Needless to say that genre of inner city African-American films that were produced in the late 1960s through the 1970s called “blaxpolitation” had its positive and negative aspects. On the negative side, the message inside a morass of poorly made crime films did little in terms of speaking about the experiences of the bulk of African Americans during that time, concentrating on the worst stereotypes of urban life to sell tickets. On the positive side, the countless films that did give a more honest view the African American community, both contemporary and historical, would not have otherwise been made if not for the success of the aforementioned crime films. Films like Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree and Marton Ritt’s Sounder along with the mini-series creation of Alex Haley’s novel, Roots may not have happened if films centered on the African American experience were not deemed commercially viable by Hollywood standards.
Such was the situation of Ossie Davis, who was fresh off the immense commercial success of his second feature, the urban crime film, Cotton Comes To Harlem, in 1970. Davis set out to direct a film version of Houston-born playwright J.E. Franklin’s celebrated 1969 work, Black Girl, which was first produced that same year for WGBH, Boston’s public television station, and then run as an off-Broadway play in 1971. The film version of Black Girl centers on several generations of women in a family living in a small house located in the Venice Beach neighborhood of Los Angeles. The “black girl” of the title is Billie Jean (Peggy Pettitt), a seventeen year old who dreams of becoming a ballerina but who, for now, must be content with dancing at her local bar for tips while suffering the jeers from her two half-sisters and her mother. Her mother, who most everyone calls Mama Rosie (Louise Stubbs), gave birth to Billie Jean from a second husband after her first husband Earl (Brock Peters) left the family, leaving Rosie alone to raise their daughters, Norma (Gloria Edwards) and Ruth Ann (Lorette Greene). Also crammed in this tiny house are Rosie’s mother, Mu Dear (Claudia McNeil) and her live-in boyfriend from church, Herbert (Kent Martin), leaving young Billie Jean with only a small makeshift bedroom between the kitchen and the living room to practice her dancing. Unfortunately, Billie Jean’s aspirations come to a halt when Norma and Ruth Ann blab to Mama Rosie about Billie Jean’s dancing at a gin joint and dropping out of high school.
In the midst of all of this tension, Earl shows back up to the house in a new Cadillac, waving around a wad of cash, which is most likely acquired through some illegal activity and dispenses a bit of it along with a reminder as to why he left in the first place. A key moment here is when Mama Rosie suggests that Billie Jean should receive some of Earl’s gift to the family, but Earl doesn’t accept her as his own because he did not sire her and reacts with resistance to this suggestion. Billie Jean takes Earl’s initial hesitance as an insult and refuses the cash but is encouraged to take it by Mama Rosie, which speaks volumes as to Mama Rosie’s current feelings towards the raw deal she feels that she has received in having Billie Jean, her only child with a different (and unmentioned) father. Earl suggests a reconciliation with Mama Rosie, but her heart is hard at this point and closed to such things.
Making the situation worse is that Billie Jean, Norma, and Ruth Ann are constantly reminded of the real apple of their mother’s eye, the much lighter-skin colored Netta (Leslie Uggams), a boarder whom Mama Rosie took in when Netta’s mother (a silent Ruby Dee) lost her mind. Netta is far away at college doing her best but still draws the hatred of the three sisters in the house due to their mother’s clear appreciation of Netta over them, Mama Rosie’s actual flesh and blood. Soon, Netta comes home for a Mother’s Day visit, but after years of torment from Mama Rosie, Norma and Ruth Ann begin twisting Billie Jean’s mind against Netta, claiming that Netta is coming to take Billie Jean’s hovel of a room upon graduation. This sets up a tense third act where the well-intentioned Netta will walk into a buzz saw that is Mama Rosie’s three daughters.
Davis’ loose direction allows for some truly unpredictable moments, and thus the actors’ performances come through far above the plot. Gloria Edwards leads the charge here as she brings a real ferocity to her character of Norma, and the final third has a level of realistic tension that is borderline unbearable. Though the film is set around Billie Jean, Peggy Pettitt has to play with a mostly, silent, brooding character but does the most with her, especially again in the third act. Louise Stubbs is excellent throughout and paints Mama Rosie as a woman who is capable of great joy, as seen through her loving scenes with Earl, but is also someone filled with such an intense loathing of all who exist around her due to the mistakes she has made throughout her life. In the end Black Girl takes advantage of its poor socioeconomic confined setting to show you several generations of one family existing under one roof so that you can closely contrast the different attitudes based on age and skin tone. That amount of people from different eras living on top of one another soon becomes a story of missed opportunities, contempt, and the soul-crushing ability that a family can possess in destroying the dreams of those whom they are supposed to love and encourage to grow so that they can eventually leave the home for good.
Original 1972 Trailer For Black Girl
I, for one, am glad that despite its fostering of negative stereotypes, Cotton Comes To Harlem gave Ossie Davis the clout to make a film version of Black Girl. Though the advertising had to give the audience a false impression that they were about to see a blaxploitation crime film, Black Girl is an uncompromised and deeply personal story of an African-American family who is just trying to get over despite the pain they continue to cause to each another, addressing a perspective that was rarely discussed or seen in media during its time.