Moments of strife and growing clarity
The 1960s-1970s was a period of great unrest in the United States as the Civil Rights movement picked up in 1960 after four black college students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College protested their denial of service after waiting at a segregated lunch counter.
While it’s not right to say that this event was the tipping point, it became crystal clear in the coming months and years that racism was something that had become too deeply entrenched in the American heart and psyche.
And if we were to take this idea that the colored brothers were the Other, then the Self would be the white male American. And while not all white Americans were descendants of plantation owners, it was undeniable during this time that it was deemed natural to view one’s colored neighbor as less of everything.
And just three years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would lead over 200,000 people in a Civil Rights march to Washington. This event would be punctuated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream.”
This enigmatic and powerful figure would forever leave an imprint in the racial discourse of the country. While similar figures like Malcolm X would continue the struggle for emancipation using other approaches, it was King who first rallied both colored and white individuals under the common cause of demanding civil liberties from the United States government.
Later on, the US would have to deal with the repercussions of the country’s engagement with the USSR and the Vietnam war. While this is certainly not the first time that the US entered into global scuffles with other states (communist or not), this period was special in cinema because the sheer eclectic confusion and nervousness brought by war actually paved the way for the birth of different kinds of expression in film.
Cinema, like other cultural spaces back then, was predominantly occupied by white actors and actresses – this was simply a given. But if people had marched for freedom and jobs, African Americans also sought to stake a claim in film and pop culture.
Because pop culture is the fuzzy expression of so many things in any given nation. To be part of pop culture was to exist and it was undeniable that African-Americans became fully assimilated but were denied a foothold in many social and cultural spaces because of the hegemonic power of the predominantly white-controlled state.
And while many would disagree with this seemingly off-beat binarism of us versus them it was really that simple of a configuration: white male Americans represented the wealthiest and most powerful people and the disenfranchised and marginalized folks were represented by the African-American. These two individuals were made wildly different by actual socio-economic circumstances that were apprehended repeatedly by cinema.
If we look at the actor Duane L. Jones (February 2, 1937 – July 22, 1988) from several angles and through several lenses, we will easily see how remarkable he is in punching through a historically resistant medium and cultural space through sheer talent and perhaps a generous sprinkling of excellent time and opportunity.
Known as the lead actor of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, Duane tragically died in 1988 at the age of 51 because of an existing heart condition.
According to his New York Times obituary:
“Mr. Jones was director of the Maguire Theater at the State University College at Old Westbury and artistic director at the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art in Manhattan.
“He directed many stage productions, including Vy Higgensen’s ”Mama, I Want to Sing,” a gospel musical. Among the more than 20 productions he staged for the Richard Allen Center were ”The Estate” by Ray Aranha, ”God’s Trombones” by James Weldon Johnson and ”Black Picture Show” by Bill Gunn.
“He acted with the Negro Ensemble Company, the Actors Playhouse and the National Black Theater. He also worked in television and appeared in such films as ”Ganja and Hess,” ”Beat Street,” ”Night of the Living Dead” and ”Losing Ground.”
Duane led a vigorous and upbeat life dedicated to film and theater. But not just mainstream theater. His work in the National Black Theater and being the executive director of the Black Theater Alliance is very telling of his stance when civil rights and cultural work intersected. Simply put, this academic who basically dedicated his life to the performance arts tried to send a message about civil liberties and racial discourses that reverberated with the times.
Apart from being a great actor, he was first, a thinking man – someone who made it a point to make social injustices an element in his work. It’s something that is definitely worth emulating as we pan our cameras to blaxploitation cinema.
Blaxploitation was a term used to describe films in the late sixties going forward that usually featured predominantly black actors and actresses. These films came about as a result of the clamor of African-Americans to watch films that weren’t always lead by white actors/actresses. The racial divide is as clear as ever in the advent of blaxploitation films.
According to Separate Cinema, critics often panned blaxploitation as “morally bankrupt” as they “glorify violence and portray stereotypical identities/roles of African-Americans.”
On the other hand, the black community which was the primary consumer of blaxploitation films didn’t always agree with what critics had to say. In many ways blaxploitation films provided a more honest reflection of city life for African-Americans, regardless of whether or not the film/s used stereotypical devices within their narratives.
But what about these stereotypes? Why did producers, directors and screenplay writers resort to stereotypical identities, images, allusions and tropes that were worn out even before they were used as material for film?
In Black Cinema by Paula J. Massood, the critic notes: “Its [African-American film] was increasingly identified as city film in the public imagination. Its narratives were commonly assigned to specific urban settings, with New York’s Harlem and Brooklyn neighborhoods associated with African-American East Coast life and Los Angeles’ South Central and Watts neighborhoods with the West Coast.
“The two most common genres associated with African-American city spaces are blaxploitation films from the 1970s and, most recently, hood films from the 1990s.
