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Melvin Van Peebles
Meiji U Tum'si
Good But Black Cinema Needs a Longer, Detailed Doc
Classified X (1998)
*** (out of 4)
Melvin Van Peebles hosts and narrates this 50-minute documentary that takes a look at the history of blacks in cinema. I'm going to start off by saying that I really wish someone would come along and make a three, four or even five hour documentary about this subject because there's so much to cover and there's just so little time here that you can't help but feel that so much is missing. Overall, this is a good introduction to the issues that raged in cinema. Of course, THE BIRTH OF A NATION is brought up but the documentary does a good job at noting that this wasn't the first film to show racist images. From here we see how blacks were played by whites, were given roles of maids or slaves and how things started to change after WWII. Again, this documentary is way too short because it often hits on a subject that you wish would be explored more but instead we just jump to the next scene. There are a few issues I did have with the movie including how Melvin Van Peebles said that he never saw anyone playing the maid in his neighborhood so the movies were making this image up. Well, with the recent excellent film THE HELP, we learn that that type of image was going on during these times and I'm guessing Van Peebles' South Chicago neighborhood just didn't have some of these Southern images. The documentary also shines a light on "black cinema" that was going on in the 20s and 30s but it points out that these films too were often full of racist stereotypes. One strange thing is that Sidney Poitier's name never comes up yet the film does slam movies like THE DEFIANT ONES and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. We finally get to the blaxploitation pictures, which is showcased as people black artists striking back but throughout the entire documentary there's nothing but talk about equality yet these films were just as racist towards whites that all the other films were against blacks. By the end of the film Van Peebles says that nothing has changed from the start of cinema until today. Everyone in Hollywood are racist and they're the ones with the money and the power to make movies.
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