Saturday, 25 July 2015


BLAXPLOITATION: An introduction:

‘Blaxploitation’ was essentially exploitation cinema but specifically ‘commercially-minded films of the ‘70s for a black audience’ . In the era of Nixon and Watergate, the civil rights struggle of the 1960s had still left black people disempowered in the real world - yet on screen between 1971-1976 there was a ground-breaking new sub-genre of films featuring black representatives who won battles, effected change and were bursting with charismatic confidence. They kicked ass, looked good and were underscored by super-cool soundtracks. They portrayed aspects of the black experience  but with the politics almost wholly removed for maximum box-office  - hence the exploitation label rather than 'Black Cinema'.This would always be a controversial move, laying it open to accusations of degradation.

As much as it arguably exploited their heritage for white studio bosses, it also made money and created opportunities for black actors, film-makers and spread its fan-base to a wider audience, even more so in the decades since. Blaxploitation was no different to regular exploitation cinema; it took advantage of big box-office crazes from other genres. Urban crime flicks were supplemented by the new fashion for Bruce Lee’s imported kung-fu and Hammer horror with varying success. If it was popular, it was incorporated and no idea was too outlandish if the public queued for it. ‘Black Hollywood’ as it could be labelled briefly was driven by trends not agit-prop politics, just like the mainstream.

The acceptance of African-American actors in Hollywood lead roles had taken an appallingly long time for a progressive society. After decades of relegation as utility ‘negro’ servants and other offensive, slow ‘Yassir’ drawling comic sterotypes, change was a long time coming. In the late ‘60s Sidney Poitier emerged as a black leading man without a trace of tokenism in the Virgil Tibbs films beginning with the terrific IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. It wasn’t until 1969 though that Jim Brown became the first black actor on-screen to play a love-scene with a Caucasian woman (Racquel Welch) in 100 RIFLES.  The success of the film at last convinced studios that there was an audience for empowered black characters in movies. Read on, brothers and sisters...


(Be careful of typos, marketing bods!).

 ‘This film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man’

With this opening text on screen, film-maker Melvin Van Peebles signalled his uncompromising attitude up-front for SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG. After his bad experience making WATERMELON MAN (1970), Van Peebles vowed he would have total control over his next project.  This would not be an impassioned Martin Luther King appeal to one nation sentiments. Nor would it be a film bathed in well-intentioned Spielbergian warmth, hoping for a brotherhood that can work together. This was an angry manifesto of non-compliance by blacks toward whites, borne of long-suffering inequality and demonization. Little wonder that the Black Panthers endorsed the movie on release.

It is also widely-regarded as the first film of the Blaxploitation movement. It all begins here…

There are many unusual and refreshing qualities to the film. The lead credit is boldly given to ’The Black Community’ as a whole, presenting them as a united front of contribution. This will be hammered home even more blatantly later.

SWEET SWEETBACK’s title character' played by Van Peebles' does not inhabit a typically soft conventional job for a movie lead. Rather than pander to a lame stereotype, Van Peebles pointedly made him a ‘sexual animal’ (as he called him in a later interview I saw). Leaving aside the possibility that this plays more on black sexual stereotypes than rejection, Sweetback makes his living by pleasuring the ladies as a stud performer, a technique he acquires at a very young age from a lady within his brothel home. This is an awkward scene to watch as the child actor (Van Peebles' son Mario) is clearly well under the age of legal consent – but arguably is all part of the director’s challenge to accepted censorship of home truths on-screen. (Richard Pryor for example was raised in such a home). Regardless, Sweetback grows up a taciturn dude who speaks more with his love-spanner than his vocal instrument.

When his employer frames him for a murder to help two white cops, Sweetback kills them and then must flee the city right out into the Mexican desert. The last half of the movie then becomes a virtual travelogue matched with the funky tunes of Earth Wind & Fire, making one stop-off point where he wins a shagging contest with a chapter of Hell’s Angels. The extended chase is handled in a rough, hand-held cinéma vérité style very much at odds with standard polished film narrative – and very effective for it. While our anti-hero is pursued by the fuzz, what look like real members of ‘the Black Community’ are quizzed in vox-pops to camera. They close ranks, unanimously reporting variations of “I ain’t seen him” as if straight to the white movie audience.  The message from the public to the cops and ‘the man’ is clear: ‘Since you won’t support us, we won’t support you either’. 

This brazen defiance of authority that seems to break the fourth wall is exhilarating – and all too understandable especially as the mainly Caucasian police are portrayed very definitely as deserving it.  The white cops are sadistic and ineffective. Whether it’s intentional portrayal or simply bad acting, they can’t seem to land a decent punch never mind effectively threaten a suspect or catch their man . At one point, the officer in charge of the manhunt drops the ‘n-bomb’ in his briefing to his men, too late to register two black cops in the team. To compound his ill-judgment, as the rest file out Van Peebles has him taking them both to one side and apologising with ‘You know you two could be a credit to your people’. With such face-palm moments of race relations on the force, how can the public trust the Five-Oh to relate respectfully to them?

The documentary vibe of SWEET SWEETBACK is consistent through-out, and Van Peebles makes other experimental style choices: dissolves, freeze-frames, brief split-screen sequences, unfocused shots and even editing choices that repeat dialogue lines. One critic compared his work to Godard in this respect.

Sweetback ends the film still at-large and to a harsh trumpet music cue we are warned ‘Watch out. A baad assss n***er is coming back to collect some dues’ (My asterisks).  We are left in no doubt that not only has a mission statement of wrath been declared to white society, but with the closing credit of ‘Written, composed, produced, directed and edited by Melvin Van Peebles’ that it is a singular vision by a proud, real auteur. .

SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG, originally funded by private money on a shoestring bugdet, including $50,000 borrowed from Bill Cosby, made back $10m - which today still makes it one of the most successful independent movies of all time.

Blaxploitation was in business…

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