Classified X
November 30, 2010 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Melvin Van Peebles made a documentary called Classified X in 1998, about the portrayal of black people throughout the history of American cinema. You can see it on YT in six parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Apologies for the low video quality.
posted by Dim Siawns (19 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Since it's out of print now, and buying a used copy wouldn't mean any benefit to Mr. Van Peebles, consider a donation to his foundation if you enjoyed the movie and want to show your support for the artist.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:13 PM on November 30, 2010

if you enjoyed the movie.

I don't think any reasonable person "enjoys" this movie. I've seen parts of it, and it will make you crazy.
posted by Faze at 3:24 PM on November 30, 2010

Great post. I just watched the whole thing straight through, and I think it's the perfect prescription for people who complain about Tyler Perry movies.
posted by SassHat at 3:24 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think any reasonable person "enjoys" this movie.

Fair enough, Faze! If you were edified or otherwise enlightened by the movie, please consider showing your support for Van Peebles by donating to his foundation.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:46 PM on November 30, 2010

Next time someone tells me what a great movie The Blind Side was, I'm going to force them to watch this.
posted by jnrussell at 4:07 PM on November 30, 2010

Oh cool. I'm looking forward to watching this.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:41 PM on November 30, 2010

Am I missing something. I'm only thru part 2, but he seems to be conflating films about racism with racist films. That or he is doing a poor job of summarizing several of these films.
posted by MrBobaFett at 4:49 PM on November 30, 2010

Yep. A fine fact-based rant of a flick, complete with info I didn't know before. Now I want to do an "I hate Hollywood" double feature with this and "The Celluloid Closet".
posted by rmd1023 at 5:36 PM on November 30, 2010

he seems to be conflating films about racism with racist films

It is possible for something to be both. Show Boat, for instance, ostensibly rails against how terrible racial prejudice is, but has it both ways with the "tragic mulatta" Julie sacrificing herself for the white heroine Magnolia and saying how wrong it was for her to "pass".
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:55 PM on November 30, 2010

I don't think any reasonable person "enjoys" this movie.

There's a degree of pleasure to be had in a strong revolutionary critique. Articulating what's wrong gives you some measure of control over it. It's an empowering first step.
posted by clarknova at 6:06 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Am I missing something. I'm only thru part 2, but he seems to be conflating films about racism with racist films.

Look Who's Coming to Dinner is a racist film, and he put that very well: its message is only a very accomplished black is the equal of a mediocre white. He was also pointing out the power dynamic which only tolerated a message of equality to go that far and no farther. If Sydney's character had been a working-class man with rough hands and jeans that script would have been roundfiled.

Unless you were talking about some other film in part 2.
posted by clarknova at 6:34 PM on November 30, 2010

its message is only a very accomplished black is the equal of a mediocre white

Well, according to Wikipedia the director said "the young doctor, a typical role for the young Sidney Poitier, was purposely created idealistically perfect, so that the only possible objection to his marrying Joanna would be his race".

So sort of, but this was done arguably to highlight the central issue (race) rather than to make a statement that _only_ a perfect black man would be acceptable. In other words it was structured this way to provide a perfect "test case" to examine racism.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:44 PM on November 30, 2010

I was talking in general about some of the films he mentioned. Look Who's Coming to Dinner is the only one that I knew so I didn't have to rely on his summary of the film.
Which I'm glad I didn't have to rely on his take on the film. It is dated, and not the best script but it's not racist. Sidney Poitier doesn't think it's racist and I'm more apt to side with his interpretation of the work.

Also what wildcrdj said. They put him on otherwise equal footing to bring the issue of race to the foreground. So it's not about money, or class, or education etc.
posted by MrBobaFett at 7:18 PM on November 30, 2010

The humiliation visited on African American actors in the first four decades of cinema goes beyond prejudice and racism to operate in the realm of pure depravity. It doesn't make you ashamed to be white. It makes you ashamed to be human.
posted by Faze at 7:22 PM on November 30, 2010

Thanks for this, I was just thinking today about examining this subgenre: the representationally reparative found-footage film. This one, Marlon Rigg's Color Adjustment, Valerie Soe's Picturing Oriental Girls... Barbara Hammer's History Lessons...
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:08 PM on November 30, 2010

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is an anti-racist movie that is unable to escape its racist culture. I wish Van Peebles had been clearer about this, but I can't deny his personal experience, either. The point made here is that the viewer's perception of the film can be quite different depending on the viewer's race.

