ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Baadasssss Cinema, Isaac Julien’s definitive new documentary about the history
of blaxploitation films, traces the development of the genre, using archival
footage and interviews with directors, actors, critics and academics
Pam Grier in the 1974 film “Foxy Brown.
Birth of a Genre
The Black Hero Who Talks Back
By Hal Hinson
In the beginning, there was “Sweetback.” As Melvin Van Peebles explains in “Baadasssss Cinema,” Isaac Julien’s definitive new documentary about the history of blaxploitation films, the idea for “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” rose up in him out of a long-festering sense of frustration over what he was seeing on the screen.
“The cause I had,” Mr. Van Peebles proclaims between puffs on a cigar just slightly smaller than a Louisville Slugger, “was giving black folks a sense of self that had been stolen from us. And that’s how I made `Sweetback.’ “
The film, about a pimp who stays one step ahead of a racist gang of cops, opened first in Detroit, on March 31, 1971, at the Grand Circus Theater, then two days later at the Coronet Theater in Atlanta the only theaters in the country that would show it. At the time, there were no black-owned theater chains. Also, the Motion Picture Association of America had given the film an “X” rating, which meant that most theater chains wouldn’t book it, primarily because most newspapers wouldn’t sell advertising space to an X-rated film.
However, once Mr. Van Peebles discovered that the ratings committee was made up entirely of white men, he immediately began marketing the film as “Rated `X’ by an All-White Jury.”
Those first audiences probably didn’t know that they were watching a movie that would launch countless imitations, spark a revolution in the motion-picture business, and open the floor for a cultural debate that rages to this day.
But that’s what happened, and in his documentary, Mr. Julien traces the development of the genre, using archival footage and interviews with directors, actors, critics and academics (including Elvis Mitchell, a film critic for The New York Times). The film, which has its premiere on the Independent Film Channel on Wednesday, kicks off a month-long blaxploitation festival on IFC. It will include three of the major blaxploitation films of the 1970’s: Foxy Brown, Superfly and Shaft’s Big Score!
“Sweetback” was shot in only 19 days with a crew of veteran porno filmmakers and a shoestring budget of $500,000 $50,000 of which came from Bill Cosby. But it quickly became one of the highest-grossing independent films ever made.
Julian Bond, chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., remembers watching the movie at the Coronet Theater. “It was just like, `Wow!’ ” Mr. Bond said in a telephone interview. “You’d just never seen anything like it before. You’d never seen sex like that. You’d never seen a black guy beat up the police and get away.”
What happened after that, Mr. Van Peebles said, was simple economics: “When Hollywood saw these huge returns from `Sweetback,’ they became aware that there was an enormous black audience that could be exploited.”
Mr. Julien, a writer, artist and social critic, says the IFC documentary grew directly out of a course he taught at Harvard called “Black Film as Genre? Blaxploitation Cinema to Quentin Tarantino.” In his research, he said, he realized that there was a story to be told.
As a teenager growing up in London’s East End in the 70’s, Mr. Julien said, the first film he ever saw in a theater was Cleopatra Jones. And the other blaxploitation films Shaft, Superfly and anything with the actress Pam Grier were formative experiences for him. But, he said, “my critical examination of these films didn’t begin, really, until I began doing the research for my course.”
The timing of the documentary couldn’t be more perfect. The genre’s influence can be seen everywhere in pop music and film, in movies like The Ladies Man, Undercover Brother and Austin Powers in Goldmember. But in the 70’s, to many audiences, black and white, these movies were troubling, especially because Sweetback and so many of the other heroes were pimps and drug dealers.
“Some of us want only the best depiction, that is the upright, the triumphant, law-abiding hero,” said Mr. Bond. “And at that time, films that glamorized dope dealers and women with low bodices didn’t conform to what we thought our image ought to be.”
But, Mr. Bond said, the movies stirred something in audiences. “If you were sitting in the theater with a group of people, then you understood that they had enormous popular appeal,” he said. “I guess in some ways it’s like rap music today, and rhythm and blues years ago.”
For Fred Williamson, the professional football player who starred in several of the films, it was all about heroes. “Black society needed these films,” he said in an interview. “The blacks in most movies were still porters and bus boys. There were no black equivalents to the characters played by Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney.”
These heroes were vastly different from the figures that Sidney Poitier played in 1960’s films like Lilies of the Field or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” “Most black people were tired of the noble Negro,” said Ed Guerrero, a professor of Afro-American studies at New York University who is also interviewed in the documentary. “These films represented the first time that black people really got on the screen more or less on their own terms.”
The success of “Sweetback” made Hollywood aware of the enormous black audience, in much the same way that the success of Easy Rider had made Hollywood aware of the youth audience. But in the documentary, Mr. Van Peebles claims that when Hollywood produced its knock-offs of his film, it also suppressed the political content, added caricature, and “blaxploitation” was born.
“Did my film get the whole thing started? Yes,” Mr. Van Peebles asserts. “But it doesn’t really belong in there with the others.”
In October 1972, Newsweek ran a cover story on the new black movie boom, claiming that “talented black actors, directors and writers were suddenly plucked out of studio back rooms, modeling agencies and ghetto theaters, and turned loose on new black projects.”
The article even suggested that the black films were paying off so much better than their white counterparts, that the new black cinema deserved credit for keeping Hollywood from possible extinction. While this may have been a slight exaggeration of the facts, it is true that by the end of 1971, one out of every four films in production was designed to appeal to the black audience.
And it’s also true that the original “Shaft” went through preproduction as a film with a white director and a white cast, then was quickly retooled for a black cast, with Richard Roundtree in the lead, a black director, Gordon Parks, and a hot-buttered soul score by Isaac Hayes. The film grossed $12 million and rescued MGM at a time when the studio had literally pawned Judy Garland’s ruby slippers to stay in business.
Mr. Williamson, who starred in Hell Up in Harlem and “Black Caesar,” among other films, questions whether the movies of the blaxploitation period are “black films” in the same sense that, say, the movies of Spike Lee are.
“First of all,” he said, “the movies were being financed by whites, so once the whites were in control, then they also controlled the subject matter. It is up to the actors themselves to portray the characters that they want to portray and the things that they want to see done.”
Even at the height of their appeal, the movies usually followed a simple and predictable formula, with warring drug dealers and corrupt white cops. The one consistent ingredient underneath it all was the brilliant music, which, whether coming from James Brown or Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes, added an element of depth and sophistication.
The blaxploitation era came to an end for precisely the same reason it started: money. Instead of diversifying and developing their audience, the studios kept churning out the same film over and over. Shaft was followed by Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft in Africa. Slaughter gave birth to Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, and eventually it was the audience that started to feel ripped off.
“In the end, the films of the blaxploitation era didn’t make that much money for black people,” Mr. Guerrero explains in the documentary. “Ultimately, it was just a moment, an interlude.”
When the party was over, the morning after was grim for those who had relied on the industry to make a living.
“It was a vicious time,” recalls the actress Gloria Hendry in perhaps the documentary’s most poignant moment. “When you start falling, you put your hands out and try to hold onto anything you can. And I was grabbing, but I couldn’t get a hold of anything. There was nothing. Black films saved Hollywood, and when they were through with us, they dropped us. The door slammed.”
Source: The New York Times Company 2002
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 30 November 2011