Clyde Taylor, a scholar who in the 1970s and 80s played a leading role in identifying, defining and promoting black cinema as an art form, died on January 24 at his home in Los Angeles. It 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 center of a push to bring his study Black culture in academia.
Black culture was not simply an appendage of white culture, he argued, but had its own logic, history and dynamics developed by Black Power and the Pan-Africanist movements. And filmmaking, he said, was as important to Black culture as literature and art.
He was particularly fond of the work of a circle of young black filmmakers in the 1970s that he would later call the “Los Angeles Revolution.” Among them were directors Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and Billy Woodberry, who went on to have a huge impact on black directors such as Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay.
As Dr. Taylor has documented, these directors created their own, stripped-down approach to narrative and form. They borrowed from the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, and Brazil’s Cinema Novo to offer an unfettered 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 UCLA, said in a telephone interview.
For these directors, film was more than art. was a tool that used the camera to illuminate the ways in which racial inequalities 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 exhibition of black filmmakers at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, he wrote that “their bold, even extravagant innovation sought cinematic equivalents of Black social and cultural discourse.”
“These young filmmakers were committed to dramatic films,” he added, “a commitment fueled by the discomfort of living in the belly of the beast: minutes away, Hollywood was being financially revitalized through a plethora of Black mercenary exploitation films.”
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 nation’s largest black unions. His mother, E. Alice (Tyson) Taylor, was a businesswoman and longtime board member of the Boston NAACP chapter.
Dr. Taylor attended Howard University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English in 1953 and a master’s degree in the subject in 1959. Howard was the nation’s premier historically Black university, and there he met a long list of future artistic figures, including the novelist Toni Morrison and the playwright Amiri Baraka.
It 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 decade 1920s and ’30s — and would later prove influential on Dr.’s own work. Taylor.
He attended Wayne State University in Detroit for his doctorate, which he received in 1968 with a thesis 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 UCLA. the University of California at Berkeley; Stanford; and Mills College (now a division of Northeastern University) in Oakland, California, before moving east to Tufts in 1982. He retired from NYU 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 Mrs. Taylor, he is survived by a granddaughter. Another daughter, Shelley Zinzi Taylor, died in 2007.
Although he wrote only 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 early black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. He also curated several major museum exhibits, wrote extensively for magazines such as Jump Cut and Black Film Review, and appeared as a commentator on documentaries about black actors such as Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier.
Such work made him a lodestar for generations of younger scholars and a center of gravity for Black cultural studies even today.
“You have to deal with Clyde if you’re talking about black cinema,” Manthia Diavara, a film studies professor at New York University, said by phone, “just like you have to deal with certain people if you’re talking about African-American literature. .”