Warrington Hudlin, a talented young director, is taking a leadership role among the large group of New York-based black filmmakers. With two widely praised documentary films, Black at Yale and Street Corner Stories, to his credit, he has organized and acquired funding for a black filmmakers’ cooperative that is publishing a catalogue listing black film works from across the country.
As a programmer for the summer cultural program Film mobile, he has been influential in selecting many of New York’s best black short subjects for presentation.
Warrington considers himself part of the New Wave in black film (a reference to the French film movement of the 1950s), that includes his associates Robert Gardner and Roy Campanella, Jr. Other New York-based filmmakers such as Ronald Gray, Robert Van Lierop, Hugh Thompson and William Miles, who made the 1977 New York Film Street Corner Stories. Festival selection, Men of Bronze, are also vital forces in the movement. All have either attempted or been successful at creating works with a discernible black sensibility.
For Warrington that is a goal of considerable value. If black films are to be black films, he feels, they will have to develop an aesthetic character that will distinguish them.
Such an aesthetic conception is illustrated by the films of the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, a director Warrington greatly admires, not only for that director’s pictorial composition but for the uniquely Japanese feeling his films convey.
Kurosawa in Japan, Fellini in Italy and John Ford in the US, even with his conservative political views, drew from a national character which gave their work its base and direction.
Hudlin’s thinking on film and the arts in general first took shape at a high school for gifted children in his hometown of East St. Louis. From there, he ventured to that bastion of Ivy League life, Yale University, experiencing a severe case of culture shock.
For a time, Hudlin fell into black militancy as a protective device. He, however, soon recovered his equilibrium and used his adjustment problems as the basis for his first film.
Black at Yale depicts the experiences of two young black men who attend the famed institution. One is an articulate English major who feels isolated from the larger campus community. The film opens with him talking about his confusion and his problem of being me playing the role of a nigger and that nigger playing the role of a white man.
The 50-minute film then segues into the strange and often amusing tale of a young man from Philadelphia who decides to study philosophy at Yale. He does this without paying tuition or bothering to inform the Yale administration. Clearly, complications will ensue.
With the street wit of a hustler and the confidence to match, he attends classes, expounds his personal philosophy and engages other students in heated debates. Many blacks attending Yale feel legitimately threatened by his presence and verbalize their antagonism.
Throughout the film, the black English major is seen conversing with the non matriculated student. They get along well, and Hudlin seems to have thrown them together to both reveal and explore the kindred nature of outsiders. Although they have different backgrounds, the two are similar at heart.
Black at Yale, made while Hudlin was still a student, is not without some collegian rough spots. Some of his offscreen questions are a little too puffy and unchallenging. He also includes an interview with Stokley Carmichael that disrupts the film’s narrative drive, though it does provide some perspective on the admission of blacks at white colleges.
On the whole, Black at Yale is solid. It approaches its subject — What does it mean to be a black student at Yale University? — with understanding and depth. Without stretching for effect, it also manages to touch on the problems of blacks in the larger white society.
While his first film is impressive, Hudlin’s second, Street Corner Stories, is brilliant. Employing the cinema verite documentary style, that, in Hudlin’s words, …doesn’t explain to the audience what is going on or what to think about it, he filmed the early morning conversations at a New Haven, Connecticut luncheonette.
Interlaced with a wit and vulgarity that Richard Pryor would admire, workmen trade stories, jokes and philosophies. The same faces recur throughout the 90-minute film, illuminating their personalities and thoughts on life through rambling dialogues and monologues.
My favorite raconteur wears a white floppy hat and shades. He has a nice way with a tall tale. For example, he relates at one juncture, All I want when I’m drinking is a bottle and a pack of cigarettes. So far as food…I don’t eat it. The doctor said I can live nine days on water alone and I damn sure done it. Hell, I lived for three months up there at the hospital on about three meals every two weeks. People asked the doctor, ‘How can he live so long without eating?’ The doctor said, Because alcohol has many vitamins in it to hold you up.
Street Corner Stories succeeds on several levels. A fine example of the cinema verite style, the film is also a study in anthropology, sociology, black language and humor. It captures for posterity that wonderful sensation of hearing older urban blacks with rural roots shooting the breeze. It could have been shot in a barbershop, a backyard, a pool hall, an Elks’s home or anywhere in black America for that matter, for it taps a special riff that we play over and over.
Some have attacked the film, claiming it merely helps to reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks. Hudlin’s answer to this criticism reveals a lot about his very theoretical approach to film.
Cinema verite invites viewers to see the film and the characters as they wish. If they have negative feelings about those men on the street, they will see Street Corner as negative and stereotypical.
The Ralph Ellison quotation that opens the film defines the blues as an impulse to keep the details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness…by squeezing from it a tragicomic lyricism. That is what I attempted to achieve in Street Corner Stories.
The blues then isn’t merely a musical form but an attitude and style of life as well. I see the blues as one of the major sensibilities of black American life, particularly for the older generation that appears in my film. By identifying the blues as a film sensibility, I presented both a wide and complex interpretation of street corner life.