No one could ignore the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, certainly not MGM, which was eager to capitalize on art cinema when it could—leading to such unusual collaborations as a three-picture deal with Michelangelo Antonioni. When famous Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks turned Ernest Tidyman’s novel into film and made the detective black, Parks may have also turned revolutionary baadasssss cinema into blaxploitation and transformed a gritty, urban action film into a monumental cultural event. Newcomer Richard Roundtree was the first black actor to take the sole lead in a major studio production, and black audiences responded in overwhelming, ecstatic numbers to the appearance of a strong black hero who white cabbies still don’t pick up. Just as this new cinematic movement turned the tables on genres dominated by whites, Shaft makes his own rules and calls all the shots, functioning smoothly and stylishly in both black and white urban jungles. This transformative thriller spawned many imitators, a couple of sequels and a short-lived TV show and also earned Isaac Hayes the first Oscar for Best Original Song awarded to a black composer.
My Childhood, Part 2: James Baldwin's Harlem
My Childhood, Part 2: James Baldwin's HarlemDirected by Arthur Barron.
US, 1964, 16mm, color, 30 min.
Print source: New York Public Library
James Baldwin narrates how his early years in Harlem made him alive to the forces at work in the city and American society to manage the black population. Describing the economic and visual disparity of New York’s famed Fifth Avenue that runs through Manhattan and Harlem, Baldwin reminds us that the “avenue is elsewhere the renowned and elegant Fifth,” but venturing north “we find ourselves on wide, filthy, hostile Fifth Avenue, facing a project which hangs over the avenue like a monument to the folly, and cowardice of good intentions.” — Film Society of Lincoln Center