Before the late 1960s Hollywood was pretty much a “whites only” business. Parts for black actors were largely confined to servants and maids – and as for directors and writers, forget it.
Then came a string of blockbusters starring Sidney Poitier – In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir, With Love.
As with many other aspects of popular culture, the change began under the impact of the Civil Rights Movement. Black people not only demanded political representation, they also wanted their lives reflected in the music they listened to and the films they watched.
And just as the crossover of soul music into the dominant form of pop proved to the mainstream music industry that there were big bucks to be made from “going black”, Hollywood too started to wake up to the possibilities.
In 1970 a black, small time director called Melvin Van Peebles made an independent film called Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song. It was a very different kind of film from Poitier’s hits.
Instead of heroes that echoed Martin Luther King’s non-violence, Van Peebles wanted his black leads to be rebellious and angry – in short, they should look like the revolutionaries of the Black Panther Party.
To further illustrate the tough realities of ghetto life, Van Peebles put together a soundtrack using some of best funk bands around, including the then unknown Earth, Wind and Fire.
No studio would distribute Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song. Van Peebles had to rent cinemas and screen it himself.
Yet the film was a phenomenal success and pretty soon every Hollywood financier wanted a piece of the action. Between 1970 and 1976 black-themed productions came thick and fast, with Shaft and Superfly! being among the best known.
For many black audiences, the novelty of seeing anything approaching their lives on the big screen was enough of a reason to part with dollars, but this new wave of cinema courted controversy.
The civil rights group, the NAACP, attacked the genre for glorifying ghetto life, particularly the way that many of the films seemed to praise petty hustlers and pimps.
Women’s groups objected to the way that women were often relegated to subservient roles. But it was also true that films like Coffy and Cleopatra Jones offered black women leading roles that broke traditional moulds.
The success of the films came from their two central themes – black pride and black resistance – not as a result of the more backward ideas represented.
So the catchline of Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song is, “You bled my momma. You bled my poppa. But you won’t bleed me”, while the much more commercial Superfly! proclaims, “He’s got a plan to stick to The Man.”
And the music that accompanied the films did much to anchor that message.
Soul legend Curtis Mayfield was thrilled to be offered the score for Superfly!, after reading the “ultra-realistic” script. Yet when he saw the rushes of the film he was appalled.
“This is a cocaine infomercial,” he said. Mayfield decided to subvert the film’s glorification of drugs with some of the hardest lyrics he had yet written.
In the track “Pusher Man”, the “hero” is rendered a self-interested leech on the community, while the harrowing “Freddy’s Dead” was deemed so disturbing that the film’s producers would only use the instrumental version.
Nevertheless, Mayfield’s soundtrack album – complete with the full version of the offending song – sold in the millions.
This integration of soul with cinema led to at least two other important developments – longer and more complex musical compositions that moved away from pop formulas, and film sequences specifically designed to work with music.
So in the 1971 film Shaft, the private detective hero walks through the streets of Harlem seeking out a group of black nationalists to the sound of Isaac Hayes’ “Soulsville”, a song with a haunting roll call of racial injustice and pain.
While the 100-page booklet in this package features all of the key films and explores some of the debates surrounding them, the 34 tracks on Can You Dig It? capture the high points of the music brilliantly.
Here you will find degradation, poverty and racism – but also the spirit of resistance that time and again burnt the ghettos to the ground.
Can You Dig It? The music and politics of black action films 1968-75 is released by Soul Jazz Records