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A Culture In Retrograde

Amiri Baraka's "Black Art" and the Black Arts Movement.

Spike Lee and The New Black Aesthetic. P.Diddy and the Hip Hop Generation.

Black artists have always dictated the visual, literal, and musical arts of our time. The post-Ferguson era saw a Black Arts Renaissance, with filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, who make urgent films about black life but are overlooked and understudied.

Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's 1989 film, Do the Right Thing

In 1991, Spike Lee announced he was to begin production on Malcolm X, a film about the influential civil rights leader. Lee faced backlash from the United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X and one person, in particular, at the helm of the organization: the father of the 1960’s Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka. A Newsweek article from that same year covered the back and forth between the two artists. Baraka called Lee a “buppie” (a black yuppie) who feared his portrayal of Malcolm would be exploited and “trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep better”. Lee responded to Baraka by asking, “Where’s his book on Malcolm?” Many wondered why Baraka was so harsh towards Lee. Was it because he simply didn’t like his work? He had previously written a scathing critique of Lee’s film Mo’ Better Blues for an essay collection on Lee’s work by black art critics. Baraka’s answer? “Spike Lee is part of a retrograde movement in this country.” It’s hard to know what Baraka meant with that statement without more context. Was it his opinion that Lee’s involvement in the New Black Aesthetic Movement was replicating the work of his own twenty years earlier with the Black Arts Movements? Or did he believe Lee was undoing the progress he’d made with Ishmael Reed, Larry Neal, and Gwendolyn Brooks, among others?

Gone were the days of the aimless and forlorn standards of the jazz age like “Backwater Blues” and “Deep Moaning Blues” sung by African American artists. It was a confluence of The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the assassination of Malcolm X which sparked political action on the part of African American artists. Amiri Baraka’s creation of the Black Arts Theatre Reparatory helped to lay the framework for self-determinism and activism through creative expression. In his poem “Black Art”, Baraka emphasizes the black struggle and uses words as protest and language as a weapon: “We want poems that kill/ Assassin poems, Poems that shoot guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead.” The Black Arts Movement had arrived and it was going to grit its teeth until change and equality had been won.

In his essay, “The Development of the Revolutionary Artist” (edited by Baraka), James Stewart decreed that revolutionary artists of the Civil Rights era must build their own conventions, styles and methods separate from the white cultural present. They were to no longer create art using Western models which were at the time used to “demonstrate academic impartiality to the white establishment”. Change was crucial more than ever for the revolutionary artist to upend the assumptions of artists previously and to instead create art that corresponded to the African American man’s own reality. Baraka’s writing “we want poems that kills” sent a message. The Black Arts movement was to be aggressive, almost militant about constructing models that reflected black struggle. Like political leaders of the time, MLK and Malcolm X, these revolutionary artists were going to make white society lean in and listen. This movement laid the groundwork for post-Civil Rights era/Hip Hop Generation of filmmakers and musicians who continued to empower and uplift the African American population. If the key feature of the Black Arts movement was change, then the 1980’s and 1990’s key feature was their need to sustain that change.

The 1980’s was a fertile period for black entertainment. In “The New Black Aesthetic” Jay Ellis offered two reasons for seeing larger numbers of black representation in American culture. A higher number of African Americans were attending college and many were choosing to attend art school. African American artists like Prince, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby were more in demand in pop culture than ever. Whereas in the 1960’s Baraka and Neal had to fight to make art about the black experience as separate from the white intellectual community, filmmakers like Spike Lee had a different experience. Lee might have been a “buppie” to some but he was also a “hybrid” of his time which meant that he and his peers could create art without having to abandon their culture. Lee wrote his stories of racial tensions in New York City for films like Do the Right Thing which co-existed with other movies in the mainstream space without being seen as a black film.

The difference? The approach, perhaps. Films of the 1970s were “more obsessed with being good PR for the race than with being culturally authentic. It’s as if blacks have to be spoon-fed” Ellis quotes independent filmmaker, Reginald Hudlin. There was a less aggressive, arguably more nonchalant approach to creating art post-Civil Rights and it was evident in, yes, Lee’s dramatic films to some degree, but also, in comedy. Ellis cited Eddie Murphy’s subversive take on prison poet Tyrone Green, “Kill my landlord, kill my landlord/ C-I-L-L”. The kind of humor Murphy was able to use pushed the boundaries of what black entertainers and they alone could do. Murphy owes a debt to Baraka and the Black Arts Movement because their work afforded him a place on the stage.

Speaking to the emergence of the Hip-Hop generation in Black Power Inc., Cora Daniels writes about another hybrid character, rapper P. Diddy, or Sean Combs. With his creation of Bad Boy Records, Sean Jean high-end clothing line, reality show productions, joint partnership with Ciroc vodka, among others, P. Diddy was able to harness the things that made black culture and exploit them to stimulate the mainstream market. “The hybrid mentality” is pro-black.” Daniels says insinuating that black culture can co-exist with white culture. To be pro-black to Daniels is an artist’s “refusal to ignore race, their refusal to conform to make others more comfortable, and their refusal to denounce a single ounce of who they are.”

The 2019 Golden Globes saw zero nominations this year for Ava DuVernay’s film, When They See Us, a Netflix series about the Central Park Five, five young boys who were wrongfully charged in the raping of a white female jogger in 1989. Their absence from the nominations is unsurprising as the Hollywood Foreign Press continues to overlook urgent, important stories that tell us about America’s history of race not only in the recent past, but our present. The Father of The Black Arts Movement, Baraka may have thought Lee was a part of a “retrograde history” during the post-Civil Rights era, but perhaps it was the film industry itself or culture that was, no is, in retrograde.