Tuesday, March 30, 2010

cinema obscura: Ossie Davis' "Black Girl" (1972)

In 1966, the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene made his first feature-length film, "La Noire de..." - better known in America as "Black Girl" - a powerful social drama about a young African girl demoralized and driven to thoughts of suicide when her job as a maid for a French family relegates her to slave status.

You can't say enough about this film. It's become more precious since Sembene died last June.

But there was another "Black Girl," one almost as good. Based on the searing play by J.E. Franklin and directed by actor Ossie Davis (his third), this "Black Girl" is a terrificly acted family drama achored by the bravura turns of the wonderful Louise Stubbs, the legendary Claudia MacNeil and Ruby Dee, and the always-underrated Leslie Uggams. The virutally all-female cast gets a potent shot of testosterone in the form of the imposing, towering Brock Peters.

Franklin's material is touchy stuff, dealing with a racial self-hatred that materializes during the ugly tug-of-war over a young woman's affections and her future. The debuting Peggy Pettit, plays Billie Jean, a teenager whose desire to be a dancer are misunderstood and unappreciated by her family - a clueless mother (Stubbs) and two angry older sisters (Gloria Edwards and Loretta Green, both excellent).

There's a fourth sister, Netta (Uggams), who is adopted, light-skinned and educated - three qualities that make her a pariah and an outsider in this family. Netta's encouragement of Billie Jean's ambitions strips everyone naked as the major characters claw into each other and generally numb Billie Jean. McNeil plays the family matriach, the grandmother; Dee is Uggams' mother, and Peters plays the father of Billie Jean and her two spiteful sisters.

Considering its cast of major African-American players, it's a mystery that "Black Girl" has been lost for more than 30 years now. Has it ever been telecast? It certainly isn't available on home entertainment and never has been.

35 comments:

Brenda said...

I actually saw this film on TV a couple of years. I contacted J.E. Franklin to ask if this film will ever be released on DVD, but one of her children contacted me and asked a lot of questions like where did you see it and what date. I don't think they want the film even on the air because I have not seen it on TV one since. It’s disappointing because a lot of black women can relate to this movie. I love it, but I can't view and or find it.

truthholder said...

I heard there was some discrepancy with the TV rights and it got pulled from TVONE and that's probably why the family member was asking all the questions. I think there is something very subversive going on with certain "black" films from the 70's. I believe certain titles that convey certain messages are held back from major release because of the "message" it may convey or because the title may be "questionable". Black Girl falls into the latter. I mean, that is a powerful yet simple title that will immediately grab an interested viewers attention. It's also a very positive and powerful message to black women and you know they got to keep the black folks shucking and jivin'. Also, some films sat in vaults for decades and are badly in need of restoration and the studios think it isn't worth the money to clean up whatever print may still exist. "Melinda" and "Abby" are two that come to mind. And yes, I DO believe there is an inherent racism at work here.
Don't let these classics and all of these performers hard work be forgotten!!!

Hetta said...

I just saw the last 45 minutes of the movie "Black Girl" and thought it was fantastic! I can't find any information on some of the actors (e.g. Peggy Pettit). Can anybody help?

Hetta said...

To Brenda. I believe the family asked questions because they probably want to know why they are not getting royalties like they should. Agencies responsible for paying for broadcasting the show are not reporting properly.

carol said...

Watched this movie back in July ('09) on a new all-movie channel (not cable) called "this", with my son. He recognised Rude Dee as the woman who played the mother role in AMERICAN GANGSTER. He is now looking for other movies from the 70's and featering the actors from this (great) film.

D. Hudson said...

Seen this movie years and years ago, as a kid. But the part of Netta stuck out as she encouraged the younger Billy Jean, in the face of the two jealous sisters. Running into this movie was a jogging of my memory -- Looking up the cast of Roots and the part played by Leslie Uggams whose faced reminded of this movie and so did a search....but the name of the movie could not remember / did not know....It was a good movie...has to be for me to remember....it aired on a Mother's Day back in the 90's.

A.L. said...

it was a good movie very good.wish i could buy the movie

Brian said...

Brock Peter's is Billie Jean's stepfather. But he is the biological father to her sisters.

