From SWEETBACK to SUPER FLY: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago's Loop

From SWEETBACK to SUPER FLY: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago's Loop

by Gerald R. Butters Jr.


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Racial politics and capitalism found a way to blend together in 1970s Chicago in the form of movie theaters targeted specifically toward African Americans. In From Sweetback to Super Fly, Gerald Buttersexamines the movie theaters in Chicago’s Loop that became, as he describes them, “black spaces” during the early 1970s with theater managers making an effort to gear their showings toward the African American community by using black-themed and blaxploitation films.

Butters covers the wide range of issues that influenced the theaters, from changing racial patterns to the increasingly decrepit state of Chicago’s inner city and the pressure on businesses and politicians alike to breathe life into the dying area. Through his extensive research, Butters provides an in-depth look at this phenomenon, delving into an area that has not previously been explored. His close examination of how black-themed films were marketed and how theaters showing these films tried to draw in crowds sheds light on race issues both from an industrial standpoint on the side of the theaters and movie producers, as well as from a cultural standpoint on the side of the moviegoers and the city of Chicago as a whole. Butters provides a wealth of information on a very interesting yet underexamined part of history, making From Sweetback to Super Fly a supremely enjoyable and informative book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826220363
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 11/30/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Gerald R. Butters, Jr., is Professor of History at Aurora University. His publications include Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915-1966 (University of Missouri Press).

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From Sweetback to Super Fly

Race and Film Audiences in Chicago's Loop

By Gerald R. Butters Jr.

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2015 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-2036-3


Race, Civil Rights, and Chicago's Loop, 1945–70

Chicago's Loop was the heart of motion picture exhibition in the Midwest in the 1960s. For white and black Chicagoans, the Loop was the primary destination for movie going whether one was going on a date, taking children to a film, or combining shopping with an entertainment experience. In order to understand the changing role and influence of these theaters, one must understand the developing nature of the Loop in the period 1945 to 1970, racial perceptions of downtown Chicago, and the role of the civil rights movement in the downtown area.

The Loop is the popular name for the business district south of the main stem of the Chicago River. A loop of elevated track for a rapid transit line was created in 1897. This "integrated intercity transportation" system made the Loop the core of the business and entertainment district of the city, the primary destination for work, shopping, entertainment, and government well into the twentieth century. The number of people entering and leaving the Loop peaked in 1948, with more than a million citizens traveling into and out of the city core each day. The Loop therefore served as a type of second neighborhood for many individuals living in the metropolitan region.

During the 1950s the economic and cultural influence of the Loop began to decline. Federal programs such as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 spurred the rise of suburbanization. Federally subsidized low-cost loans for returning veterans helped them fulfill the dream of a suburban home and an automobile. Most of the new housing built from 1945 to 1960 for middle- and upper-middleclass Chicagoans was on the fringe of the city. By the late 1950s the Loop had ceased to be a second neighborhood for many in the region and instead became a site for special occasions or for work. As Arnold Hirsch has pointed out, this had many ramifications for the central city. As wealthier Chicagoans began to flee the inner city, vacancies emerged around the Black Belt, the area on the South Side to which African Americans had been restricted by the de jure segregation of racism. The Black Belt originally extended from 22nd Street to 31st Street along State Street. Old racial borders became destabilized as legal attacks were mounted by civil rights organizations against restrictive covenants and real estate speculators saw an opportunity to prey on racial fear and make a buck. "Blockbusting" real estate agents preyed upon white fears, stoking talk of a "black invasion," and white Chicagoans saw themselves as victims as the Black Belt expanded. White Chicagoans reacted two ways — through moving to the suburbs or using violence. Some courageous African Americans were willing to escape ghetto conditions and move into previously all-white neighborhoods that had vacant houses for sale.

