Cast & Crew
Mama Rosie works as a school janitor to support her daughters, teenager Billie Jean and older half-sisters Norma and Ruth Ann. The family lives in a disheveled rental house, which they share with Mama Rosie's mother, Mu' Dear and Mu' Dear's boyfriend Herbert. Although both the pregnant Ruth Ann and Norma have several children, neither is married or plans to leave the house. Billie Jean, who believes that a career as a professional dancer will lead her out of poverty and prevent her from suffering her sisters' fate, practices daily despite their resentment and constant taunting. When Mama Rosie one day learns that Billie Jean has quit high school to be a waitress and dance at the Groovy Bar and Grill, she laments that Netta, one of several neighborhood girls Mama Rosie has fostered over the years, is the only child to go to college. After ridiculing her real daughters for failing to live up to Netta's example, Mama Rosie calls Netta at her university to ask her to come home for Mother's Day, and fantasizes that Netta will soon teach at the school where she works, providing her with some recognition and a sense of accomplishment. One day, Norma and Ruth Ann's long-absent father Earl shows up unexpectedly from Detroit, where he works as a shoe salesman. Easily impressing Ruth Ann and Norma with his new El Dorado Cadillac car and cash handouts, Earl hopes to win back Mama Rosie's affection. When a skeptical Mu' Dear admonishes him for refusing to give money to Billie Jean, who was born out of wedlock and fathered by another man, Earl reasons that she is not his child and insinuates that Billie Jean's dancing aspirations will only lead to working as a stripper. Instead of defending Billie Jean, Mama Rosie brags about Netta and the other girls she has fostered, claiming that her real children do not appreciate her as the others do. In a moment alone with Mama Rosie, Earl asks her if she would consider a reconciliation. When she refuses, Earl offers her one thousand dollars and tells her to call him when she finds what she is looking for in a man, but Mama Rosie is reluctant to accept his empty promises of devotion and is not shocked when Earl takes back the money. After Earl departs, Mama Rosie vehemently ridicules her mother for living with Herbert "in sin," but wise Mu' Dear advises Mama Rosie to let go of her old resentments before they destroy the family. As Mama Rosie anxiously awaits Netta's letter regarding a Mother's Day visit, Norma and Ruth Ann conspire to turn Billie Jean against their mother and Netta, whom they fear will encourage Billie Jean's blossoming independence. Alone with Billie Jean, the two tell her that Mama Rosie secretly wishes Billie Jean would marry and leave the house, adding that Mama Rosie will give Billie Jean's room to Netta when she returns to teach at Mama Rosie's school. Fearing that the foster daughter will claim what little affection her mother has for her, Billie Jean agrees to hide any letters from Netta. On Mother's Day, Mama Rosie, unaware that Netta has written to arrange a visit, is at work when her foster daughter arrives at the house. Ruth Ann and Norma mock the properly dressed college student. Surmising that Norma and Ruth Ann have hardened against her since her departure, Netta tries to reestablish her relationship with Billie Jean and asks if she has considered applying to the dance competition about which she had written to Billie Jean. The teenager then realizes that her half-sisters have been keeping Netta's letters from her and eagerly considers Netta's offer to live with her while Billie Jean finishes high school and goes to college. Wanting to discourage Billie Jean's dreams, Norma and Ruth Ann retort that Netta's sole motivation for attending college is to sleep with white boys. When Netta announces that she is a virgin, the sisters mercilessly badger her for being a prude. Insulted, Netta leaves the house but, before going, tells Billie Jean that her dancing is very special. That Sunday, Mama Rosie and her daughters attend church, where Netta has taken her biological mother, a woman wheel-chair bound and catatonic from mental illness. Spotting Netta in the back of the church, Mama Rosie rushes to her foster daughter with great pride, but Netta explains that her first duty is to her real mother now. Later, back at home, when Mama Rosie questions Billie Jean about her future, Billie Jean discloses Netta's proposal for her to finish school. Willing to do anything to thwart Billie Jean's ambitions, Ruth Ann and Norma insist that a truancy officer should be called to handle their half-sister's misbehavior and wrestle her to the ground, forcing Herbert to call for Mu' Dear to resolve the situation. The matriarch admonishes her daughter about caring for strangers' children more than her own and tells her to let Billie Jean live her life, saying "She can't do no worse with hers, than what you done with yours." Days later, Billie Jean has packed her bags and leaves for school after embracing Mama Rosie, who tells Mu' Dear that she had never meant to hurt Billie Jean, only to ensure she and the other girls did not end up "just like me."
James L. Dunn
Ms. J. E. Franklin
Graham Lee Mahin
James L. Schoppe
W. Eben Smith
Glenwood J. Swanson
Black Girl (1972)
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)
Black Girl (1972)
J. E. Franklin's play Black Girl, on which the film was based, was initially adapted for an episode of the WGBH Boston television series On Being Black, which aired on PBS during the 1968-69 season. The original play was then made into an Off-Broadway production that featured actors Louise Stubbs, Gloria Edwards and Loretta Green, who reprised their roles for the film.
Several contemporary sources noted differences between the play and the film. The New York Times reported in their review that on the stage, the character "Earl" has angered and embarrassed "Mama Rosie" because he had managed a whorehouse, while in the film Mama Rosie appears to reject her one-time lover, who is portrayed as a shoe salesman, because of an unresolved past. The January 18, 1973 San Francisco Chronicle review noted that the character of "Netta's mother" in the film was not in the theatrical version of the story. Ruby Dee, the wife of the film's director, Ossie Davis, was lauded in several reviews for her brief cameo portrait of a mentally ill woman. Although the couple had acted together in earlier films, Black Girl was the first of only two feature films in which Dee acted that were directed by Davis.
Early Hollywood Reporter production charts for the film listed the production company as Marconlee Corp. Productions and then later listed BeeGee Services Production, but neither company was listed on the viewed print or any post-production sources. Black Girl marked the first and only feature film for Peggy Pettitt, who continued to work as a stage actress and also wrote and directed for the theater. The film was also Lee Savin's debut as a film producer. Although a July 21, 1972 Hollywood Reporter article stated that Savin hired the Grayco Company to make a documentary on the filming of Black Girl, no additional information on the documentary has been located.
Black Girl was shot on location in Los Angeles, CA. According to Filmfacts, the film was specifically shot in Venice, a city inside Los Angeles County. A modern source adds Eugene Jackson and Henry Kingi to the cast.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972