TAMMY RAWLINS said...

I SAW THE MOVIE "BLACK GIRL" I THOUGHT THAT IT WAS #1. I CAN'T SEEM TO FIND THIS MOVIE ANYWHERE. THAT'S A SAD.

DrPrettySmileDDS said...

I also saw this film on the This Network, I thought is was a great film! I didn't even recognize Ruby Dee! Also I have a another question, is Gloria Edwards also Dawnn Lewis from "A Different World"? They look like the same person!

downstroke4 said...

saw most of "black girl here in chicago on the "me too" t.v. network channel. my girlfriend and i enjoyed the slow easy going yet sometimes tense tone of the film. the dark,beautiful girl who played billie jean capitivated us and i remembered that time period. i was 14.

downstroke4 said...

peggy petit, you are so beautiful!

saltzmas said...

What constitutes a “black” film? Does it merely include African American actors or must the plot center on the African American community and cultural themes? Join our discussion tonight on WGBH’s Basic Black where we will address these questions as well as the overall cultural significance of films and libraries. You can tune in to the conversation at 7:30 pm on Channel 2 in Boston or watch online at www.basicblack.org. You also have the opportunity to participate in a live online chat throughout the show!

Shirley said...

DrPrettySmileDDS: They do look alot alike. - Dawnn Lewis was born August 13, 1961. She does a lot of cartoon voice over work. Gloria Edwards was born August 7, 1944. She died on February 12, 1988, of cancer.

sweetspirit75 said...

Peggy Pettitt (born February 8, 1950) is an African American actor, dancer, teacher, playwright and storyteller. She is a native of St. Louis, Missouri.

Pettitt's grandparents were a big, early influence, telling her memorable stories. As a child, Pettitt also observed various types of people who lived in her neighborhood. She valued greatly the sincere integrity of the working people who made up her community.

In 1969, she went to Antioch College, where she was exposed to the difficulties that sometimes surface between people of different races and social classes, and, at the same time, to the unity that can cross these boundaries.

In 1972, during the era of Blaxploitation movies, Pettitt went on to make her first feature film, Black Girl. Her character wanted to become a dancer. Pettitt was nominated for Best Actress by the NAACP for her role in Black Girl, written by J.E. Franklin and directed by Ossie Davis.

In 1974, she graduated from Antioch College. Soon after that, she moved to London on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, where, for the first time, she experienced working with diverse populations include working-class Whites and blacks, the latter mostly young immigrants from the Caribbean.

Pettitt, however, faced many struggles, and returned to the United States, to New York City. She continues her theater career in writing and performing her own work which includes more than ten original plays, produced by such venues as Performance Space 122 in New York City. Pettitt created a unique style of solo performance with roots in African-American storytelling, in which she portrays a variety of characters who are related by blood and circumstance, using them to tell "stories addressing important issues of our time"[1]. New York Times critic D.J.R. Bruckner says, "Ms. Pettitt's judgments of her characters are clear-eyed and sharp, and so is her judgment of life. "[Caught] Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" is full of sadness and disappointment, but also of wisdom and wicked humor".[2] She also performed in Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes's historical comedy, Mule Bone. She has received numerous grants and awards, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as a Fulbright Fellowship. As founding artistic director of Elders Share the Arts, "Pearls of Wisdom" storytelling ensemble Ms Pettitt and the group were inducted into City Lore's "People's Hall of Fame" in 2007.

She currently teaches Self-Scripting at New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing. She teaches at elementary schools, high schools and for Age Exchange of London. Extensive references to her work can be found in several books on theatre, community and solo performance: Performing Democracy, by Susan chandler Haedicke, 2004; Local Acts, by Jan Cohen-Cruz, 2005; Ensemble Works, by Ferdinand Lewis, 2005; Reminiscence Theatre:Making Theatre from Memory, by Pam Schweitzer, 2007.

Pettitt has been married since 1982to writer, director and painter Rémy Tissier.

Sherri said...

the movie black girl was superb. whatever happened to loretta greene, the young lady who played ruth anne. is she still acting these days?