“In both examples, genre is defined by urban visual and aural iconography, which often engaged in a dialogue with its immediate socioeconomic, political and industrial contexts.” (p. 1)
Massood then contends with the undeniable role of ‘aural elements’ in blaxploitation films, brought about of course by the stunning soundtracks. She analyzes the connection between aural and visual and writes:
“During the 1970s, the sound tracks for blaxploitation films became extradiegetic marketing devices that brought the rhythms and melodies of films into the city, and vice versa (a strategy that was also used by hood films.)
“In all these examples, the play between visual and aural signifiers contributes meaning to a film, anchors the narrative in a historical moment, and acknowledges the existence of complementary or contradictory spaces and times in a single text.” (p. 5)
And finally, we come to the point of contention of other film critics – that blaxploitation films used worn stereotypes and other narrative constructs that supposedly did disservice to the primary consumers of blaxploitation cinema. Massood situates these devices within their individual socio-historic contexts and reminds us that they are unique ‘utterances’ and not just static representations in film:
“Particular cinematic chronotopes (chronos – time, topos – place; spaces or places that bring about the recollection of a period in time) – antebellum idyll, Harlem, black ghetto, and the hood – are “historically situated ‘utterance[s]’… addressed by one socially constituted subject or subjects [the filmmaker, the cinematic apparatus, the conditions of production] to other socially constituted subjects, all of whom are deeply immersed in historical circumstance and social contingency.” (p. 7)
Undeniably, it was actually the buying power of African-Americans that drove Hollywood to seize upon a profitable formula to keep box office hits afloat. In fact, MGM was nearly bankrupt when it released Shaft and was saved by this blaxploitation film. Shaft gave way to two more sequels, but the two subsequent releases from MGM never matched the original glory of the first release.
Independent production of blaxploitation films began years before Shaft and Super Fly were ever released in the market to boost city ticket sales to more than 50%.
And this leads us to where it all began for African-Americans on the silver screen – George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968 with a miniscule budget of just over $100,000. At that time it was common for Hollywood studios to spend well over a million dollars for each film. Romero was shooting ads back then when he decided to create his zombie epic.
The plot revolves around Duane Jones (Ben) and Judith O’Dea (Barbra) who become trapped with five other people in a rural farmhouse with “living dead” chasing at their heels. While Romero did not specify that these monsters were indeed zombies, they are zombies by today’s standards.
The film went on to earn $18 million internationally and is a highly regarded classic of the horror film genre. Several spinoffs were created and a remake was created in the nineties, directed by Tom Savini from a script by Romero.
In a previously unreleased interview in 1972 with Filmmakers Newsletter Magazine, director Romero discusses how he didn’t intend for Night to become a racially relevant film.
When asked, “would you describe the development of the ‘Night of the Living Dead’ from the beginning?” Romero proceeds to detail how he wanted to turn an allegorical tale into a “real blood and guts film, and that’s how it started.”
“A friend and I began writing a script, but we didn’t have it nearly completed when we started shooting. We cast around for people,” George said.
“That was kind of a random experience too: there wasn’t much to draw on in Pittsburgh except a friend of ours, Duane Jones, who is the black actor who plays Ben in the picture.
“We had no preconceived notion as to the role being a black role, Duane came in, he looked right, he read well, so we used him. We never took any further note of it. It’s not mentioned in the script at all, although I know we’re getting a lot of press comment over that fact.”
George further reveals that NOTLD’s cinematography was influenced by comics:
“We shot in several lumps of time, and I had an idea where we were going with the thing. I had in the back of my mind the whole time the old DC comic books-you know, Tales From the Crypt and stuff like that,” he recounted.
“I used to be a big comic fan, although I don’t think I am now except maybe in a nostalgic way. Most of the lines were written, some the night before. We’d sit around knowing the direction the thing had to go and write dialogue.
“Some of it, out of frustration, we just went flat-out with, doing the obvious like, ‘We may not enjoy living together, but dying together won’t solve anything.’”
And contrary to what many now believe, George A. Romero actually began with the idea of insanity in this film. However, authorial intention is something that doesn’t really dictate things once a cultural artifact like a film is released to the public.
“The story was an allegory written to draw a parallel between what people are becoming and the idea that people are operating on many levels of insanity that are only clear to themselves,” he said.
“But we didn’t really try to write that stuff in and we didn’t shoot it for the pat explanations or anything. We shot it just the way things would be if the dead returned to life. For instance, we let the news commentator write his own copy.
“We gave him the germ of the idea and he was a newsman and wrote his copy; and the sheriff and the posse, we didn’t try to gloss them up at all-we just shot a bunch of people.
“We gave them guns and they kind of just went ahead. The sheriff [George Kosana] wasn’t actually a sheriff or an actor. He was just a mill hand. Just a beautiful guy. One of those guys you can put in front of a camera or in front of ten thousand people and he’ll just be himself.”
In the more recent film Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele, Peele shares his thoughts about Night of the Living Dead and how Duane Jone’s performance in Night mirrors lead actor Chris Washington‘s role in Get Out.
