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'Hollywood Black' Author Donald Bogle

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African Americans and Hollywood have a long, troubled, and complicated past. I am going to explore that history with Donald Bogle author of the new book "Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers" from Turner Classic Movies. His comprehensive exploration begins in the silent era and wraps up with 2018's "Black Panther." Bogle has been writing about blacks in Hollywood and on screen for decades and over a half dozen books.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 And the Oscar goes to Charlie Wachtell,

Speaker 2: 00:05 David Rabinowitz and [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 00:12 the 91st Academy award served up a record number of Oscars for black artists, including spike Lee's first win for best adapted screenplay for Black Klansman.

Speaker 3: 00:21 We all connect with the ancestors. We will have love, wisdom, regaining, we will gain our humanity will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner.

Speaker 2: 00:33 [inaudible]

Speaker 3: 00:36 let's all vote alive. Let's all be on the right side of history. Make the rock might make them all choice between love versus, Hey, let's do the right thing.

Speaker 2: 00:49 No, I had to get that in there.

Speaker 1: 00:51 Can Americans in Hollywood have had a long, troubled and complicated past? I'm going to explore that history with Donald Bogle, author of the new book, Hollywood black, the stars, the films, the filmmakers from Turner classic movies.

Speaker 4: 01:04 [inaudible].

Speaker 1: 01:10 Welcome back to listener supported KPBS cinema junkie podcast on Beth Flaca, Mondo

Speaker 4: 01:16 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 01:29 this month, yet another incarnation of shaft hits theaters and it includes the original John Shaft, Richard Roundtree plus the Sundance hit. The last black man in San Francisco opens and Jordan peals layered horror film US comes out on Blu Ray, so not a bad time to focus attention on blacks and Hollywood. Bogle has been writing about blacks on screen and in Hollywood for decades and he serves as a host and commentator for TCM. His book, Hollywood black just came out and it offers a comprehensive look at African American films, stars and directors from the silent era and up to Black Panther. But before we get to my interview, I need to take this short break and then I'll be back to talk about Oscar Micheaux blaxploitation in the films you absolutely need to see. According to Donald Vogel, I began my interview with Bogle by asking him to talk about his first book and about what led him to writing about blacks in Hollywood and the image of African Americans on screen.

Speaker 5: 02:30 My first book, which is now in its fifth edition, is the book Tom Koons, Mulattoes mammies and fucks and interpretive history of blacks in American film. And then I've written other books. I did the book brown sugar, which was about black women in entertainment from Bessie Smith to Beyonce. I also have done biographies of Dorothy Dandridge and Alpha waters, the after ward, his biography, it's called heatwave and I've also done book called Bright Boulevard all dreams, the story of black Hollywood and that looks at African Americans in Hollywood from the early years. How they got into the movies, where they live, how they socialize. This whole African American community in Los Angeles. This is my ninth book now, Hollywood black, most of my books that do deal with African Americans in film, so it's just come out the TCM book. It has a forward by John Singleton, perhaps one of the last things he wrote.

Speaker 6: 03:34 I also want to just reference back to your first book when you wrote that the book really tackles stereotypes in film and I was wondering if you felt like that initial motivation to write a book was really to tackle some of that and challenge some of those images and and was that the first thing that you wanted to write about?

Speaker 5: 03:55 Yes. I was a real movie kid. I grew up loving movies and I saw a lot of old movies on television before there was a TCM. I had asthma as a kid and I, I often was not always, but I often was sort of home bound and I would watch old movies on, on TV among other things. I was always fascinated with old movies. Whenever I would see an African American in a film, and I'm talking about films from the twenties thirties you know, might be the Shirley temple movies with bill Bojangles Robinson or it might even be gone with the wind with Hattie McDaniel. And I just wonder when I saw those movies as a kid, why the movies warn about the black characters. And I always wondered where they went when they, when they were off screen. And that just sparked something. But yes, in, in the first book I very much did deal with stereotypes and I don't think stereotypes have necessarily disappeared from the movies, black stereotypes, but certainly not the way they once were.

