Sidney Poitier directing Traces (1981)
Sidney Poitier (1981)

A Book Review by Louis J. Wasser.

The film director’s traditional conflict between making an artistic statement and making a film that earns money is especially challenging if the director is black. Like any, these filmmakers have to cover significant costs and work within a budget. And because film is a collaborative enterprise, the black director’s artistic purpose can become more easily derailed if a contentious studio or producer continually prods to get the film to tell a different story. Such interference can prove a nightmare for a black director, especially one willing to risk forsaking a wider audience because he or she’s driven to infuse the film with a pressing personal statement about fallout from racism.

In Trying to Get Over (University of Texas Press, 2016), film scholar Keith Corson deals with the estimable successes and whopping failures of eight black filmmakers who, during the period between 1977 and 1986, resisted the lure of Hollywood to continue to buy into the trend of so-called blaxpoitation films – popcorn features like Shaft, Superfly, and Blackula – that had been popular and profitable in the early seventies. The book takes its cumbersome and somewhat on-the-nose title from the film Getting Over (1981), a film with a black theme – ironically directed by white director, Bernie Rollins – which, according to Corson, ultimately “slipped into obscurity” (3).

Corson 02As the author sees it, the “getting-over” era of black filmmakers serves as an immediate prelude to the masterful films of Spike Lee, which catapulted him into commercial success and critical recognition in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It. Shot in two weeks on a budget of $175,000, that film grossed $7 million upon its release. There’s little doubt that Spike Lee is a rare talent, and at least a cut above most film directors – black or white. That said, the directors in Corson’s study helped set the stage for Lee. Or, as the author writes,

Lee himself was evidence that film schools were producing talented directors across racial lines. At the beginning of 1986, any such optimism would have seemed foolish. Hollywood had cracked its door open ever so slightly, allowing only the most famous and powerful African Americans access to the director’s chair. She’s Gotta Have It looked to kick the door wide open. (200)

The eight black directors Corson has chosen for his analytic and comprehensive study are Michael Schultz, Sidney Poitier, Fanaka (originally known as Walter Gordon), Fred Williamson, Gilbert Moses, Stan Lathan, Richard Pryor, and Prince. While the author readily cites their particular virtues and talents, he’s unsparing in discussing their weaknesses. Corson’s stated aim in Trying to Get Over is to make sure their contributions, regardless of their failures, are not swept aside in any future film history.

It’s understandable why, then, when Corson praises a director’s achievements, he’s patently generous. But when he takes a director to task for his failures, he’s unequivocal. Here, for example, is his flattering take on Sidney Poitier: “While he never claimed to be a comedian, his ability to bring black humor to the screen speaks volumes to his skill as a director. Poitier’s most lasting contribution as a director came with his approach to comedic performance” (74).

His assessment of Prince, on the other hand, is far less complimentary in, for instance, his discussion of the films Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (1990) and later films:

They were fueled by a growing backlash to his success, but they also suffered from his unwillingness to approach the work with the requisite attention to detail needed to make sense of complex layers of meaning. The prevailing understanding of Prince’s film career holds that Purple Rain was an isolated success that built on the appeal of his songs and stage presence, and that his subsequent films proved that his artistic gifts did not extend to acting, directing, or expressing ideas via a cinematic narrative. (88)

Filmmaker Michael Schultz
Filmmaker Michael Schultz

Despite their individual talents and efforts, the eight directors under consideration by Corson ultimately suffered or prospered at the hand of Hollywood (and occasionally television). Once box-office ratings and studio or investor whimsy was thrown into the mix, it was almost impossible for talent, in and of itself, to win out. Hollywood has always wielded a big stick. This is why, despite an occasional Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, or Spike Lee, few American directors have been able to achieve optimum creative control. Corson’s getting-over group of eight provides classic illustrations.

Director Michael Schultz, for instance, after his spectacular commercial and critical successes of To Be Young Gifted and Black (made for television, 1972), Cooley High (1975), and Car Wash (1976), found himself hired to direct the musical Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) with the largest budget ever handed to a black director. Despite his creative doubts going into the film, Schultz diplomatically went along to get along. The film, by all commercial and critical accounts, turned out to be a horrendous flop. Corson shares how Schultz had come to view himself in 1980s Hollywood as a result, though he regularly works in television: “My heart is really not in this business because it’s a waste of time” (51).

Trying to Get Over is replete with this kind of disappointment. Under the circumstances, it’s a virtual miracle that any films got made about the black experience in America. But it seems clear that when we now watch films like Malcolm X (Spike Lee) or 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen), and others by contemporary black directors, much of the creative groundwork was laid for them by the eight talented and determined men discussed in Keith Corson’s fine scholarly work.

Louis J. Wasser is a freelance essayist and critic specializing in film, and classical music. He’s written extensively for The Washington PostWashington Jewish WeekIdentity Theory, and other publications. He’s also a financial copywriter.

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