Butters’s foundation is the idea of ”occupying geographic space.” Spaces do not necessarily belong to different groups of people. Instead, people choose to frequent the spaces open to them and then make those spaces their own according to their busyness.
Chicago’s Loop, with its businesses, restaurants, shops, and theaters, has traditionally been a white space occupied by white workers, tourists, and cultural consumers. But if enough African-Americans came to the Loop to work, eat, shop and watch movies, their presence could change the place’s racial identity. A space can become multiracial or, if abandoned by one group, change its racial identity within the wider culture.
This is exactly what happened in the first half of the 1970s, when the loop was perceived as black space. This spatial/racial displacement was not an isolated phenomenon; it was “a microcosm of the nation’s larger structural changes.” As is often the case, the loop was important not only geographically but also symbolically. The civil rights movement “made (p)psychological barriers fall as black Chicagoans, overwhelmed by the Black Power movement and disillusioned by years of segregation, began to move freely throughout the city. Beginning in the 1970s, new patterns of geographic occupation emerged. – primarily for the patronage of places of entertainment, especially movie theaters – encouraged black Chicagoans.
The movie business is all about money from start to finish. With the closing of many neighborhood theaters on the South and West sides, African-Americans began spending money downtown, while white audiences—perceiving the city as dangerous because of urban unrest, including riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jr. – ran to the suburbs. As a result, Lop theaters made more money by ordering films with a black theme. As they ordered more such fare, from “quality” black dramas to so-called “blaxploitation” action films, white audiences dwindled and a tightening circle formed.
Butters’ examination of the politics of racial identity in both these films and the critical discourse surrounding them is excellent. He claims that “all of 1971-1975 to categorize black-themed films as blaxploitation is to ghettoize them and remove their importance and relevance to the African-American community.” Hollywood has forever marginalized black talent and black themes, so seeing black heroes and heroines on screen, regardless of the genre’s artistic merits, was essential to the growth of black pride.
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Elite, if not elite, critics of African-American culture might deride these films as lacking in uplift or glorifying cultural dysfunction (as some critics do today with rap music), but audiences paid for what they wanted: an exhibition of black storytelling.
But not exclusively. Butters shows beyond doubt that black audiences were far more Catholic in taste than film bookers, critics, or white suburbanites thought. Movies like Jaws, The Exorcist, and The Godfather appealed across racial lines, drawing both blacks and whites to the Loop and suburban theaters. (The Godfather movies and their depiction of mob culture were actually an integral part of the narrative that movies like Shaft and Super Fly exploited.) An exotic new genre of kung fu films, but films starring African-American men and women as the protagonists of dramatic crime narratives, were central to the changing inner-city moviegoing audience.
Also important to Loop’s new status was the parallel phenomenon of pornography on the big screen. Court cases that overturned censorship restrictions led to the production and distribution of both soft-core and hard-core pornography (Hollywood studios looking to cash in on an industry that had fallen on hard times also had something to do). Several downtown theaters exclusively or primarily screened pornography, which also contributed to making the Loop less family-friendly. (Before 1990, there were no movie theaters in the Loop at all, Butters reports.)
Then it’s about the physical spaces of the theaters themselves. Although some of these films made a lot of money in different genres, large theaters were expensive to maintain and many owners did not bother. As the physical structures deteriorated, Cilpa developed a reputation for crime, grimness and squalor, which was part reality (many theaters were dilapidated and infested with rodents) and part prejudice (Cilpa’s crime rate, then as now, was lower than in remote areas despite media hype). But movies are about reputation, even glamour, and when the Loop theater gained a reputation as an X-rated venue, crime-ridden or black, many potential customers drove to a brand new and sparkling clean suburban mall theater. travel to the city center.
Butters frames his discussion of the content of these films and the culture of the film business through the voices of contemporary critics, both African-American and white, particularly two men familiar to many Chicago moviegoers: Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. . In the early 1970s, Siskel and Ebert reviewed these films and wrote about these theaters, and Siskel especially emerges as a perceptive critic, attentive to the setting moviegoers are looking for (less loud video game lobby, not to mention less rodent theater) and the films’ content and broader cultural context. , in which the Loop was perceived.
Finally, Butters links his narrative of art and commerce to the politics of the early 1970s, when much of the loop was announced under the illustrious administration of Richard J. Daley and the “urban renewal” sphere and bulldozers. Much of the criticism of Daley’s era programs highlights how he rebuilt the city in destructive ways, from destroying neighborhoods at the University of Illinois at Chicago or creating the vertical ghettos of Robert Taylor’s Houses on the ruins of Bronzeville. But Daley and his real-estate development buddies also set their sights on the loop. Huge areas on both sides of State Street were slated for demolition, including every movie theater in the Loop. Fortunately, a few (Chicago Theater, East Theater) were saved thanks to preservationists and the administrations of less bulldozing mayors Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne.
Butters is often a graceful writer with a sharp wit, a knack for turning a sharp phrase and a fluency in jazzy showbiz lingo: profitable movies have “legs” and “bo” is “bucks.” With cheerful understatement, he describes The New York Times as “a bastion of non-black revolutionary thought.”
But given the $60 price tag, the book needed serious editing, which she didn’t get. All too often it takes three or four sentences to get one or two done, awkwardly repeating points, key phrases and facts. Important ideas are buried in the middle of a paragraph, and framing issues, such as the specific ownership or location of theaters, repeat themselves between and within chapters (sometimes even within paragraphs). Some facts about the history of cinema need better explanation (eg: the X rating did not originally distinguish a film as hardcore pornography of a sexual nature; the X simply meant a film intended for adults only). Illustrations of the various film newspaper ads, useful but not essential to Butters’ argument, are poorly reproduced and add little.
Fortunately for all concerned—especially any reader interested in deeply informed, nuanced, and insightful new perspectives on racial change and Chicago film culture—From Sweet to Superfly overcomes these issues.
Butters takes his readers back to a time not just before streaming video, the Internet, DVD or VHS. It takes us back to a time when African Americans, finally free to go where they wanted to be entertained, lined the streets to patronize the great movie houses of the Chicago Loop. That this liberation coincided with the decline of the loop as white Chicagoans and suburbanites is the tragic outcome of yet another narrative of racism in Chicago.
Bill Savage teaches Chicago literature at Northwestern University.
“From Sweetback to Super Fly: Racing and Movie Audiences in the Chicago Loop”
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