26 March 2013

African and Afro-American Cinemas

Historically, African cinema and Afro-American cinema can and should be located within the same social space of the Third Cinema-Third World Cinema. In broad terms, however, the former can be characterized by the search for and interrogation of origins, while the latter can be defined by its fight for positions and identity. African cinema seeks to establish methods and systems of production, distribution, and viewing, while Afro-American cinema is produced within diverse political and cultural national contexts. Afro-American cinema  is situated within a particular national culture, albeit one governed by complex and nuanced historical, social, and economic factors. The movement of historical events is the primary--although not the only--preoccupation of African cinema, while the examination of social mechanisms is central to Afro-American cinema. In both cinemas, however, oppression, liberation, struggle, and hope inform thematic structures and references.

In a statement of the utmost significance, Ousmane Sembene, the pioneer of African cinema and its outstanding exponent, has said that the importance of cinema in Africa is equivalent to education, science, and other institutions essential to the definition and sustenance of a vibrant and vital culture--and should thus be given the corresponding recognition. Indeed, Sembene's observation accords supreme responsibility to African cinema, since it is an artistic instrument that can play a prominent role in demystifying and eradicating certain obstacles that have hindered or deflected the development of many African countries. And, correspondingly, African cinema has examined the structures and coordinates of African history in order to analyze these same obstacles. In pursuing this endeavor, African cinema has confronted a set of cultural realities: for centuries European national histories superimposed themselves on African national histories through force and ideological distortion. This process has traumatized African national and ethnic cultures, an consequently many of them began to disintegrate, although many others were able to repulse this assault. In the process, some African intellectuals and artists lost their sense of direction and responsibility to their peoples. Films like Sembene's Ceddo (1978, Senegal), Haile Gerima's Harvest: 3000 Years (1976, Ethiopia), and Med Hondo's West Indies (1979, Mauritania) attempted--and in many was succeeded--to overcome these obstacles by treating African history and herstory as an integral whole and by embellishing narrative structures with African oral narrative modes, thus establishing links between a traditional culture and modernity. These crucial contributions to African cinema enabled Sembene to take the position cited above.


A primary aim of African cinema up to the present has been to reintroduce the African into history. The political imperatives of this project are historical in range and sociological in depth. That African cinema addresses the problem of history is hardly surprising, since for approximately four centuries Africans had been expelled from its domain by capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. For the most part, the heterogeneity of African political, economic, and cultural structures was inverted by European colonialism into the supposed homogeneity of our African backwardness. The imperatives of cultural and political struggle have given African cinema the task, among many others, of retrieving and rehabilitating the uniqueness of African national cultural patterns. Ceddo and Harvest fulfill this eminent task in an exemplary fashion. At the same time, these two films--and others that could be included in this profile--have attempted to define African history: its thematic structures, its patterns and configurations, its unities and contradictions, and its meanings and significations. Whether in presentations of conflict and struggle between imperial history (of whatever colonial power) and African national history as in Ceddo or in the examination of class struggle in African feudal society as in Harvest, these films effect a demystification of the ideological biases of European colonial historiography and, more importantly, attempt to locate the proper place of Africans in history, within a global culture of nations. In bringing these interrelated themes together, Ceddo and Harvest belong within the African philosophical space opened and dominated by the theoretical writings of Amilcar Cabral (whose writings occupy a position within our national cultures comparable to that of Antonio Gramsci's work in European cultures), who articulated the theoretical concepts, the cultural forms, and the modes of armed struggle by which we Africans should re-enter African history and world history. Both films embody the lesson of the inseparability and indissolubility of politics and culture, the central construct of the conceptual framework of Cabral's writings.


While the lineage of African cinema is relatively short, the genealogy of Afro-American cinema is more extensive and different in character. Using Gramscian metaphors--while the African cinema wage a 'war of movement' on the historical plane in order to expel and defeat imperialist cinematic images of blacks, Afro-American cinema has been waging a 'war of position' within the U.S. cultural landscape in order to gain acceptance for its independent status and to dispel the negative images of blacks which Hollywood has perpetrated - from D.W. Griffith's Birth of Nation in 1915 to Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple in 1985. That independent Afro-American cinema, defining itself in class terms against the dominant white American cinema, has produced major figures - from Oscar Micheaux to Gordon Parks (although his position is problematic within the American black cinema) - is undeniable. At the same time, it is utterly incomprehensible how Richard Roud's 1,095 page two-volume study, Cinema, A Critical Dictionary: The Major Filmmakers (1980) a major standard reference work, mentions not even one important black American filmmaker, let alone an African filmmaker, whether Ousmane Sembene or Yousef Chahine. This outstanding omission underlines yet again the fact that integration of Afro-Americans into institutions that influence U.S. democracy remains a fundamental issue in that culture.

