White Boy Elgar

Marge (Pearl Bailey) welcomes Elgar (Beau Bridges), her new landlord, to the neighborhood in Hal Ashby’s debut feature, The Landlord (1970).

In the early seventies Hollywood studio executives began to realize there was a huge untapped market for films dealing with African-Americans, a situation made obvious by the unexpected success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), an action comedy based on the Chester Himes novel about two black cops, Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge). In the ensuing rush to capture this previously ignored audience, the “blaxploitation” film was born, but the majority of these films were urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). Films which attempted to explore racial issues or feature complicated black and white relationships were a rarity but one unique exception was The Landlord (1970), which was virtually ignored by the public when it opened.

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Abattoir Blues

“I wanted to do something that reflected the way people in the community would see themselves. Coming from another place, you can see a much larger picture. But when you’re in a well, you can only see the narrow light above. If you’ve been living like that for a long time, it can have an unproductive effect on you in many ways. So it wasn’t my personal conflicts. It was the conflict of the community.” – Director Charles Burnett in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine about his film Killer of Sheep.

After more than 42 years, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) is now recognized as a seminal film in the indie film movement of the ‘70s even though it didn’t receive a wide release until 2007 via Milestone Films. In fact, Burnett never really intended for the film to have a theatrical release; he made it as his thesis film at UCLA. But retrospective screenings of the film and the resulting critical acclaim culminated in Killer of Sheep winning the Forum of New Cinema prize at the 1981 Berlin International Film Festival. Other accolades followed such as being selected by the National Film Registry in 1990 for film preservation and winning a special award from the New York Film Critics Circle in 2007. Not bad for a movie shot on 16mm and made for a rock bottom budget of $10,000 from film grants.   Continue reading