Black Star Season Kicks Off at the BFI

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Last week kicked off the BFI's seminal Black Star Season, running from 17th October- 31st December, celebrating the range, versatility and power of Black actors from the beginning of cinema up until the present day. According to Black Star programmer Ashley Clarke, the season puts 'icons, heroes and heroines back on the big screen where they belong'.

Words by Danielle Morgan

The history of black cinema has ducked and dived around civil rights for the best part of a century. Charting the history of race relations, you might be forgiven for thinking that black actors were shunned from the silver screen during the early golden years of cinema. In fact, by the 1930s black stars like Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker were being cast in features that did not play up to the blackface, slapstick stereotypes, although some black actors were still typecast in these roles during this period.

Josephine Baker in Zouzou (1934), PHOTO CREDIT - Indie Wire

Working to highlight the tensions between black communities and the police in the US, as well as raising the profile of drug and gang culture, during the '90s contemporary black cinema cast hip hop artists that appealed to alternative audiences. Before it was popularised, these films helped to raise the profile of hip hop as a genre and sub culture.

But what happened in the midst of it all? The years following the talkies of the 1930s, when Black civil rights were far from heading in the right direction and segregation was implemented both sides of the pond proved turbulent and troubling times for black actors. Moving towards the late 1960s and early '70s, a new genre exploded onto the scene, one that put black stars on the silver screen to both the applause and dismay of many. Blaxploitation cinema both championed black actors and degraded them in one of the most bemusing yet interesting periods in cinematic history.

Blaxplotation film Foxy Brown (1974), PHOTO CREDIT - The Soul Train

Whilst some heralded the genre for empowering black actors, others condemned it for reinforcing black stereotypes. Either way, race relations were brought to the forefront of American consciousness. Often, film makers would appropriate overtly racist terms and use them in the titles of their films. The mortifying use of these phrases pressed upon the injustice and objectification black and racial minorities had been experiencing for centuries in their own countries. Even by the standards of the time, the plots and terminology used were meant to shock and shame.

On the whole, the black community felt that Blaxploitation Cinema was a positive move in the direction of civil rights; a medium in which they could exploit racial issues and exaggerate them to great lengths in order to convey all that was wrong with race relations within America and beyond; slavery, segregation and other racial issues.

Still from 2009 Blaxploitation Spoof Black Dynamite, PHOTO CREDIT - Quotes Gram

Some felt that black actors cast in Blaxploitation movies made by white directors were not utilising the genre properly, and were themselves being exploited, however whichever spin you put on Blaxploitation Cinema, it undoubtedly raised the profile of talented young black actors that would otherwise not have had the chance to share the silver screen with their white counterparts. On top of that, Funk, soul and jazz soundtrack's recorded by black musicians would regularly accompany the films, primarily made for black audiences before they were rolled out to the wider public.

Through this new genre, black actors and directors assumed their own agency. They may have been nodding to the overtly racist stereotypes, but at least they were doing it on their own terms; their use of stereotypes was not so much an encouragement of negative stereotypes as it was a rejection of them.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song Soundtrack recorded by Earth, Wind and Fire, PHOTO CREDIT - Movie Thoughts

The films, often set in the ghettos and slums and with few white co-stars, championed black characters as 'anti-heroes' of a kind. They were pimps and drug dealers; criminals who for the first time in cinema where making it to the end of the movie. They were doing bad things; hustlers committing crimes that were sticking it to the man and getting away with it.

Blaxploitation movies are only a drop in the ocean of this rich, diverse and often troubling course of cinematic history. This latest season from the BFI champions some of the industry's unsung heroes as well as some of it's most famous. Check the website for listings up and down the country, or enjoy 2 tickets for the price of 1 by simply quoting COMM241 when booking on line, in person or over the phone 020 7928 3232. Please note the code can be used more than once but the offer only applies to two tickets being bought for the same film. Excludes previews and special events.