The founding of Afro-American cinema was characterized by two phenomena which effected its development and are in evidence today. In ideological terms, these films articulate historical forms of self-identification, that is, they chart, trace, and map on the landscape of dominant white consciousness authentic poetic forms of black subjectivity. And, sociologically, Afro-American cinema has existed in opposition to the Hollywood film industry's monopoly of economic institutions (production channels, distribution networks, and exhibition forums). From the perspective, it was the establishment in 1916 of Noble and George Johnson's Lincoln Motion Picture Company in Los Angeles that we can date Afro-American cinema. Their first motion picture, The Realization of a Negro's Ambition, not only portrayed black people as complex individuals (in contrast to Hollywood stereotypes), but was the first film to specifically address a black audience (not, however, excluding a white audience). Other films followed this route from 1917 onwards. For instance, Booker T. Washington and his secretary Emmett J. Scott (both of the Tuskegee Institute) attempted to establish a black foothold in Hollywood, in reaction to the racism and Afrophobia of Birth of a Nation. Their Hollywood film, The Birth of a Race (1919), failed financially and with it their larger ambition of creating a place for black producers and directors in Hollywood failed, too. The same fate befell the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Lincoln's Dream (1920). Perhaps poor performance of these two films was because they were not produced from a truly independent base.

The fully-formed structures, concrete practices, artistic expressions, and political manifestations of an independent Afro-American cinema (as distinct from Afro-American cinema conforming to the practices and forms of the film industry) can be traced to the films of Oscar Micheaux and his independent production formed in 1918, the Micheaux Film and Book Company. Micheaux also established an important method for financing his independent films--securing advances from theater owners for his films, which ensured that he could work within modest budgets without jeopardizing distribution of his films. This financial dimensions is crucial, as noted by Haile Gerima (from a private conversation in Berlin on 18 March 1986), because one of the important present tasks of the black American independent cinema is to struggle against the artificially inflated high costs of film production in the U.S.; in fact, the survival of the Afro-American independent cinema hinges on this struggle. That is why Micheaux is central, because it could be argued that his contribution lay not so much in the artistic achievements of his films, many of which pandered to fashionable prejudices devoid of serious cultural critiques, but rather in his persistent efforts to establish an independent black cinema. Whatever the limitations of his ideological and political culture, however, Micheaux's films--from The Homesteader (1918) to The Betrayal (1948)--were in accord with the beliefs of W.E.B. DuBois, who identified racism as the central problem of the twentieth century, although Micheaux was never able to take this question beyond the class boundaries of the black bourgeoisie.

Nevertheless, Micheaux introduced many of the thematic spheres within which Afro-American cinema has since concerned itself. The themes of Micheaux's films were far-reaching, ranging from the problems of interracial romance to the traumas of collapsing black marriages to the corruption of the church. But unlike Eisenstein, his contemporary whose films revolve around a central thematic object--the glorification and celebration of the past--or Vertov, who attempted to explain and clarify the struggle of the present moment, Micheaux's work lacks a conceptual center or philosophical object that would have established their coherence and rigor. This absence, in addition to the effects of imposed technical limitations, tends to make his films appear fragmented. However, one contribution to Micheaux's great credit was his casting of Paul Robeson in Body and Soul (1924), the first step in Robeson's film acting career. In retrospect, this is especially significant because the theatrics, metaphysics, and poetics of a particular tradition of American acting, epitomized by Marlon Brando and carried on in the work of American actors like Al Pacino, Gloria Foster, Robert DeNiro, Anne Bancroft, and James Earl Jones, originated with Paul Robeson's early film performances--an enduring and brilliant tradition.

It was approximately twenty years after the death of Oscar Micheaux that the black independent cinema was reinvigorated and reanimated by Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song (1971). In the interregnum, Hollywood films about Afro-Americans, such as Mark Robson's Home of the Brave (1949), Robert Rossen's Island in the Sun (1957), and Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), held sway. With the great commercial success of Van Peebles' film, Hollywood took note and began producing a cycle of black-exploitation films, including well-known successes like Gordon Parks Jr.'s Super Fly (1972), and The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972). In contrast to the fifties, when black independent cinema had fallen in to eclipse, in the seventies an often sharp and uncompromising contest between Hollywood and Afro-American independent producers erupted, and--in artistic terms--in the early eighties the black independent cinema tentatively prevailed. Van Peebles, then, is important historically for having shown that an independent black film could challenge Hollywood's hegemony over the U.S. film market rather than for any intrinsic contribution he made to the enlargement and development of Afro-American aesthetics.


