Clyde Taylor, Literary Scholar Who Elevated Black Cinema, Dies at 92

Clyde Taylor, a scholar who in the 1970s and ’80s played a leading role in identifying, defining and elevating Black cinema as an art form, died on Jan. 24 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 92.

His daughter, Rahdi Taylor, a filmmaker, said the cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

As a young professor in the Los Angeles area in the late 1960s — first at California State University, Long Beach, and then at the University of California, Los Angeles — Dr. Taylor was at the epicenter of a push to bring the study of Black culture into academia.

Black culture was not merely an appendage to white culture, he argued, but had its own logic, history and dynamics that grew out of the Black Power and Pan-African movements. And filmmaking, he said, was just as important to Black culture as literature and art.

He was especially taken by the work of a circle of young Black filmmakers in the 1970s that he would later call the “L.A. Rebellion.” Among them were the directors Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and Billy Woodberry, all of whom went on to have immense impact on Black directors like Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay.

As Dr. Taylor documented, these directors created their own, stripped-down approach to narrative and form. They borrowed from French New Wave, Italian neorealism and Brazil’s Cinema Novo to offer an unblinkered look at everyday Black life, often filming in Watts and other Black neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles.

“He was doing the work on the ground, discovering new filmmakers and bringing them into the academic conversation,” Ellen Scott, a professor of film studies at U.C.L.A., said in a phone interview.

To these directors, film was more than just art; it was a tool that used the camera to illuminate the ways in which racial disparities shaped the lives of Black Americans.

Dr. Taylor praised their work as a vital part of the revolutionary changes underway across Black America. In an essay accompanying a 1986 exhibit on Black filmmakers at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, he wrote that their “bold, even extravagant innovation sought filmic equivalents of Black social and cultural discourse.”

“These young filmmakers made a commitment to dramatic films,” he added, “a commitment fired by the discomfort of dwelling in the belly of the beast: Minutes away, Hollywood was reviving itself economically through a glut of mercenary Black exploitation movies.”

Clyde Russell Taylor was born on July 3, 1931, in Boston, the youngest of eight children. Both parents were active in the civil rights movement. His father, Frank Taylor, was a Pullman train porter and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the country’s largest Black unions; his mother, E. Alice (Tyson) Taylor, was an entrepreneur and a longtime board member of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Boston chapter.

Dr. Taylor attended Howard University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English in 1953 and a master’s in the subject in 1959. Howard was the country’s premier historically Black university, and he met a long list of future artistic luminaries there, including the novelist Toni Morrison and the playwright Amiri Baraka.

He also fell under the sway of one of Howard’s leading intellectual lights, the philosopher Alain Locke, whose concept of “the New Negro” and promotion of Blackness as a social and cultural category helped shape the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s — and would later prove influential to Dr. Taylor’s own work.

He attended Wayne State University in Detroit for his doctorate, which he received in 1968 with a dissertation on the English poet and painter William Blake.

By then he was teaching at California State University, Long Beach, where he became chairman of the Black studies department in 1969. He later taught at U.C.L.A.; the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford; and Mills College (now a part of Northeastern University) in Oakland, Calif., before moving east to Tufts in 1982. He retired from N.Y.U. in 2008.

Dr. Taylor married JoAnn Spencer in 1960; they divorced in 1970. His second marriage, to Marti Wilson, also ended in divorce. Along with his daughter Ms. Taylor, he is survived by a granddaughter. Another daughter, Shelley Zinzi Taylor, died in 2007.

Although he wrote just one major book, “The Mask of Art: Breaking the Aesthetic Contract — Film and Literature” (1998), Dr. Taylor was prolific in other ways.

With Beth Deare, he wrote the script for the documentary “Midnight Ramble” (1994), about the early Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. He also curated several major museum exhibits, wrote extensively in journals like Jump Cut and Black Film Review, and appeared as a commentator in documentaries about Black actors like Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier.

Such work made him a lodestar for generations of younger scholars, and a gravitational center of Black cultural studies even today.

“You have to deal with Clyde if you talk about Black cinema,” Manthia Diawara, a professor of film studies at New York University, said by phone, “just as you have to deal with certain people if you talk about African-American literature.”

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