Blaxploitation Films
eBook - ePub

Blaxploitation Films

Mikel J Koven

  1. 168 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Blaxploitation Films

Mikel J Koven

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About This Book

What is Blaxploitation? In the early 1970s a type of film emerged that featured all- black casts, really cool soul, R 'n' B and disco music soundtracks, characters sporting big guns, big dashikis, and even bigger 'fros, and had some of the meanest, baddest attitudes to shoot their way across our screens. More than that, for African-American audiences these films were an antidote to the sanitised 'safe' images of blackness that Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby presented to America. These films depicted a reality about the world which African-American audiences could identify with, even if the stories themselves were pure fantasy. Blaxploitation Films considers Blaxploitation from the perspective of class and racial rebellion, genre - and Stickin' it to the Man, with over 60 films reviewed and discussed, from horror films and kung-fu movies, to Westerns and parodies. Fully up to date, including Baadassss and The Hebrew Hammer and covers the deaths of Isaac Hayes and Rudy Rae Moore.

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BAADASSSSS

The term ‘baadasssss’ is synonymous with Blaxploitation: it connotes a rebellious spirit in African-American thinking, of ‘sticking it to the Man’, of misbehaving. Baadasssss-ness permeates African-American culture, from the oral folklore of Brer Rabbit to the ‘toasts’ made famous by the late Rudy Rae Moore, such as ‘The Signifying Monkey’. Being a baadasssss doesn’t just mean being a tough-guy – not all baadassssses are tough (or guys) – but they are all literally ‘outlaws’ – beyond, or outside of, the law. They work in those liminal spaces between the law, between illegality and vice on the one side and harmless decadence and pleasure-seeking on the other. What these baadasssss characters cannot be is the law; they cannot be the Man, or his representatives; and while some of the later Blaxploitation heroes, including Shaft, may have a certain baadasssss attitude, they are not real baadassssses, as they’re part of the same system of law and order. They are the Man.

ORIGINAL BAADASSSSSES

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Director/Writer: Melvin Van Peebles
Cast: Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback), Simon Chuckster (Beetle), Hubert Scales (Mu-Mu), John Dullaghan (Commissioner), Rhetta Hughes (Old Girlfriend), Mario Van Peebles (Young Sweetback)
97 mins

Story

Sweet Sweetback is a male prostitute working in a bordello. He is the star performer of theatrical sex acts, and has been since he was a young boy. The White Racist Cops (WRC) need a token black to take in for a completely unrelated crime, and Sweetback seems to be a convenient stooge. While out with the WRC, they arrest another black youth on some disturbance charge. While he is in their custody, the cops pistol-whip the young man. This is too much for Sweetback, who beats the cops into a coma. Because of this, Sweetback goes on the run. But everywhere Sweetback goes for succour, he is betrayed – sometimes on purpose by his supposed friends, sometimes just because of fate.

Subtext

The film is dedicated to the ‘brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man’. In this respect we see many of the themes that play out in the Blaxploitation genre. The ‘Man’ – in this case explicitly the WRC, but more generally all white folk – tries to ‘bleed’ Sweetback (as one of the Van Peebles-written songs goes: ‘They bled my brother, they bled my sister, but they won’t bleed me!’). Sweetback was the first film to show WRC and their unapologetic corruption, but while movie audiences might have been shocked by this depiction in 1971, for some African-American communities this was their reality. As the archetypal black renegade, Sweetback will stick it to ‘the Man’ before ‘the Man’ sticks it to Sweetback. Here, Van Peebles’ character is represented as the metonym for the whole of black America in 1971. The first cast credit in the film references that the film is ‘starring The Black Community’ – that the Black Community itself is the real star of the film. It functions as a witness to the realities of contemporary black life; and, as Sweetback himself is played by the film’s director, Van Peebles functions likewise as such a witness.
Van Peebles was a self-taught filmmaker; never having been to film school, much of the aesthetic of Sweetback was motivated largely by doing the opposite of what (white) Hollywood would have done. According to Van Peebles himself, the film is a conscious rejection of ‘the technological colonialism of the white aesthetic in cinema’ (i.e. the Hollywood studio films). And, to this end, Van Peebles rejects the label as the father of black cinema and instead sees himself as the father of independent cinema.
At the first screenings of the film, so the Van Peebles self-constructed mythology tells us, while the images shocked some members of the audience, it was recognised by the Black Panthers as the first Black Power film, and an entire issue of the Panther newsletter was dedicated to it. Within all the chapters of the Black Panthers across America, Sweetback became essential viewing. However, the more mainstream magazine, Ebony, while it respected what Van Peebles was trying to do, felt that the cinematic sexual exploitation of his own son in the first few seconds of the film was inexcusable. The Panthers saw this exploitation as a rebirth (the sequence is musically accompanied by the hymn ‘Wade in the Water’ and, to be sure, this moment functions as Sweetback’s baptism), and part of the film’s radical agenda was to smash down the doors of white-imposed, middle-class morality, which, by extension, the Panthers seem to be suggesting that Ebony was supporting.