Speaker 5: 05:04 So I wanted to deal with stereotypes, but also what was very important to me with Tom's cones was to, to deal with performances of African American actors and actresses. Because I often felt that some of these performers with their great talent, but they didn't so much play these roles as they played against them to bring something of their own to these films. And a good example I think is Hattie Mcdaniel, who in gone with the wind, it is this mammy character, but she has a degree of agency. She's assertive, she's got power. Hattie MCDANIEL has this big sonic boom, have a voice. And when you hear her, you know that she was born to two to give orders, not necessarily to take them.

Speaker 6: 05:54 Oh No, Miss Scarlett's you come on, be good, neat. Just

Speaker 7: 05:58 let know. I'm good to have a good time to do and do my eating at the barbecue. If you don't care what folk says about this family I dug, hi, it's Tony Antonio, all this Tele Lady, but the way that sheet in front of folks like a bird and I named for you to go to Mitchell. John Wilkins says, I need like a field hand and like a hall fiddle. Dee Dee Ashley Wilks told me he likes to see a girl with a healthy appetite. What gentleman said and what the things is. Two different things. And I noticed Mr and for the [inaudible],

Speaker 5: 06:27 so I was dealing with that as well in Tom's comes. But it very much was a very detailed look at films going through various decades and these distorted images as well as achievement. And that's, that's what I did with that book, this book Hollywood black. It also goes through the black experience in film from the Early 20th Century into the new millennium. And it does look at images, but not in the way that Thomas Kuhn's did. I mean there are two different books and they're companion pieces in many respects. One of the things which I point out in this book, and it's also in Tom's Kuhn's, but early on there were black filmmakers, someone like Oscar Micheaux, nopal Johnson who struggled to make movies, but they saw the power of the film, that image. And so I wanted to very much deal with their experiences. And movie making and of course with Michelle is um, a number of his films are around and we can, we can see them today and fully appreciate his talent and his skill.

Speaker 6: 07:42 Well you mentioned this notion of the power of the image and it seemed like that was one of the things that spike Lee was addressing in his recent film, Black Klansman because he's showing birth of a nation being screened at a white supremist meeting and then he's also having his characters talk about some of these images of a in blaxploitation and it seemed like one of the things he was addressing in the film was the power of the image. And also you know that the film maker needs to think about what those images are that are going on the screen.

Speaker 5: 08:12 Yes, very much so. I like black Klansman and I liked that aspect of, of the film. One of the things with this, the power of film and in some cases the power of film as propaganda. I've dealt with the fact that DW Griffith's birth of a nation in 1915 when it was released, it was a huge hit. But it was also very controversial and the NAACP protested against it. Certain liberal groups did and people saw at that point how film can distort history, distort culture, the Stuart individual lives. I dealt with that in Tom's comes and it comes into black as as well DW Griffith. It's interesting that after birth of a nation, Hollywood backed off from that kind of controversy, that kind of blatant racism that we see with birth of a nation. Hollywood didn't want it, didn't want a controversy that might interfere with the box office receipts and so you see different images and birth of a nation.

Speaker 5: 09:19 You know the film climaxes with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It's a movie that that opens in the days of slavery that idealized in the film. It follows through with the civil war and then the reconstruction era when a group of black men overtake this small southern white community. It also touched on on this whole thing of sex and racism in America, you have these hypersexual Blackman who pursue white women. Nonetheless with the controversy, the industry backed off from that kind of thing. And we get to see in the movies, which I deal with in Hollywood black also in Tom's coons that most of the black men we would see afterwards where do be comic nonthreatening figures and nonsexual for a long time to come. You had people like Stepin Fetchit, you had someone like bill Bojangles Robinson, you had the actor like willy best. Again, these, these were people who had talent, but they were very much boxed in by the, by the roles that pay had to play.