“Theoretically, their racial perspective is the very skill that helps them. You could write an interesting essay about how the lead in ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ is a man living in fear every day, so this is a challenge he is more equipped to take on than the white women living in the house. Chris, in his racial paranoia, is onto something that he wouldn’t be if he was a white guy and there was a similar thing going on.”
Ganja & Hess
Hot on the tails of 1972’s blaxploitation phenomena Blacula, Ganja & Hess was directed by Bill Gunn after he was approached by Kelly-Jordan Enterprises to create a “black vampire” film with only $350,000 to work with. Initially, Gunn had misgivings about the project:
“The last thing I want to do is make a black vampire film,” Gunn confided with a friend.
“If I had to write about blood, I was going to do that, but I could not just make a movie about blood,” he continued.
The story of Ganja & Hess revolve around Dr. Hess Green, an anthropologist who was doing studies on the Myrthians, an ancient nation from Africa known for drinking blood. He had an unstable assistant named Meda who then stabbed him with a Myrthian ceremonial dagger. He becomes an immortal vampire soon afterward. Meda’s wife Ganja comes home to find that Meda had committed suicide. The anthropologist and the assistant’s wife became fast lovers.
What Ganja & Hess accomplishes rather quickly is it puts side by side two completely different worlds that couldn’t have possibly met in any logical space without trying to outdo or crush each other.
The two dominant discourses in this film are Christian mores and culture (of course, American Christianity) and African culture and religion (which was just as equally real and physical in the most extreme of portrayals).
While there is certainly a gender power play involved, the film focused heavily on the intersection of religion, belief and unbelievable life events to create a richly textured film that was not only visual but also aural in its attack.
Duane’s life after he starred in the cult classic Night of the Living Dead was strongly tied to his love of literature and the theater arts. Between 1972 to 1976, he was a true blue academic, serving as the head of the literature department at Antioch College.
He later became an exchange scholar in Niger and taught literary classes at Long Island University. He also helped the Peace Corps by designing English-language training programs. The Harlem Preparatory School benefited from his expertise as well; he later became the head of the English department here.
A little over half a decade of academic work brought Duane closer to the black community and students, specifically, who dreamed of better lives for themselves through literature, art and performance.
He worked with a diverse number of groups that promoted black performers in film and theater.
While Duane appeared in several more films leading up to his untimely demise in 1988, his heart was in theater. He even became a theater professor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He helped his students with diverse backgrounds to succeed in two cultural spaces that were formerly inhabited only by white members of the population.
Just as Duane was making waves as an educator and advocate in theater, he continued to imbue his relevance in film as well. Ganja and Hess was critically acclaimed for its experimental narrative and the way it fearlessly put two belief systems side by side in a single narrative.
This movie was also a play on taboos – drinking blood, sex, thinking outside the ‘normal’ Christian mindset but ultimately, trying to return to it for healing, only to find out that other realities and belief systems are just as real and potent.
Losing Ground (1982) is a semi-autobiographical film starring Duane Jones, Bill Gunn and Seret Scott. It bagged the grand prize at the Figueroa International Film Festival in Prague. It is also notable for being one of the first full-length dramas directed by a black woman, Kathleen Collins.
Beat Street (1984) showed the beginnings of the ‘hood’ through hip-hop culture. With a tagline that says “The Music and Break Dance Explosion of Summer,” The movie is notable for its use of aural signification more aggressively, making music a core part of the film narrative. Duane played a supporting role in this ‘urban space/urban culture’ film.
In Vampires (1986) directed by Len Anthony, we see Duane returning to his young film roots in the horror genre.
Duane plays Charles Harmon, a paranormal investigator who helps uncover the sinister plot taking place at an art school, where someone performs horrible experiments on students. Duane also starred in Negatives (1988), an unfinished independent film that was edited into Fright House in 1989.
In November 1999, the Library of Congress added 25 new titles to the National Film Registry, which included George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
The National Film Registry was created in 1988 to “reflect the full breadth and diversity of America’s film heritage, thus increasing public awareness of the richness of American cinema and the need for its preservation.”
According to David Francis, head of the Motion Picture Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress: “It [the National Film Registry] is a very broad-ranging list and it’s meant to be that way,
“It’s really (inclusive of) films that are historically, culturally or aesthetically important in any way. It’s not the Academy Awards. It’s not a competitive list. It’s trying to show a broad cross-section of American film heritage.”
Always walking astride respectable names in the discipline, Duane had a truly remarkable run as a man of color in the sixties and seventies, when the United States was just getting used to the idea of allowing equal civil rights to the entire population regardless of color.
And as for his own personal take about his casting as Ben in Night? Here’s what Duane had to say about his casting and the subsequent upheaval after NOTLD was released:
“It never occurred to me that I was hired because I was black. But it did occur to me that because I was black it would give a different historic element to the film,” he said.