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Rising Success in 1970s and the Clamor for Self-Representation

February 26, 2016

A small number of women within the African diaspora worked steadily behind the scenes throughout the 1970s receiving very little credit or mainstream attention for their work. These women worked valiantly owing their persistence to the passionate desire of self-expression and wanting to showcase personal stories relevant to them despite being able to immediately affect the greater population. The filmmakers of the “L.A. Rebellion” scene continued making small budget shorts and experimental pieces, while in mainstream cinema a trend flourished around the Blaxploitation genre. Though highly popular and responsible for bringing actresses Pam Grier, Theresa Graves (who made waves as an undercover detective in the network drama series “Get Christie Love!”) and Tamara Dobson to the eye line of movie goers and television audiences at the time, Blaxploitation films were often written, directed, and produced by white men. Similar to “Race” films a few decades prior, Blaxploitation looked to exploit the  successful, initially Black produced independent genre of films in turn for a guaranteed profit return from Black audience members.

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African-Americans looking to the screen for authentic representations of themselves found such images sparse and largely underrepresented. Many Black actors continued to face challenges when auditioning for roles as the stereotypes for African-Americans shifted from mammies, servants, and uncle Toms to drug users, street hustlers, pimps, and sex workers. Fortunately, mainstream Hollywood continued to feature prominent Black actresses in their films including Rudy Dee, Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Rosalind Cash, and Cicely Tyson during the 1970s. Carroll received a nomination for Best Actress for her 1974 performance in Claudine, while Tyson and Ross’ stunning performances in the 1972 films Sounder and Lady Sings the Blues respectively earned the ladies Academy Award nominations for Best Actress during the 45th Academy Awards. This marked the first time that two African-American women shared a nomination in the same category. That year Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage for Marlon Brando’s win for Best Actor and delivered a powerful speech against the representation of Native Americans in film and television. This harrowing speech encouraged and validated twitter user April Reign’s recent hashtag #OscarsSoWhite along with Jada Pinkett Smith’s call to boycott this year’s 88th Academy Awards.

Television provided Black women with rising visibility including Irene Cara, Debbie Morgan, Ester Rolls, Ja’net DuBois, Leslie Uggams, Paula Kelley, and Bern Nadette Stanis. Every one of these actresses and more made a mark on the series and films they starred in. Nevertheless,the access for Black women wanting to create their on stories in Hollywood wasn’t as easily permissible and many were stalled at the door by gender and racial biases that continued to permeate the air. But, a few Black women managed to squeak past sensors of sameness and received the opportunity to financially support or create stories in their own voices.

One of the country’s largest and successful record labels, Motown, housed a powerful weapon and gem by the name of Suzanne De Passe. She joined Motown in the late 1960s as label head Berry Gordy’s creative assistant and is credited for introducing the Jackson 5 to Gordy. According to the American Program Bureau, De Passe also brought the talents of The Temptations, The Commodores, Rick James, and deBarge to the company. Throughout the 70s De Passe proved that her talents covered more than just her capabilities of scouting musical talents. In 1972 she co-wrote the script for the critically acclaimed biography of Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues. The script earned her and her team of writers an Academy Award Nomination for best original screenplay.

De Passe went on to produce successful television specials, mini-series, made for television movies, and series for major networks and studios from the 1970s forward. She founded her own production in 2008 and is currently working on a handful of projects including a film on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with collaboration from Steven Spielberg. De Passe’s success in the 1970s is one of the rarities for Black women working behind the scenes at the time. Across the waters in Britain a small fraction of Black women were making strides in having their creative work delivered to the masses under much different circumstances.

Racism and gender basis remained a reason for the absence of Black women in front and behind the camera in Britain during the 70s, but resilience proved fruitful for a few women. Nigerian born writer Buchi Emecheta arrived in London in 1962 following her husband through an arranged marriage. Living unhappily with five children to support, Emecheta began writing about her experiences later submitting them to British cultural magazine New Statesman. Her collections in the publication became the contents of her first book In the Ditch in 1972 (Malik). After putting herself through university, Emecheta gained success as a novelist traveling the world leading lecturers and writing children’s stories.

Emecheta wrote two plays during the early part of her career, one of which received adaptation on British television. At the time, the most successful route a Black writer could aspire towards was theater. Black British writers looking to emerge and develop could do so through stage plays and radio which were known to take risker chances than television. The theme of these plays were often dramatic as it was passé for Black writers to engage in comedic writings during the 1960s and 70s. Emecheta fortunately had her play “A Kind of Marriage,” a daytime drama, aired on British television in 1976. She also wrote an episode for the popular court drama “Crown Court” towards the end of the decade (Bourne 207.)

Buchi Emecheta

At first glance these women seem confined by history to a box in time that marks them as the few documented women of color to have made major strides in the realm of creating for film and television. But these women are more than names in a time frame within history. They were hallmarks who helped usher in continuous success and rising visibility behind projects for women of African descent. The 1980s would polish even more Black women and bring forth incredible films in which they could tell their personal and rarely seen perspectives. “Black women all over the world should re-unite and re-examine the way history has portrayed us” Emecheta famously wrote. Her words are a reminder to myself and all Black women out there that our history is important and should continue to get exalted.

Bourne, Stephen. Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television: Black People in British Film and Television, 1896-1996. A&C Black, 2005.

Malik, Sarita. Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television. London: Sage Publications, 2002.

Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Diana Ross: A Biography. New York:  Kensington Publishing Corp, 2007.

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