Black Girl (1972)
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Ossie Davis had come to his first assignment as a feature film director in a roundabout way. The acclaimed stage, film and TV actor had been hired first to play sardonic New York City detective Coffin Ed Johnson in United Artist's Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970). Tapped by producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. to brush up Arnold Perl's adaptation of the 1965 crime novel by Chester Himes, Davis billeted himself in a Hollywood hotel to bang out the rewrite, giving the script a more authentic, street level feel. Goldwyn fils was so pleased with the results that he offered Davis the director's chair, reassigning the role of Coffin Ed to Raymond St. Jacques. Shot on location with a large cast of mostly African-American actors, Cotton Comes to Harlem was a huge hit for MGM and the film's success at the box office in concert with Gordon Parks' Shaft (1971) and Gordon Parks, Jr.'s Super Fly (1972) helped spark the decade-long vogue for "blaxploitation."
The higher profile enjoyed by Davis with the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem extended all the way to Africa. In Nigeria, producer Francis Oladeli was casting about for a black American director to helm an adaptation of jailed playwright Wole Soyinka's Kongi's Harvest. By the time Davis signed on, Soyinka had been released from prison and was a Nobel Peace Prize winner while Kongi's Harvest (1970) would serve as a bid to launch a native Nigerian film industry at a time when most Nigerian cinemas were Lebanese-owned and the market was glutted with imports from India. (The feature went unreleased in the United States until 1973.) Back home, Davis shot Black Girl (1972) for the independent Cinerama Releasing Corporation. J. E. Franklin's source play had been staged originally for public television in 1969. An Off-Broadway adaptation followed in New York two years later, directed by Shauneille Perry, cousin of A Raisin in the Sun author Lorraine Hansberry.
A family drama focused on the aspirations of a young woman of color (Peggy Pettit, in her only film role) attempting to break out of the cycle of desperation and doubt that has crippled her family, Black Girl is closer kin to a Mike Leigh film than Daniel Petrie's adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun (1961). Playwright Franklin's acidic dialogue flows fast, furious and often at high volume from the mouths of Davis' cast, top-loaded with the talents of Brock Peters, Leslie Uggams, Louise Stubbs and Claudia McNeil. Davis retained Gloria Edwards from the New York stage production in the role of Pettit's angry sister and brokered the addition of a small but substantial part for wife Ruby Dee, as Uggams' mentally unstable mother. Shooting in the tumbledown Los Angeles community of Venice Beach, Davis shot his title sequence against the backdrop of the columned Windward Arcade, made famous in the single-take opening scene of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958).
Released in November 1972, Black Girl found itself lost in the shuffle of a wealth of black-themed movies that made their debut that year, among them Super Fly, Martin Ritt's Sounder, Sidney J. Furie's Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, Sidney Poitier's Buck and the Preacher (which costarred Dee), Ivan Dixon's Trouble Man, Jack Starrett's Slaughter, Bruce Clark's Hammer, Barry Shear's Across 110th Street, Bill Crain's Blacula, Robert Hartford-Davis' Black Gunn (a remake of Mike Hodges' Get Carter, 1971), and Joseph Sargent's The Man, starring James Earl Jones in a speculative drama about America's first black President. Critic Roger Ebert offered a mixed take on the film but allowed that Black Girl depicted "a black family with more depth and complexity than the movies usually permit" while offering "the kind of direct human experience we don't often get in the movies."
Producer: Lee Savin, Robert H. Greenberg
Director: Ossie Davis
Writer: J. E. Franklin
Cinematographer: Glenwood J. Swanson
Music: Ed Bogas, Ray Shanklin, Jesse Osborne, Merl Saunders
Editor: Graham Lee Mahin
Cast: Brock Peters (Earl), Claudia McNeil (Mu'Dear), Leslie Uggams (Netta), Louise Stubbs (Mama Rose), Gloria Edwards (Norma Fay), Peggy Pettit (Billie Jean), Loretta Greene (Ruth Ann), Bob Harris (Ernie), Kent Martin (Herbert), Ruby Dee (Netta's Mother), Carl Byrd (Postman).
by Richard Harland Smith
With Ossie and Ruby: In this Life Together by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (Harper Collins, 2000)
Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film by Ed Guerrero (Temple University Press, 1993)