Racial politics played an integral role in the changing dynamics of the Loop in the 1950s and 1960s. As Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor point out in their biography of Chicago mayor Richard Daley, "though the Loop was in serious decline [in the 1950s], it had a powerful ally on its side: Chicago's business establishment." Fifty-four of the Fortune 500 companies were located in the Chicago area, and many of these were in or near the Loop. Race and economics became inextricably linked in Chicago's downtown. The Loop was still not racially integrated in the 1950s because many businesses refused to employ African Americans. Other establishments, primarily hotels and restaurants, went out of their way to provide inferior service or inflict racial slights to make clear that African Americans were not welcome to patronize their business. Black Chicagoans might have difficulty geting a table in a restaurant or would be ignored by sales clerks in department stores. It continued to be difficult for African Americans in the North or the South to travel and find accommodations. Ebony and several other black publications issued travel guides for African Americans in the 1950s, listing hotels and restaurants that would serve African Americans. Joe Ruklick, a resident of the suburban Chicago city of Evanston, noted that in the 1950 "you didn't see black people walking around the Loop." Thomas J. Sugrue has argued, "What made northern racial barriers so frustrating was that they were sometimes as hard and fast as they were in the South — but, at the same time, they could be surprisingly and unpredictably flexible. The rules of racial engagement in the North were seldom posted." This was certainly the case in the Loop, where black citizens took a chance when attempting to buy a meal or reserve a room at a Loop establishment. Asked to compare the segregation of Chicago and Atlanta in this period, Milton Davis, an activist in the Chicago-based Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), told an interviewer:

Well, surely [Chicago was] as racist [as Atlanta] and certainly in terms of its brutality toward Blacks — not physical brutality — but just, I think, what it did to the psyche. Maybe that was because one assumed that in the north you had these freedoms only to find out that, in fact, you didn't.

Davis explained that when entertainers like Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn came to Chicago to perform in the 1940s and 1950s, they had to stay in Bronzeville, on 47th Street on the South Side, a traditional African American neighborhood in the Black Belt. In the late 1950s it was still difficult for African American lawyers to obtain office space in the Loop. Earl E. Strayhorn, an attorney who served on the Chicago Civil Rights Commission, claimed that there was as much racism in the Loop as there was in Deerfield, a white suburb northwest of the city. The pioneering civil rights activist Timuel Black declared that "going to the Loop was a challenge. We knew we were going to be insulted." Christopher Reed, a professor at Roosevelt University, recalled going to Loop movie theaters as a child in the 1950s and seeing few black adults at weekend screenings. He explained that African Americans who were part of the workforce on the streets of the Loop during the week largely vanished from the Loop at night.

Yet the racial mixture of the city was rapidly changing in the 1950s. As thousands of white Chicagoans moved to the suburbs, the African American population was growing, fueled by job opportunities and the postwar baby boom that knew no racial barriers. African Americans who moved to Chicago occupied either the West Side or the South Side of the city. The West Side was the ultimate destination for thousands of transplanted black southerners. The South Side, as noted earlier, was the traditional Black Belt. The author J. F. Rice described the differences between the two communities:

The West Side ghetto was materially poor, as was the South Side ghetto, but South Side poverty was noticeably different. There, poverty was perhaps more desperate, out of touch with Southern black roots. It was urbanized poverty.

The typical political analogy was that the West Side was a colony ruled by whites, white landlords who owned the property and businesses that had been abandoned by frightened whites. On the neocolonial South Side, African American businessmen controlled much of the business structure.

