THE BIG, muscular black man, his eyes rolling lasciviously, frisks the lithe brunette ever so slowly. By now she is fully dressed, her breasts, previously covered only by a clinging wet T-shirt, no longer the main focal point of the cameras. But this stops neither the grouping hands nor searing eyes of the black man, and the specter of rape does not loom small.
Sound like a scene from some vacuous B-movie? Instead, it is but one of several provocative scenes with racial-sexual overtones in one of the summer's major releases. "The Deep," based on Peter Benchley's follow-up to the phenomenal "Jaws."
The film, a treasure-hunt thriller about a vacationing white middle-class couple involved in a bloody competition to recover underwater jewels and keep a fortune in morphine from the hands of villains, is distinguished by the fact that all the bad guys are black, with the exception of hte character portrayed by Eli Wallach; one's inference is that his villainy is partly to tip the scale so that all the good guys are not white and all the heavies are not black.. The film's producer denies this "categorically," but the inference still won't go way.
Despite its cinematic flaws ("The Deep" is saved primarily by spectacular underwater cinematography), the movie's gross - probably $60 million domestically and is on its way to out-stripping "Jaws."
And "Star Wars" has some racial problems of its own.
"I just returned from seeing 'Star Wars' for the fifth time," black actor Raymond St. Jacques wrote recently, "and each time I've seen the film, I've ignored the obvious, and that is the terrifing realization that black people (or any ethic minority for that matter) shall not exist in the galactic space empires of the future . . ."
This summer has seen a spate of films that, by omission and commission, have starkly racist overtones.Their makers vehemently deny racist intent. But the result is that in the film medium, some of the hard-won social gains of the 1960s are being chipped away under pressure of the box office, and under the guise of esthetic integrity.
Since the turn of the century, blacks have nearly always been stereotyped in the movies. In this study of black movies, film historian Donald Bogle classified the degrading types: Toms (who served their masters well); Coons (the funnymen whose purpose was to assure whites that all blacks were harmless and stupid); Mulattoes (their "tragedy" was they weren't born all-white); Mammies (sexless earth mothers who devoted their lives to their white charges); and Bucks (bestial superstuds after the pure white flesh of virgins).
The 1960s was the decade when Negroes turned black in society - and in films. The civil rights movement brought the public accommodations and voting rights bill. But blaxploitation films quickly became the dominant movies - a direct response to the sizzling '60s. Racist in their own way, the blaxploitation films were often virulently anti-white in their seeking of black box-office dollars, and unreal in their superpimps. They showed the industry's unwillingness to deal with blacks as serious individuals. A few films such as "Sounder" were the exception, and showed that movies that deal seriously with the black community could be good box office.
The difference between this summer's offerings and blaxploitation films is hat the latter were targeted to small, specialized audiences. "The Deep" and "Star Wars" are major releases, with huge budgets and sophisticated ad campaigns that have pulled out all of the stops. The White Turncoat
How did the rummy Eli Wallach character, sympathetic in the book, become a semi-heavy in "The Deep?" "The inference is that they had to level out the villainy," said Wallach. "In the book, the villains are Indian and black . . . The character I play is sympathetic. In the movie version they decided to make him a turncoat."
Was Wallach made a baddie because the producers wanted one white heavy? "I don't think that is quite correct. There's a supposition. I can't say that."
Louis Gossett, the black actor who plays the head bad guy, said the film's racial casting "was a mistake in one sense. The Robert Shaw character was an Indian. "They tried using make-up to make him darker, but that would streak underwater. They used Shaw rather than James Earl Jones for the box office. They hired some of the white to be on my side, but it just didn't work".
What of the frisking and the leering? "That definitely bothered me," said Gossett. "But that's more an English director than an American producer and also my not being in a position to stop it."
That the Wallach character was a bad guy for racial reasons is "utterly without basis in fact," producer Peter Guber said recently from Los Angeles. That charge "is without merit, truth or a scintilla of evidence.
"Wallach was cast two weeks before he came . . ." One of the initial changes was to make the role a villian "so that there would be a greater sense of jeopardy . . ."
When is it racist to have black bad guys? In the case of "The Deep," the script's simplemindedness doesn't make for any kind of subtlety. But lining up the good guys and the bad guys along primarily racial lines and making only the black characters lustful clearly adds an ugly edge that does a disservice to blacks. Fairy-Tale Universe
In "Star Wars," the film that has swept the nation by storm and become a pop-cultural phenomenon, there are no ethnic minorities at all.
Attempting to explain this omission, Charlie Lippincott, a merchandising executive with Star Wars Corp., said, "It's a little absurd because the whole story is a fairy tale. This happened a long time ago. It's a space fantasy. If 'Star Wars' hadn't been so successful, (these charges) wouldn't have been made.
