Amid the important rediscoveries of historic black films this year, there is still a vacuum when it comes to early black film critics and curators. Albert Johnson may not be a household name–but he should be. A black gay scholar and intellectual, he served as Film Quarterly‘s Assistant Editor from 1958 to 1962. and as the program director of the San Francisco International Film Festival from 1965 to 1972. And to add to the résumé: professor of African-American Studies at UC Berkeley and a U.S. State Department “film diplomat,” sponsored in the 1970s to travel the world exhibiting American classics.
Beyond his impressive CV, Johnson’s writing demonstrates a sharp critical eye in many ways ahead of its time. This article, published in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights era, takes stock of recent depictions of black subjects. Johnson is clear that this new visibility in mainstream cinema should not be mistaken for progress. He writes candidly, wrestling with his disappointment in many contemporaneous films and ambivalence towards others. Despite one-dimensional representations and exploitative tactics, there are glimpses in this work of a world yet to come, Johnson stresses, a cinema in which portrayals of antiblack racism might take shape outside of the melodramatic trappings endemic to the era. —Marc Francis
Nowadays, it seems that a majority of Americans are committed, one way or another, to accepting the social revolution of the American Negro, as well as the demands for total recognition on the part of Negroes in other parts of the world. Fourteen years ago, film critics thought it brave to acknowledge the “daring” racial themes handled in Hollywood films. But when seen in the light of today’s violences, how very tame and naively well-intentioned those films seem! Actually, however, it is harder than ever before to truthfully dramatize the American Negro’s dilemmas on stage or screen, because the angers are too intense. Even James Baldwin (heretofore the most eloquent literary spokesman for the Negro intellectual) created a polemical stageplay in Blues for Mister Charlie, a work that manages to endow the Negro with an unintentionally mock-epic stature, and brings a hysterical sort of animosity to his heroic quest for political and social equality. Despite cries for “moderation” from the conservative elements in America, this quest goes on. Yet it seems impossible for writers and film-makers to capture the essence of courage or dedication that drives many Negroes toward self-sacrifical death in the Southern states, or compels young white men and women into violent demonstrations for the Negro’s cause.
Recently, the Negro poet and playwright Leroi Jones has created a “revolutionary” theater, in which Negro characters articulate their grievances against white authority and social injustice with every nuance of spoken frustration and brutish malevolence, and it is his work that has emphasized the bold strides toward realism in dramatic images of the Negro and Negro attitudes. If one contrasts the allegorical subject matter of Jones’ play The Slave with the film The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, the distance between two decades’ points of view is astonishingly clear.
The article can be read in its entirety here.
An appreciation of Albert Johnson by former FQ editors Ernest Callenbach and Ann Martin is available here.