Speaker 5: 10:29 And that's the thing when blaxploitation comes about in the 1970s and you have a new group of black filmmakers coming to the fore, people like Gordon Parks senior who directed a movie called the learning tree in the late sixties and then does chef and you have Melvin van Peebles who does sweet, sweet bags, Badass Song. And you have Gordon parks junior who does superfly. They have taken in a sense an old type the buck figure. They've reappropriated it and they politicized this figure and they, they really touched on the, on the need of a new audience in that period. We're talking in the 19 really it's coming out of the late sixties and the 1970s a younger black audience at that time that wanted strong assertive and sexual black movie heroes, but not like DW Griffith. That's another thing that comes out in this, in this book in which I dealt with in my, in my work.

Speaker 6: 11:28 You mentioned Oscar Micheaux who made films in the silent era. Do you feel that these films are overlooked and is it mainly because there aren't that many of them that survive or do you just feel because they're silent films, people tend to not want to watch them as readily, but he seems like such a groundbreaking figure in Hollywood. It's black history.

Speaker 5: 11:52 He is grumpy. But you know, Michelle also did do sound films later in the early years following birth of a nation. There have been a couple black filmmakers before birth of a nation, but afterwards you found people really kind of movement of people making movies for, for black audiences. And with positive images of African Americans. But Michelle got in very, very early in the team and there was also the Lincoln motion picture company with Nobel Johnson was one of the founders. Nobel Johnson was a black actor who worked in Hollywood films. But nonetheless, I think that what happens, some of his movies were rediscovered in later years. I mean to find actual prints of them. And one of the ones is within our gates and, and their Michaux is dealing with a race theme and dealing with, with racism and, and it is, it's just startling to see someone that movie's 1920 to see someone that early tackling this and effecting an audience emotionally.

Speaker 5: 13:04 The film was, was later lost to us for a long time. But to your question about with the silent films, I think that that may be be part of it, that people don't look at silent films as much, any kind of fall in film, but, but I think he's definitely worse thing. And I think audiences would, those who haven't yet seen the desal and films will be very surprised by the intensity and power of his, of his work symbol. The on Concord is another early one about some of his films are still lost to us, but there are others around. And then there, there are the sound films. He kept working until 1947 his last film, that betrayal was released actually at a theater in downtown New York. But there was also this movement of filmmakers, black and white, I should say, people working outside of the Hollywood studio system who were making movies for black audiences. Uh, and these movies have become known as race movie. There were just a number of them. Some got lost, disappeared. Others are still around. Yeah, they're the black westerns done in the late thirties with her. Jeffery's herb Jeffries was a terrific singer. You performed with Duke Ellington and he was a real heart throb and ease the singing cowboy and his movies. He did Harlem brides the range, and he also did bronze Buckaroo and others. And those are great fun

Speaker 2: 14:34 with my role and my God. [inaudible]

Speaker 6: 15:04 that's herb Jeffries singing. I'm a happy cowboy from two gun man from Harlem. I'll have more film clips as well as more of my interview with author Donald Bogle after the short break. I want to jump a little bit ahead in, in history and, and return to blaxploitation because I was very attracted to blaxploitation films because of actresses like Pam Greer and Tamara Dobson and seeing strong women on the screen, whether they be white or black, but that that uh, you know, was a big attraction for me, but TCM recently screened sweet sweet backs, Badass song and I was impressed by how fresh the film's still felt and how it was still able to kind of jolt the audience because it seemed like it was not only revolutionary in terms of the content, but also in terms of just the film grammar at used, the storytelling. So it was wanting to talk to you a little bit about those blaxploitation films and kind of how they changed the landscape.