During the late 1950s, Loop businessmen found themselves in a predicament. They were still practicing racial exclusion, yet the African American population was expanding while the white population was leaving or visiting the Loop only for work or special occasions. The central business district of Chicago bordered black working-class neighborhoods to the south and west. Housing projects, such as Cabrini-Green, were also located nearby. The Black Belt was geographically expanding in both a southerly and a northerly direction, coming within blocks of the Loop. The exploding black population — rising from 14 percent of the city's population in 1950 to 23 percent in 1960 — was poised to next occupy space directly in the Loop. Between 1950 and 1960 the black population rose from 492,265 to 812,637. The need for new housing in the overcrowded Black Belt was dramatic. As the ghetto expanded following World War II, it was constantly accompanied by white animosity. Black areas of residence were still all but controlled by white citizens who lived in nearby neighborhoods. The Chicago racial frontier did have changing borders, though. As white Chicagoans fled to the suburbs, the African American population continued to increase exponentially. Between 1950 and 1960 the black population in Chicago increased by 320,373, a 65 percent increase. There simply was no available housing for African Americans in the Black Belt. As vacancies began to appear in communities neighboring the Black Belt, the old borders became destabilized. The desperate need for new housing and the postwar economic boom led to the redefinition of the geography of Chicago's racial accommodation. For a time, as Hirsch has pointed out, the status quo reigned. Then, as the Black Belt expanded and approached white residential areas, white Chicagoans no longer bought houses in the borderlands, and black Chicagoans waited to see what would happen. Many white Chicagoans knew what would happen to the value of their property if "they" moved in. Landlords and home owners were unwilling to continue to invest money to improve their properties, so deterioration began to set in. As middle- and upper-class white Chicagoans fled to the suburbs, black "pioneers" began moving into the previously all-white neighborhoods. As vacancies increased, real estate speculators began to enter the market. White home owners sold to these speculators because home owners often did not want to deal directly with African Americans; whites wanted to save face in their neighborhoods by selling to white speculators (who would then sell to African Americans), and speculators had more ready cash than potential black home owners or renters. Since many black Chicagoans had difficulty obtaining financing for home ownership, they too often dealt with speculators. As Hirsch has argued, "The speculators provided the property, money, and needless to say, the terms, through which the black demand for housing could be met."

The white business establishment, which was both economically and politically powerful, became increasingly frightened by emerging racial patterns. The business community's fear was that the encroaching black ghetto would scare off wealthy potential clientele. Suburbanization and the white fear of having black neighbors led to several now-illegal practices by the real estate agents. Blockbusting, the practice by which real estate agents and developers encouraged white property owners to sell by giving them the impression that African Americans were moving into the neighborhood, was becoming increasingly common in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago. The white business establishment feared that a tidal wave of poor blacks would move into the region and that their investments would depreciate suddenly and dramatically. This process of racial succession created desperation and fear among white Chicagoans in changing neighborhoods. Unscrupulous speculators would use various techniques to harass holdouts, including hiring African Americans to walk through neighborhoods or to honk horns at night. Whites saw themselves as victims of black territorial expansion. Those who did not sell often resorted to violence. One of the supposedly nonviolent solutions was urban renewal.

The expansion of the Black Belt coincided with the physical deterioration of the Loop. Many of the aging structures in the district were built in the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries, and with the threat of racial change, many property owners were reluctant to invest in depreciating property. Violence and suburban flight were not the only solutions for alarmed corporate property owners. They turned to legal and political power to protect their investments. The large economic interests in the Loop led the charge. Changing racial dynamics and suburbanization were not the only factors threatening the status quo: declining tax revenues and the physical deterioration of the district also were threatening the bottom line. The Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council led the campaign in the face of a growing fear that the Loop would be cut off from its white customers by a ring of slums. The business community realized that it would need to harness the power of the state in order to protect their interests.

Mayor Richard Daley became a leader in the public effort to revitalize the aging and decaying inner city. Daley became chair of the Cook County Regular Democratic Party in 1953. He was elected mayor in 1955 and held both posts until his death in 1976. Daley wanted to make the Loop a more appealing place for investors. Virtually no construction had taken place in the Loop from the Great Depression through World War II. But by 1958 over a million square feet of office space had been added to the downtown. Daley was a strong supporter of seeking federal funds for urban renewal in order to deal with the city's deteriorating infrastructure. Urban renewal projects in Chicago included the demolition of unoccupied and decaying buildings, the clearance of slums, and the rehabilitation of historically significant buildings.