From the mid seventies until the mid eighties, however, several films appeared that confirmed the vitality of Afro-American cinema and contributed significantly to its development--Gerima's American film Ashes and Embers (1982), Charles Burnett's My Brother's Wedding (1982), both independently produced, and Gordon Parks' Leadbelly (1976), a studio-financed production. A common element in all three films is that each, in its particular way, elaborates the meanings of Langston Hughes' poem 'Justice':
That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we blacks are wise:
Her bandages hid two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
In Leadbelly Parks attempts to retrieve a unique moment of Afro-American cultural history through a portrait of the great blues singer. That Hollywood effectively destroyed the film by refusing it wide distribution is not accidental, as recalled by Parks in an interview in The Cineaste Interviews (1983, pp. 173-180), since the film is highly political in its preservation of the cultural richness of the Afro-American heritage. Burnett's My Brother's Wedding, on the other hand, uses the indecisiveness and hesitation of Pierce, a troubled young man who vacillates between attending his brother's wedding and friend's funeral, to enact a metaphor of the complex and unstable dialectic of class and race for Afro-Americans in relation to social institutions in the U.S. The uniqueness of Gerima's Ashes and Embers is that it successfully transposes an African oral narrative form into cinematic narrative. From this synthesis emerges an epic film that symbolizes issues broader than the specific historical drama it portrays. As Gerima explained in a 1985 interview:
Next, there is the idea of struggle. My characters must struggle, both to define themselves and to overcome their oppression and exploitation... For instance, in Ashes and Embers, I wanted to present a generation in struggle through a character who had an extreme experience - fighting in Vietnam - that has left him scarred. He must fight; he must struggle to understand himself and his relationships with those around him so that he can be transformed.
These three films, then, using very different means, mobilize and give direction to a politicized cultural consciousness which, at the time when they were made, was in danger of exhaustion as the conservative social agenda of Reaganism became institutionalized in the U.S.

Returning to the comparison with African cinema, the longer lineage of independent Afro-American cinema can be described as two distinct periods: the first, stretching from 1924 to 1948, the period of Oscar Micheaux's productions, was characterized by psychological representations that marked an effort to come to terms with racism in U.S. culture; during the second, from the demise of the Second Reconstruction (signaled by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968) to the present, the dominant approach has been sociological or, more appropriately, a manifestation of sociological imagination. These two tendencies developed cumulatively and successively. African cinema, on the other hand, has been simultaneously informed by two structures of meaning. In part, this can be attributed to its recent formation, dating from 1963, the year when Sembene's first film, Borom Sarret, was made. Hence, the organization of meaning according to political themes seen in more recent African cinema--exemplified by Sembene's Xala (1974) and Soulemane Cisse's Baara (1978), among other films--is adjacent to and contiguous with the historical structuring evident in Gerima's Harvest and Sembene's Ceddo. This is hardly surprising, since the affinity of the earlier films exhibit affinities with the philosophy of Frantz Fanon, while the historical work of the late seventies--Ceddo, Harvest, West Indies, et al.--can be aligned with that of Cabral. In Fanon we encounter a desperate and brilliant attempt to violently restructure African political systems and philosophies that emerge in the wake of anticolonial wars, while in Cabral we are presented with a reshaping and remapping of the social geography of African history. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, the emergence of African Marxism can be traced to the writings of Cabral and Fanon.


Although it's doubtful that Gerima, Sembene, and Cisse have not read the works of these two major figures in the emergence of African Marxism, I do not mean to imply that their films are simply cinematic translations of their philosophical texts. Rather, I mean to indicate that the full aesthetic and historical meaning of these films can only reveal their originality within the 'dialogism' between Fanon's political philosophy and Cabral's philosophy of history. Although these films indicate their unity on this continental plane, they equally differentiate themselves from each other by simultaneously articulating national cultural patterns, national ideological conflicts, and national class confrontations. Nonetheless, it is possible without engaging in a complicated argument to discern an affinity between Fanon's critique of the national bourgeoisie in The Wretched of the Earth and the political structure of African cinema in the seventies. For example, in Xala the impotence, profound stupidity, and nervelessness of the African national bourgeoisie is conveyed in its true tragic dimensions. The politics of the film could be summarized by the following thesis from The Wretched of the Earth:
The national bourgeoisie of underdeveloped countries is not engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labor; it is completely canalized into activities of the intermediary type. Its innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and to be part of the racket... Seen through its eyes, its missions has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neocolonialism.
Baara, too, in which the national bourgeoisie betrays the national interests, imitates new cosmopolitan fashion, and lacks imaginative appreciation of its own national treasures, could be seen in terms of Fanon's formulations, also from The Wretched of the Earth:
The struggle against the bourgeoisie of underdeveloped countries is far from being a theoretical one. It is not concerned with making out its condemnation as laid down by the judgment of history. The national bourgeoisie of underdeveloped countries must not be opposed because it threatens to slow down the total, harmonious development of the nation. It must simply be stoutly opposed because, literally, it is good for nothing.
In conclusion, the analysis and interpretations offered here concerning distinctions within Afro-American cinema and within African cinema, and those between them, are intended to suggest some directions for criticism that takes as its point of departure the material reality of each. Certain important processes, events, and factors in both Afro-American and African cinemas have not been mentioned because of their analytical complexities. For instance, I have not dealt with the contributions of Paulin Vieyra in relation to African cinema and William Greaves in the Afro-American context. What I have tried to establish, however, is that the structural coordinates of African cinema and black American independent cinema show how important it is to situate their dialectical movement within the politics of Pan-Africanism--the very Pan-Africanism represented by two names in modern black film culture, Paul Robeson and Haile Gerima.

[This is a slightly edited version of an article by Ntongela Masilela, a black South African independent filmmaker who at the time of its writing was residing in exile in Berlin and a member of the Fountainhead Dance Theater. The article was originally published in the film and video monthly journal The Independent, Vol. 11, No. 1, January/February 1988, pp. 14-17.]

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