I think this point is also important to consider in the other eras, both the later ones such as blaxploitation and the earlier ones such as the "passing" mini-genre he highlights, about which I knew very little. Pinky, for example, was clearly Elia Kazan at his pre-HUAC groundbreaking social-picture ex-Commie apex. Some say it was one of the first movies to openly address racism. Even earlier examples MVP highlights such as the older Show Boat tried to do so in ways that flattered white audiences. Surely the point, to a white audience, of a white girl being able to dance like a black was pretty much the same as any familiar sitcom scene today of a nerdy white person learning to "get down" and loosen up. This is, to whites, anti-racist. Blacks, however, are only playing an enabling role, in the infamous sense of the Magic Negro, and a black audience could not escape that sidelining interpretation. Oh! How wonderful that once again, they can show white people how to dance! Surely there can never be a happier accomplishment for an American black!

I wish MVP had addressed this duality and problematic multiplicity of interpretations, but hey, I'm just a white audience that he's ... ignoring. My concerns are secondary to him. Boy, it sucks. I can only imagine a lifetime of that.
posted by dhartung at 11:13 PM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm still thinking about this. I'm fascinated by my own reaction to the Casablanca clip, in which Ilsa says so warmly and richly, "Play it, Sam." Sam is again playing something of a subordinate, enabling role, expressed through his musical talent, and to me his reaction outside of his piano playing is all but irrelevant. Watching it called up all my own zillion viewings of the film and the emotional objective correlatives of that scene. I know what the song means to their relationship, and the entirety of the film's emotional arc is evoked by this single, key scene. For me, that's what's happening.

But MVP tells us that black audiences were fascinated instead by Sam's ass-kissing-less portrayal more than all of that. Here I'm identifying with the white chick more than the black guy! What a trip that is. I can bridge the gulf of gender more easily than that of race. This is made possible, even intentionally manipulated, by narrative and direction, of course, but how fascinating that all of that artistic fiat is rendered moot by skin color. Were I black, would I watch this film and just idly think of Ilsa as that moonstruck white girl?

(I'm reminded of my good black friend, some years back, whose favorite film was ... Gone With the Wind. She identified, of course, with Scarlett and her romantic storyline -- not with Mammy or Prissy. But then, American blacks are adept at code-switching.)

Anyway, to pick up my somewhat dropped point about Kazan, Pinky and others such as GWCTD or The Defiant Ones were clearly anti-racism films for white folks. The point of Spartacus seeing a black slave killed is that Spartacus identifies with a fellow slave. But of course, the point of Stanley Kubrick putting such a scene in a movie is about portraying Spartacus as a modern, non-racist white person who embodies the idealism of 1950s America. It's more complicated than the narration by MVP would allow, but again, MVP doesn't acknowledge the white audience POV in the same way that the black audience POV was ignored for so long by Hollywood.

You wonder what he would say today. Is Lee a wholly neutered mainstream director? (Lee, of course, made Bamboozled some years after this documentary; but his output this last decade has been decidedly less culturally noticed.) What would MVP think of the current music scene, which since his movie (which I know did not address music except tangentially, an omission of some note, as black music has its own history of co-optation and reification) has almost wholly been dominated by hip-hop? It's of interest (to me, at least) that I have little knowledge of or interest in the genre, but in many ways it's echoing that business about Sam again in that quality or content aside, it's a homegrown African-American art form and as such has empowering ownership subtexts all by itself.
posted by dhartung at 11:45 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

it's not racist. Sidney Poitier doesn't think it's racist and I'm more apt to side with his interpretation of the work.

Oh, okay. Why? Melvin Van Peebles is more-or-less a contemporary of Poitier's, and someone with roughly as long (though certainly not as successful) a career in film. It's not like there's a vote and the black guy with the most Oscars wins.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:57 PM on December 1, 2010

Resistant spectatorship.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:44 PM on December 1, 2010

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