Speaker 5: 16:12 Well, they very definitely change the landscape. I mean speak before blaxploitation in the fifties and sixties there was really basically just one black actor who was working in, in Hollywood films and who made a name for himself. And that was Sydney Poitier. Dorothy Dandridge had also made an impact in Hollywood film in the 50s with a movie like Carmen Jones. But nonetheless, [inaudible] was this figure and his movies really we're part of the integration is age of black and white coming together. When you get to blaxploitation, there is this idea, and this is really 60 days, post sixties, and the idea that America has has gotta change. It hasn't worked out. It's problems dealing with race and we haven't seen strong enough black heroes on screen. And blaxploitation turns that upside down. And when people's, they'll move in people's with sweet, sweet bags, bad ass song really becomes this revolutionary statement. As a matter of fact, Huey p Newton of the Black Panthers said that, I hope I'm quoting him correctly, it's the first, uh, revolutionary film or black film. But you see in that film a black man taking his destiny into his own hands and you see him fighting corruption and this just roused audiences at that time. And then shaft. It's interesting that Gordon Parks, when the chef was Richard Roundtree, that the opening of that film, you see chef coming up from the subway into the Times Square area and it's really this idea that this black man has been underground and now he's coming to the fore,

Speaker 4: 18:16 right?

Speaker 5: 18:18 You're going to see him and you're going to have to deal with him. And it's interesting that shaft is really walking against traffic and he's got to break the rules in order to survive and the rules are going to have to be changed. Yeah. So blaxploitation is saying that that kind of thing. A superfly which was directed by Gordon Parks Junior, that one also it, it, it deals with a drug dealer play very well by Ron O'neal. He wants to get out of the business and he sees it's corruption and he wants something else for himself. So you have Blackman announcing themselves and then you get Pam Greer and you get Tamra Dobson. These black women now who um, are just as strong and tough as the black men around them. They're not shrinking violet and they too are taking things in their own hands.

Speaker 8: 19:20 No,

Speaker 9: 19:24 I know. That's the idea. The rest of your boyfriend is still around and I hope you to live a long time and then maybe you get to feel what I feel. Death is too easy for you, bitch. I want you to suffer.

Speaker 5: 19:41 And they become figures. If you see Pam Greer in oxy Brown, did you see Tom Rhodopsin and Cleopatra Jones? They are. They're defending their community, the black community and wiping out the er or in opposition to the drug dealers and the corruptive figures, primarily whites, but not exclusively. And they are also announcing a new day. It's a great thing to see them. And by the way, you know, Pam Grier did have this feminist following that the feminists saw her as this positive figure. They put her on the cover of the old MS magazine. And in a sense she was saluted. Tamra Dobson's and other one who's not so well remembered today and she's no longer living. She also with Cleopatra Jones

Speaker 10: 20:32 ever hear of you selling so much as a cost route. I'm coming down on you so hard. The soul sisters answered with James Bond and the most exciting new star in years, six feet, two of, and it's all

Speaker 6: 20:48 stacked sheets,

Speaker 5: 20:48 very much is her own woman. And there's a great scene and Cleopatra Jones where she's with Bernie Casey and Bernie Casey had been a football player in the past and he's a tough resilient guy and they're uh, they're being shot at and he's injured and she's the one who then takes things into her hand and she has an arsenal of weapons in her car and she's not going to let anyone shoot her down. So those are great things to see. I should also say with blaxploitation, you know, there was criticism of those films and some criticism coming from the African American community. There were other images during that period. You had a sounder with Cicely Tyson who gives a magnificent Oscar nominated performance. You also have Diana Ross in lady sings the blues. It's a romanticized version of the life of black jazz performer Billie holiday, but it's a very pleasurable movie experience.