"Nobody knew 'Star Wars' was going to be such a phenomenon. George's (Lucas, the writer/director) first science-fiction film was 'THX 1138' and Don Pedro Colley played one of the leading roles. But it was such a diaster that the completely turned around people don't want socially relevant films, they want entertainment. Films are a commercial industry.
"We're not saying that blacks, orientals, and other minorities don't exist. We haven't even covered this galaxy yet . . . We have barely dug into this galaxy and what it's like. We aren't saying there were no minorities. The film was originally to be with Japanese. We couldn't get the money. That was seven years ago. I don't think there was racism. He wasn't saying this is an all-white society."
That's not the way it looks to many blacks.
"I resented a portrayal of an advanced society that assumed that no blacks have existed at all in it," said Charlie Cobb, a culture reporter for National Public Radio. "The movie industry's attitudes portray society's attitudes. There is still a lot of truth that blacks are invisible men . . ."
Lucas, 33, knows the impact of the movies. He told Rolling Stone recently that, after "American Graffiti," "I was getting this fan mail from kids that said the film changed their life . . . It still has a vision to it, a sort of wholesome, honest vision about the way you want the world to be . . ." An Evil Voice
It was precisely this that scared St. Jacques.
"It is terrifying because the creators of these films dealing with the future consciously, I'm sure, have all kinds of rationalizations to justify our lack of visibility.
"Where else but the future can we hope to be completely free? Free socially, politically and artistically. If ever there is to be a time that we can create without having to worry abut acceptive norms of our present racist society, it must be the future. Then why in The Force's name must our fiklm creators continue to perpetuate the terrible destructive ideals that put man against man, brother against brother and nation against nation?"
It has been pointed out several times that the film has dozens of characters of different sentient species - not mere races of a single species - getting along reasonably well, and the only evidence of social bias is directed against the appealing droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, when they try to enter an intergalactic tavern.
"Star Wars" was disquieting, further, by the use of the voice of black actor James Earl Jones - the voice of Darth Vader, the black-clad "faceless" monster. Jones' was a mystery voice to many until Lucas revealed it in Rolling Stone. "He was the best actor I could possibly find. He has a deep, commanding voice," Lucas said. (The role was played by Scottish actor David Prowse, whose brogue was so thick as to have made him unintelligible.)
Reached in Los Angeles, Jones said through his agent that he didn't want to talk about the role. "I'd rather perpetuate the mystery," Jones' agent quoted him as saying.
But it wasn't a well-kept secret. The Black Absence
"Logan's Run" has to some been even more disquieting in its omission of blacks, for it portrays a future utompia, where the norm is to be young, beautiful and white, and no differing from the norm is permitted.
While "Star Wars" and "The Deep" have been the big draws in a summer of movies with simple plots and story-lines, other releases such as the $25 million "A Bridge Too Far" are conspicuous by their absence of black faces. This film is about an unsuccessful Allied offensive which attempted to establish a bridgehead across the Lower Rhine by landing 35,000 airborne troops (two American divisions, one British division and a Polish brigade) behind German lines in Holland in September of 1944.
Blacks have fought in every war in this country since the Revolutionary War, yet World World II in this country was for blacks a particularly emotional engagement. They felt that in protecting democracy abroad they would win a measure of it for themselves at home. Film is fantasy but it is also is symbolic, and Joseph E. Levine's epic war movie's omission sent a sharp shudder through many in the black community.
"Rocky" also posed an unsetting situation. This attempt to be a kind of inspirational film for lower-class whites had as its representative of the system a flamboyant black fighter, the unappealing Apollo Creed. It was disquieting because, in real life, blacks most often occupy the most tenuous positions on the periphery of the system.
Whether the cries for "Rocky" would have been as shrill had his opponent been white, or even a black character with more dimension, is open for conjecture. But I was made uneasy by the film, disturbed by the realization that although the black villain was calling the shots in his life, and even though Rocky admired his fighting ability, that once again a black was the villain and the object of the blood-thirsty cries to the sympathetic pug Rocky to "Kill heeeemmmmm . . ."
As for the future, Gossett thinks using blacks in calories roles "is the next threshold . . . I think the thing is not to complain about existing films but to do our own productions and get them properly distributed and properly organized."
Others point out that, in the meanwhile, the movie industry has to respond to the black dollars that flow into its coffers. One way is by picking up on some of the black plays, books and stories that have been the product of the last creative decade.
Because they fail to see the power of film, and how people borrow its images, many black organizations often dismiss movies as unimportant and do not bother to protest when they perceive racism on the screen.
"I think you put pressure on the industry . . . you raise hell about things and you would be able to correct some things," said one observer, "but I'm pessimistic."