Melodrama, Costume and Super Fly (1972)
This talk draws the costumes of the 1972 American crime film, Super Fly, into the history of melodrama and its costuming and the sartorial protests of the African American Black Dandy during early 19th century America. That Super Fly, a low budget film made by an African American director and predominantly African American cast and crew, used its costume to expose racism places the film in the melodramatic tradition. Melodrama as a theatrical form is also a performance form, in that it has relied on visuals – sets, costumes, gestures and tableau – to convey its story. Considered a “low” dramatic form in the 18th and 19th centuries, melodrama was performed in theaters viewed as “illegitimate.” However, the tropes of melodrama, seemingly formulaic, conveyed radical protest, by revealing “illegal” opinions that were otherwise obscured or suppressed in the society. The plays often addressed hard realities – such as slavery and exploitation – but also could more indirectly attack injustice as part of the political system itself. Using visuals as the means to convey this was common. As Jane Moody described it in The Illegitimate Theatre in London 1770-1840, “mute performance is one of illegitimate theater’s most evocative forms of expression.” Following a specific set of characters, plotlines, denouements and outcomes, melodrama made costume, through its color and size in particular, a critical part of its expression. Super Fly utilized that mode.
Drake Stutesman is an adjunct professor at New York University. She teaches theoretical film costume and was the co-founder (with Nancy Deihl) of the Film Costume/ conferences at New York University. She edits the peer-reviewed, cinema and media journal, Framework, and is the upcoming President of the organization, Women’s Film History International, which presents the bi-annual conference, Women in the Silent Screen. Her recent book is Hat: Origins, Language, Style (Reaktion Books 2019). Her work has been published by, among others, the British Film Institute, Bloomsbury Books, Koenig Books, the Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles), Museum of Modern Art (New York), China Film Press and Bookforum, and her subjects have included millinery history, subjectivity, the 1960s, experimental literature, melodrama, film costume and silent cinema. She is writing the biography of Clare West, silent era costume designer for D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, and a monograph on milliner/couturier Mr. John. She is on the boards of the Fort Lee Film Commission and the Barrymore Film Center, and is organizing the costume display for the Barrymore Film Center’s opening in 2021.