FROM SAMBO TO SUPERSPADE: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures by Daniel J. Leab

FROM SAMBO TO SUPERSPADE: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Leab isn't nearly as stylish a critic as Michael Wood (America In the Movies, p. 653) and he's an explicit moralizer which may be a drawback at a time when cynicism, ambivalence and nostalgia are the fashion. Leab reviews Hollywood's track record on blacks and finds it, with very few exceptions, deplorable. The film industry's presentation of Afro-Americans has gone from stereotype to stereotype or, as the old joke has it, the range of black characters runs the gamut from A to B. In the early days of cinema, through World War I, there were instantly recognizable types, mostly inherited from minstrel shows: the shufflin' old plantation darky always loyal to ""Massa,"" the comic stooge, the menacing ape, the ""tragic mulatto,"" Titles included Biograph's Nigger in the Woodpile and other ""coon subjects""; Birth of a Nation, hailed for its powerful realism, showed black brutes rampaging through the gallant defeated south eager to prey on White Womanhood. Much later, when liberal guilt and civil rights were at their peak, Sidney Poitier, ""the ebony saint"", enthralled white audiences for a decade being strong, courageous and sexless. In Leab's view the current crop of Superspade tics are no better, even though they've mostly been made by blacks. Shaft, Superfly, et al. are cheap, sleazy, oversexed and violent ""blaxploitation"" pictures even if ghetto audiences do get their kicks watching Whitey and his sister get beaten, burned, raped and stomped by some bad-assed, bad-mouthed, gorgeous black stud. (Leab seems oblivious to the fact that some of this is acted out in a spirit of high camp.) Among the hand-ful of good films made about blacks, Leab names Sounder, Nothing But A Man and The Learning Tree. Leab's critique sometimes lacks a sense of humor, but otherwise who can argue with his endless parade of ""condescending and defamatory"" images of black men and women?

Pub Date: Aug. 29th, 1975
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin