds of similar roles a decade ago. Black faces commonly appear in television commercials and situation comedies, a rarity 20 years ago. And black filmmakers continue to work on documentaries and independent pictures, usually with low budgets.

Yet employment is scarce for black performers and directors, and the black screen image is weaker today than at any time since the middle 1970s. In 1981, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reportedly withheld its Image award for best screen actress, since only one performer - Cicely Tyson in ''Bustin' Loose'' - was eligible. This year not even Miss Tyson is on hand. And next year's forecast is equally grim, with no increase expected in lead performances by blacks.

Black performers, and the black image, have had a checkered history in American film. Improvements were slow but notable between D. W. Griffith's naive racism in the 1915 ''Birth of a Nation'' and the more benign stereotypes of ''Gone With the Wind'' in 1939, leading to the deliberately ''integrated'' role of Sam in ''Casablanca,'' the well-meaning platitudes of ''Home of the Brave,'' and the neat sentimentality of ''Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,'' a 1967 box office smash that opened the way to a black-film tidal wave.

Even in the time of ''Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,'' it and other racially concerned movies - such as ''Nothing But a Man'' and ''The Cool World'' - were directed by whites. Blacks had made their own movies for decades, but were confined to what Monaco calls a ''parallel, underground'' industry based largely on imitating Hollywood productions under the influence of white financiers. Only in the late '60s did blacks establish a Hollywood beachhead by parlaying two phenomena: the militant political attitudes of the day, and the new openness toward minorities that was hinted in the success of ''Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'' and the popularity of such black performers as Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby.

What drove the black-film wave back out to sea? Critics have suggested more than one theory. Monaco points out that as black performers became more successful, white filmmakers moved in to exploit their talents in white-oriented movies. Blacks eager to increase minority employment in the technical motion picture crafts (cinematography, lighting, sound, set design, and others) were often more concerned with hiring ratios behind the scenes than with theme or content.

While taking advantage of popular black performers, white filmmakers also co-opted black themes, leading to black-oriented pictures by such white directors as Larry Cohen and Martin Ritt. Though blacks had become more numerous in Hollywood, whites still grabbed most of the power.

A key factor in the demise of black-dominated film was also the mediocrity of the ''blaxploitation'' formula that swept through Hollywood's budding black community. In their haste to satisfy large audiences and establish both a financial base and a high ''recognition'' factor, black filmmakers plunged into facile genres with a high premium on action, violence, and sexual innuendo. Such pictures as ''Cleopatra Jones'' and ''The Mack,'' not to mention ''Black Caesar'' and ''Blacula,'' stormed onto American screens with a macho swagger, boosting black careers but mostly avoiding any insight with regard to black problems and aspirations.

Some balance was provided by Sidney Poitier's energetic comedies featuring him and Bill Cosby; and ''Let's Do It Again,'' the 1975 sequel to ''Uptown Saturday Night,'' became the highest-grossing black picture of all time. But the smooth style that marked Poitier's early directorial efforts soon declined into the noisy vulgarity of ''Bustin' Loose,'' leading one critic to remark that Poitier the director seemed preoccupied with the crass entertainment that Poitier the actor had always avoided.

Pryor is due shortly in ''The Toy,'' based on a mildly successful French comedy of a few years back, and in next year's ''Superman III.'' Stars who built their careers in the ''blaxploitation'' period - from Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree to Tamara Dobson and Bernie Casey - will also be seen, though in supporting rather than starring roles. Behind the cameras, it looks as if few blacks will have the opportunity to direct movies in the near future except such established figures as Poitier and Michael Schultz, who obtained a foothold in Hollywood production circles during the racially fluid period that ended in the middle '70s.

For now, there is little prospect of a return to either ''blaxploitation'' or the more serious filmmaking of such minority directors as Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles. It's a regrettable situation for blacks and whites alike, whether in Hollywood or in movie houses looking for a healthy diversity of cinematic and racial viewpoints. The rock scene

Smithereens comes as a surprise. A dark comedy about the ''punk'' scene in lower New York, it's every bit as tacky as its subject. But rarely is tackiness so judiciously controlled. The director, Susan Seidelman, is a Fellini of tackiness, weaving style and content into a fandango as seamless as it is energetic. It's a weird achievement, all right, but a striking one.

Last spring, ''Smithereens'' - made for a minuscule $80,000 - became the first independently produced American film ever to be accepted for the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival. After screening at four other international festivals, it has now made its way to the regular movie circuit. Though it carries no rating, the appropriate tag would probably be an ''R'' for a few four-letter words and occasional talk about sex.

The star is newcomer Susan Berman, playing a selfish new-waver who's determined to crash into the rock scene despite a lack of talent, skill, connections, or anything else that might help. Richard Hell, the real-life leader of the Voidoids rock group, plays the small-time rocker she dotes on; another newcomer, Brad Rinn, is her platonic boyfriend from Montana. Dwelling in the littered canyons of downtown Manhattan, they chase frantically but futilely after better things, dreaming of Los Angeles, just as Chekhov's ''three sisters'' dreamed of Moscow. The supporting cast portrays a gallery of New York grotesques with an accuracy that verges on scariness. From Australia

Another new movie about the rock scene, Starstruck, is remarkably similar to ''Smithereens'' in some ways, though it hails all the way from Australia. The main character of ''Starstruck'' is again a young woman who will do almost anything for a shot at the music world. But this time the mood of the film is too manic, taking off into bizarre production numbers and wildly comic situations. It would all work better if the movie didn't rest on a false and facile view of pop music as a great uniting force, promoting this idea through its visual style without making a good case for it through story and characters. It's a disappointment - though the director, Gillian Armstrong, deserves credit for having the courage to try something so utterly different from her last movie , the sunny hit ''My Brilliant Career.''

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