Background

Van Peebles found it exceptionally difficult to find funding for an all-black film, so he borrowed $50,000 from Bill Cosby. Van Peebles refused to submit the film to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which grants American films their certificates, on the grounds that this ‘all-white jury’ had no jurisdiction over what African-Americans could watch in cinemas. Therefore Van Peebles self-imposed on Sweet Sweetback an X-rating in 1971. This, with the exception of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), is a certificate reserved only for pornographic films. Noting the racial homogeneity of the review panel, Van Peebles used this to his advantage, advertising the fact that this movie was ‘rated X by an all-white jury’. In other words, for Van Peebles at least, this was the film which contained the truth about the American black experience that the white establishment tried to censor. It was released a few weeks before Shaft.
This was also John Amos’s first film role; he would later go on to play James Evans Sr, father to Jimmy ‘JJ’ Walker, on Good Times and Admiral Fitzwallace on The West Wing.

Soundtrack

Although Melvin Van Peebles is credited with some of the songs in the film, most of the noteworthy parts of the score are by Earth, Wind and Fire. And, with Sweetback, Earth, Wind and Fire really got their first big break.

The Verdict

As I said in the introduction, it would behove an arrogant academic and film buff to admit in a second edition of his first book that he was originally wrong in his critical assumption about certain films. Since the first edition of Blaxploitation Films was produced, I have studied a variety of exploitation cinemas, and the maturity I have gained, together with my viewing of further ancillary films – like Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss, about the making of Sweetback – means that some re-evaluation of this film is required. In other words, I was totally wrong in my initial (and admittedly superficial) reading. Today, looking back at a film made in 1971, there is a naive belief reflected in it that cinema could truly effect revolution; and that naivety is kind of refreshing to experience. Why have we, as movie watchers, lost the belief that we can change the world through art? Sweetback is naive in this respect, in thinking that it could change anything; but, as with other radical filmmakers of the time, Van Peebles’ film is exciting for its naiveté. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song has a purity in its vernacular spirit; it is a film made by the Black Community for the Black Community. And I think it was this vernacular voice which the Panthers responded to so enthusiastically.
And yet the sexual exploitation of thirteen-year-old Mario, on screen for posterity, having his first sexual experience with a much older woman, is reprehensible. That sequence, which is shocking enough, in that it isn’t simulated sex, so turned me off the film, in my initial reading of it, that there was nothing Van Peebles could do later on to redeem himself or his picture in my eyes. The following sequences, which are also of an explicitly sexual nature, left me feeling like I was watching nothing more than a porn film. The film’s political agenda was completely lost on me in that first viewing as I could not get beyond the film’s pornography. On subsequent viewings of Sweetback, having prepared myself for the shock of that opening sequence, I’ve been able to see beyond the pornographic images (of a child) to the film’s message of Black Power, but that is hard to do. If one can do it, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is one of the most radical films made in the United States. 5/5
Other than this film, Van Peebles has made a number of underground and independent films over the years. The success of Sweetback was unprecedented, causing a sensation even among white filmgoers. Hollywood suddenly saw the greater potential of the African-American market and, desiring black money, but not the black politics of Van Peebles and the Black Panthers, kept the urban ethos of the films, but removed the potentially volatile political material. Rather than ‘sticking it to the Man’, Blaxploitation cinema gradually became more counter-revolutionary, having the black heroes working for the Man, rather than ‘sticking it to’ him, as I discuss in the second chapter.
The irony is that Van Peebles’ son Mario is now perhaps seen as a more accomplished filmmaker than his father, having made New Jack City (1991), Posse (1993) and Panther (1995), the latter based on his father’s novel. In 2003, Mario, in the most fitting homage to his father and the birth of American independent cinema, made a ‘making-of’ docudrama about the struggle to make Sweetback.

How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass/Baadasssss (2003)

Director: Mario Van Peebles
Writers: Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty, based on the book Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: A Guerilla Filmmaking Manifesto by Melvin Van Peebles
Cast: Mario Van Peebles (Melvin Van Peebles), Joy Bryant (Priscilla), David Alan Grier (Clyde Houston), Nia Long (Sandra), Paul Rodriguez (Jose Garcia), Saul Rubinek (‘Howie’ Kaufman), Adam West (Bert), TK Carter (Bill Cosby), Terry Crews (Big T)
108 mins

Story

Based on Melvin Van Peebles’ book about the making of his seminal black film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Baadasssss tells the story of Van Peebles’ struggle to make the film. Coming off the moderate success of The Watermelon Man, Columbia offers the upcoming Van Peebles a three-picture deal to make ‘race’ comedies. Instead, motivated by his disgust at the kinds of black stereotypes Hollywood has been perpetuating since the days of DW Griffith, Van Peebles rejects Hollywood in favour of a film which actually reflects the black experience.
For a maverick filmmaker like Van Peebles, the only way he can portray the reality of black America in 1970 is to produce a film where the black hero gets away at the end. To do this, he says, ‘Fuck studio control’, even ‘Fuck the audience’ in their expectations and demands of a genre film. To make something truly revolutionary, Van Peebles knows that he will have to ‘fuck all the rules’. To this end, he avails himself of the porno industry in LA. Porn films, while lucrative, aren’t worthy of studio or union interference at the time; so, b...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Table of Contents
  5. INTRODUCTION
  6. BAADASSSSS
  7. THE MAN
  8. GENRE FILMS
  9. CONCLUSION: SPOOFING THE GENRE
  10. BIBLIOGRAPHY
  11. Copyright
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