Laverne said...

i saw the movie black girl, tonight on television, on the "this" network. i saw it a couple of times already. you know how movies are shown over and over again. but it is a pretty good movie and so intense. i love intense dramas! i get bored very easily. but i still want to know whatever happened to the actress who played billie jean, peggy pettitt? is she still living and acting? thanks!!

Bethany Phillips said...

Peggy Pettit - "performance artist". Video and pictures from 2003 at this site. http://faculty.nmu.edu/lbourgau/past.htm

downstroke4 said...

Yes, peggy is in her 50's now and is doing theatre in newyork

Larry Karaszewski said...

It's on Youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oNJR6QJZOU&feature=related

Jim said...

Yes, "The Black Film Network", which was a syndicated series of films - often introduced by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis - which used to be shown in February during Black History Month over some stations. One film which was shown was Davis' BLACK GIRL. That's where I caught it.

joe baltake said...

Larry- Thanks for the heads-up! And thanks to everyone else for the great response to this most worthy film. -J

Betty said...

By the 1990s, Peggy Pettit had become a "performance artist" who specialized in "autobiographical monologues." She had several. She performed at the alternative-performance-space P.S. 122 in Manhattan in the 1990s.

moift said...

I' ve researched this and its stunning how many movies that star and or pertain to African Americans that were made in the 70-80s have all but disappeared off the face of the earth. A MAJOR example is THE MAN. The film version of Irving Wallace's best seller about the first black president. Even recent events havent sparked a revival of that movie. Its certainly never shown on tv. Not even now. Maybe its never been available to show....

jbryant said...

moift: Yes, you'd think THE MAN would be a hot item for one of the cable channels to acquire, particularly one of the black-themed ones. I saw it again years ago on an old VHS that a producer managed to get when he hoping to do a remake (this is years before Obama, of course). He wanted me to write it with him. Guess that project is dead as a doornail now!

joe baltake said...

moift & Jay- Thanks for bringing up Joseph Sargent's "The Man," a most prescient film for 1972. BTW, I wrote about it in a Sunday, March 23, 2008 post:

http://thepassionatemoviegoer.blogspot.com/2008/03/cinema-obscura-joseph-sargents-man-1972.html

Sargent is an unsung hero among filmmakers, along with Lamont Johnson ("The Last American Hero" and Jonathan Kaplan ("Heart Like a Wheel"). I particularly like his "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970) and "White Lightning" (1973).

Mitch said...

Sargent also did the original "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," superior to the remake "The Taking of Pelham 123."

Pat Q said...

I just saw the movie "Black Girl" last night (1/16/12)on the Turner Classic Movie (TCM)Network. They showed African American movies all day in honor of the MLK holiday. I'd never heard of this movie. I recorded it on U-Verse...it was FABULOUS. My husband and I watched it together. Brought back so many memories from that decade. I recognized these characters. I've met them in my life. I could really identify with the "college girl" the other sisters didn't like. This movie was ummm ummm GOOD!!!

Tanja said...

I purchased this movie about 5 years ago. I believe I got it from E-bay. It came in its original packaging and was new on VHS! The box has all the credits and everything. I also find some vintage blaxploitation films at blackstarvideo.com. I am looking for a good place to find rare movies from this era. If anyone knows, please advise. Thanks!

tommy said...

it comes on bounce tv all the time!!!!!

a.n. said...

I just watched it on "This Chicago" channel today, it was great. Thank goodness for the month of February.

A. williams said...

I love this movie!! I've seen it about three times and every time I see it it makes me think how relevant it is in today's society. It was well acted by the whole cast. But Gloria Edwards needs An award her role it was so gritty and detestable. I cant stand her character but I love her acting. I'm sorry to see that she's passed away,when I was six . I would really love to have this treasure on DVD.

rest4sure said...

I just watch it on Bounce TV wonderful movie Billie Jean was one of my favorites because I was her always love to dance and I use to lock my bedroom door and dance playing records.

rest4sure said...

I just watched Black Girl On Bounce TV.Bounce TV is owned by Martin Luther King eldest Son Martin Luther The 3rd.I love this Movie because I was Billie Jean I played Records and danced in my Room.Peace &Blessings.

Taylor said...

No, I'll let you do the age test, which would've made D. Lewis way too old, to be in college, in "A Different World."