By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ, Chicago Crusader
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: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago’s Loop” Gerald Butters examines 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 under examined part of history, making “From Sweetback to Super Fly” a supremely enjoyable and informative book.
Butters joins Revolution Books Chicago just in time for Black History Month. This is a chapter of Chicago Black History with all its racism and repression documented! This book exposes how segregation and racism in the Chicago Loop shaped the response to the rise of Black-themed movies and the theaters that screened them in the 1970s. Butters writes that their subsequent fall was not the product of the “free market.” On the contrary, Butters documents a concerted effort by the business establishment and the first Daley administration to shut down every last one of these theaters.
Butters is a professor at Aurora University, and he and I appeared on a panel discussing our respective books at the 2014 Chicago Book Expo at Columbia College.
According to Butters, “Chicago’s Loop was considered the second-most-important market for films in the country, after New York City.” Today, none of those grand movie palaces remain in the Loop. Find out what happened, as Butters’ book opens the pages on the thriving Blaxploitation era when Black movie- goers loved dressing up and going
to downtown Chicago theaters, among them were the Chicago, State and Lake, McVickers, Loop, United Artist and Oriental theaters. I can admit there were so many theaters, and on a Saturday evening, and much posturing and excitement, as older teens and young adults came out in droves to enjoy a movie and dinner afterward at Flo’s or other restaurants in the downtown area.
This free event will be held Saturday, February 20, at 2 p.m., and copies of Butters’ book will be available at a 30 percent discount.
Revolution Books Chicago is located at 1103 N. Ashland Ave.