Speaker 5: 21:49 So you have those films as as well. And blaxploitation really doesn't last that long. I would say roughly that blaxploitation goes roughly, I would say from around 19 uh, 70 or 71 to about 75 76 and then something changes. And all of these films though are not coming out of a social or political vacuum. They very much are reflecting the times in which they were made and the feelings of an audience, the 70s move on, America's more politically relaxed and we get to see another kind of of movie and you get the rise of someone like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy in the 80s these are films that often deal with the theme of interracial male bonding, but you still have these really resilient, tough minded black heroes that blaxploitation has, has made its mark in that respect. And the films of the eighties eventually, you know, Eddie Murphy is the Big Star and then you have that new wave of black filmmakers coming in that have been influenced by blaxploitation. You have spike Lee was, she's got a habit and of course with do the right thing, which closes the 80s and then you get someone like John Singleton, then you get the Hughes brothers and and you get, you get others. So it's, it's a progressive progression with these great sort of evolutionary links from one period a one filmmaker or even one star to another.

Speaker 6: 23:32 In your introduction, you mentioned that you say rarely do you go to the movies to learn anything, but we learned something nonetheless. And is that one of the reasons that kind of drives you to write these books too, to kind of put these films into a context so that people do think a little bit more about them?

Speaker 5: 23:51 Yes. We don't go to think there's so much that seeps into our unconscious and those distortions that are in the, in the, in our heads. And we were trying to sort them out with perhaps not really thinking that we're trying to sort them out. And so with my books, it's to want to chart the history recorded and to sort out what I see as distinctions and perhaps to articulate what others have been feeling. I would hope, or with my view of history itself and whatever knowledge I have of history to bring another kind of awareness to people who've been going to the, to the movies. You know, I feel ideally that with popular culture and, and writing about popular culture, that it really should reach the people who are affected by popular culture. You know, I think the writing itself should be direct. It should be immediate.

Speaker 5: 24:52 Just the way popular culture is. That's what we love about popular culture and it, and it's got an energy about it. And this is film music, but to, to write in that way so you can reach that, that audience that really wants a comment. You know, I go to the movies, I used to go to screenings. Now I, I, I really prefer to be there with an audience. And to see the way the ord hints is responding. I saw the movie girls trip, which was directed by Malcolm Lee, Spike Lee's younger cousin. And Malcolm Lee is a talented filmmaker. He did, uh, the movies best man, best man holiday. But when I saw girl's trip, I saw it at the Magic Johnson theaters in Harlem and it was a packed house and girls trip would probably be defined as a black woman's film. Doesn't mean black men didn't see it and didn't enjoy it.

Speaker 5: 25:56 And this is basically with the woman's film. Men See these films too and often like them. But nonetheless with the audience, it was just so caught up in the movie and you know, really liked the movie more than parts of that I liked. But I picked up something from the audience itself and, and many of the women in the audience and what they were responding to. So for me in writing history is important and bringing certain things to delight. And if it's not necessarily answering everyone's questions but leading people to answer questions for themselves, but not to ignore asking questions because popular culture, you know, it can be good and it can be bad. And as I said, those distortions, you want to sort them out and we often have conflicted feelings. Everybody, whether it's black films, white films, whatever. We can have conflicted feelings about what we're seeing on screen. And it's not to dismiss those conflicting feelings, it's to bring them to the forefront and understand what what we do like and understand what may bother us about the films. But to enlighten ourselves,

Speaker 6: 27:16 I mean that your book is very comprehensive and kind of looking at this whole history of Hollywood black. If you could pick three films that you feel people really need to see that they probably haven't seen are, are there three you would point to and say like if you haven't seen these, you're really missing out.

Speaker 5: 27:37 I'll tell you too that there are a number of, I'll tell you too that have, and this isn't a very personal way that have effected me. One is the movie Carmen Jones from 1954 and Carmen Jones has an all star, a black casts. Dorothy Dandridge who was the first African American woman nominated for an Oscar as best actress. Hattie McDaniel had one is best supporting actress, but Dandridge buzz actress Harry Belafonte's in it, Diahann Carroll, Brock Peters, Pearl Bailey and so forth. But Carmen Jones one to see Dandridge and to see this image of a black woman who's term and to make her own decisions. Now granted it's, it's based on the decisions, the way the movie's written is on her romantic situation, but still she's, she's making her decisions. She's in a world that's really controlled by men and she is fighting that. There's that aspect of Carmen Jones and then there is a great sequence in Common Jones.