This "redevelopment" also often included the maintenance of the racial status quo. One such example was the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway, which reinforced the racial segregation line on the South Side. The formidable highway indirectly tightened white and black boundaries south of the Loop. The widest highway built to date in the United States served as both a physical and a psychological barrier for African Americans. The 1950 census revealed a city that was not desegregating but one in which racial borders were being redefined. Within the South Side black neighborhoods, both jobs and businesses disappeared. Many African Americans rarely left the areas in which they lived. Black isolation became a fact of life. The infamous Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project, were cut off from the rest of the city by the Dan Ryan and railroad yards. Economic marginalization became all too apparent in all-black neighborhoods. In the early 1960s sociologists and urban planners noted the phenomenon of the chronically unemployed. Myrna Lovejoy, a Chicago resident back then, explained the lack of economic opportunity for African Americans: "The post office was full of degreed black people who couldn't get jobs. There was a time when the only job you could get was with the government." And this applied to African American men and women with a high school or college education — not the tens of thousands of African Americans who had not completed high school. During the 1950s and mid-1960s, twenty-three of Chicago's twenty-five housing projects were located in areas where more than 75 percent of residents were African American. Of the new federally subsidized apartments that were built, 98 percent of the 21,010 family units constructed after 1950 were in all-black neighborhoods. This meant that there was a solid corridor of low-rent housing along State Street from 51st Street to 22nd Street — numbingly close to the Loop. By 1960 there were clear "second ghettos" on both the West and South Sides of the city. They were several times larger than the older ghettos and were centered on the concrete, institutional housing projects. This second ghetto was created through the deep involvement of city, state, and federal governments. The physical dilapidation of the near South Side is what worried Loop business interests the most. Some of the worst slum housing was located there; its "sort of residential-manufacturing-warehousing mixture of land uses was anathema" to those who wanted to protect the Loop from forces that would cause its further deterioration. As Squires and colleagues argued, "The Loop was perceived to be on the edge of a threatening sea of residential blight."

Hirsch argued in Making the Second Ghetto that "the real tragedy surrounding the emergence of the modern ghetto is not that it has been inherited but that it has been periodically renewed and strengthened." He noted that this expansion of the ghetto was carried out "with government sanction and support" and that "white hostility was of paramount importance in shaping the pattern of black settlement." This process was aided by the acquiescence of black politicians who did not want to lose their positions in Daley's Democratic machine. As the Black Belt expanded, the ghetto became a self-sustaining organism.

In Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, Harold M. Mayer and Richard Wade demonstrated that three and a half blocks of the city changed from white to black every week during the 1950s. They claim this led to a "long list of social ills that afflict blighted areas — poor health, inferior education, unskilled jobs, or none at all, fragile family life, delinquency, and much more." Morton Grodzins, a professor at the University of Chicago, wrote in 1957, "This trend [of southern blacks moving into Chicago] threatens to transform the cities into slums, largely inhabited by Negroes, ringed about with white suburbs." During the 1950s black Chicago became larger and increasingly divided. Jeffrey Helgeson has argued that the postwar housing market was marked by three factors: the development of black neighborhoods on Chicago's periphery, slum clearance, and the location of public housing projects in already-black neighborhoods and mixed-class private residential housing in the central city. White aldermen feared urban development in their districts while black aldermen welcomed the increase in housing stock and viewed the massive Chicago Housing Authority projects as a solid block of supportive voters. These factors reinforced the emergence of a second black ghetto.


Excerpted from From Sweetback to Super Fly by Gerald R. Butters Jr.. Copyright © 2015 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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Table of Contents


One. Race, Civil Rights, and Chicago's Loop, 1945–70,
Two. Sweetback and the Rise of Black-Themed Films, 1970–71,
Three. Blaxploitation, Black-Themed Films, and Film Spectatorship, 1971–72,
Four. Super Fly and Resistance to Blaxploitation, 1972,
Five. Karate Rape in Harlem, 1973,
Six. The Exorcist and the Decline of the Loop as a First-Run Market, 1973–74,
Seven. The Beginning of the End: Loop Theaters under Attack, 1975,
Conclusion. Demolition and Rebirth, 1976–,
Appendix A. Kuumba: Principles for Creativity and Liberation,
Appendix B. Seating Capacities for Downtown Movie Theaters, 1972,
Index of Films Mentioned,

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