Speaker 5: 28:43 It was directed by Otto Preminger where you get, there's a uh, sort of nightclubs cabaret sequence and you see a man on the drums, he's a terrific drummer. And then you, you see his name right there on the bandstand and its Max Roach, this fantastic drummer. And there he is. And the people dancing. There's the young Alvin Ailey who's dancing there is common to lava lot who's dancing. There's Archie savage who was a member of Katherine Dunham stance. So there are all these cultural things going on in that very energetic, very entertaining sequence. So Carmen Jones has a certain effect from me. And then I would say boys in the hood that I've seen many times, and I am always emotionally affected by it. That movie came out in 91 but that movie still speaks to us in a very direct way about what has been happening in certain African American communities.

Speaker 5: 29:48 And it's, it's a powerful film. So I would say those on a personal level, but there are others who, Charles Burnett's films, killer of sheep, I would say Julie Dash. It's film, daughters of the dust. I would also say, I think spike Lee's film do the right thing, retains its power, but, but those are some of the ones that I think are there. And I would say Black Panther because black pants or Ryan cooglers movie, it's part old school entertainment. And I say this in the best sense. And I also think it's revolutionary with the costumes, with its view of African American culture with this, I think the women in it, our revolutionary of figures. So that also, um, I think get out. It's terrific what Jordan feel does with, with taking a certain kind of genre and flipping it on its head. You see that the thing about get out, you don't know where that movie's going. You, you have no idea and, but you can't stop watching. And, uh, it injects race into this. Um, what might be, you know, a team horror kind of film. The movie even has a haunted house in it. So there are a number of things that I would suggest for people to, to see and, and that I think they would, uh, they get something out of them.

Speaker 6: 31:18 Moving forward. What are you seeing possibly happening in this Hollywood landscape and, and what's, what are you hoping for in terms of what might change or what might improve?

Speaker 5: 31:29 Well, the thing is, I mean, we're seeing more, more African American film makers come to the fore and also in television. It's quite interesting what's happening with Issa Rae and her show, um, insecure her series and Donald Glover's Atlanta. It's, it's really an interesting period where we were. And it's interesting that we're in a, what's supposed to be a politically conservative period, but we were getting these, these voices and many people now are getting a chance to work that might not have had the chance in previous eras. I'm talking about people working behind the scenes, even in front of the scenes. You look at Viola Davis and, um, that in the past, Viola Davis, what kind of roles would she have played? But now she's gotten a chance for something else. I'm thinking mainly of, uh, how they get away with murder. So it's, you know, it's a vital period.

Speaker 5: 32:28 I don't think that we're really free of some of the old types. I don't feel that way, but we're on our way to a whole new revamping of cinema. So I, I see this, it's, it's another kind of movement and I'm hoping it will continue that something's not going to change. That would once again limit the opportunities for, for filmmakers and, and an African Americans working in television because what we're getting is really benefiting the whole culture. It's speaking to the whole culture. It's speaking in a direct way to African Americans, but it's also speaking to another audience as well. And that's, that's important. You know, we've seen what, what rap has done, how it's, um, it's, it's, we used to a broad audience and I think film makers can do that without compromising themselves, film makers and, and people working in television. I hope it's going to continue, but you know, there's a part of me that is still cautious, so I'm just, I'm hoping for, for the best it would benefit us.

Speaker 4: 33:47 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 33:58 that was authored Donald Bogle, his new book is Hollywood black from TCM. I'll be back in two weeks with a podcast on the new film will feel yet that reimagines hamlet from Ophelia's point of view. So till our next film fixed on Beth Leica, Mondale, your residents cinema junkie.

Speaker 4: 34:15 [inaudible].

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