Blaxploitation

Funky! Freaky! Foxy!

Background

Credits

1998

Curated programme - commissioned for the Melbourne International Film Festival
Thanks - Maria 'Bitch' Kozic (New York), Bruce 'Mack' Milne (Melbourne), Manabu 'Spook' Yuasa (Tokyo)Greg 'Hustle' Bremmer (The International)

Essay

Here in the climate of Australia's white Anglo culture, Blaxploitation still exists as a fuzzy term which conjures up vague caricatures of African-Americans dressed wildly, driving Cadiallacs and shooting up people to the sound of wah-wah guitars. In a sense, that's exactly what Blaxploitation is. The point is whether you can comprehend the purpose and power of such imagery.

Blaxploitation films are action-based, flaunt outrageous racial stereotypes (black, white, Hispanic & Italian), drive a cut-throat morality, promote sexual and violent titillation, and joyously thrust their vulgarity in your face. Quite precisely, they are 'funky' . But let's be clear on what 'funky' means. It's major vernacular line is to be found in turn-of-the century references to food - recipes based on bringing together a wide range of elements to create an overwhelming mix of flavours and fragrances, wherein the richness of the food in enjoyed for its headiness and its flagrant absence of purity and subtlety.

Afro-American slang pushed this notion in the 60s, when streams of black consciousness were surfacing to shape an outward and defiant 'blackness' in opposition to white Eurocentric ideals of form, substance and lineage. 'Funky' by the late 60s meant loud, colourful, sassy, bold, excessive, extreme, impure, vulgar. And proudly so. Black music and black fashion became the prime conveyers of this sensibility, and directly instigated and influenced most major traits we now associate with 70s style. (Most 70s fashion is actually retro-40s style exaggerated in mimicry of Black culture's penchant for loudness and brashness.)

Blaxploitation was originally a term of derision and scorn - championed mostly by elitist (white) film critics in the 70s for whom the explosive dynamism and outrageous tone of films aimed directly at urban Afro-American audiences was somehow politically incorrect. The term was intended as a witty pun (how unfunky) to suggest - erroneously - that blacks were being exploited by these films, as if they were a mindless mass who needed to become attuned to do-good house-Negro white bread dross like A RAISIN IN THE SUN and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.

A scant survey of working black directors through the 70s finds many of them joyously delivering Blaxploitation flicks to an appreciative yet ultimately segregated audience - the size of which only irritated purist critics further. Furthermore, independent Afro-American cinema has thrived since the early 1930s as a 'race market' along side the more-readily acknowledged fields of blues, jazz, soul & funk music - a realm created through the formation of regional urban independent record labels mostly owned and run by blacks. Both in spite of and because of their outwardly offensive iconography and mythology, the key Blaxploitation films carry on this rigorously independent tradition and stand as powerful examples of how options have always been explored outside the Hollywood system.

History has done little to illuminate the cinematic lineage and cultural importance of Blaxploitation - despite the incisive commentaries that have been delivered on the period and the genre by Spike Lee, Ice-T, Public Enemy, Iceberg Slim and many others. 'Hip' journalists - who ten years ago thought it was 'cool' to listen to Bob Marley but would never seriously watch something like CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD - now make jokes about SHAFT as if they are now in the know. But the root of Blaxploitation is no laughing matter.

In James Toback's FINGERS we find one of many gnarled roots caused by the Blaxploitation effect. Neurotic Italo-Catholic Harvey Keitel finds himself with none other than Jim Brown. In tight polyester hipsters and short-sleeved shirt, pimp Brown seduces two of his hot white hookers, who in this mysterious scene are melting in his arms. The action is prolonged, tense, pornographic. Keitel watches nervously. At any moment, Brown is as likely to bring them to orgasm as blow their brains out. Jim Brown is not simply 'the Other': he is a big black monster of unpredictability. His colour gives no clue: he could be jolly-black, burly-black, angry-black, deadly-black. In his most primal cinematic moment, Brown gives nothing away except the potential for danger.

Virtually all Blaxploitation films have this kind of moment. Violence erupts not as catharsis or conclusion, but indiscriminately at the explosive nexus between individual humiliation and social oppression. Blaxploitation programmatically attempts to move beyond this problem zone - but it is a reality to which it must return. This often-bleak mix of avoidance and acceptance is the power that Blaxploitation wields: the power of unpredictability. Nothing is more dangerous than the enemy you do not know. Like the unnerving Jim Brown, the films keep themselves in genre-check, only to erupt in an orgy of sex, violence and perverse humour. When a trio of foxy ladies slice up the genitals of a white Mafia dude in DOLEMITE, it starts off funny. But they keep going at it with extreme relish. Then Rudy Ray Moore all but spits on him as he bleeds to death. It ain't funny. The staging and the performances are cheap - the very kind of cheapness that liberal audiences use to distance themselves from the fetid network of frustration and injustice which forms the root structure underneath Blaxploitation cinema.

Concerned cultural strategists wish for the even distribution of self-empowerment - but usually under terms of protocol and propriety. Blaxploitation cinema is one of the rare examples of a culture being engaged in abject, irresponsible, contradictory and aggressive image-making. Every outrageously clothed pimp is an impression of the iconic implausibility of black self-improvement. Every gun blast is an echo of the sound of a car door being locked as a black man nears a white in his sedan. Even 'respected' African-American directors like Spike Lee, Charles Burnett and Carl Franklin acknowledge this in their interloping of confounding amoral threads within their humanist constructions. Ultimately, Blaxploitation is less written and controlled; more spoken and unleashed. It is vernacular, vocal, loud-mouthed, out-spoken. As the dictionary puts it in italics: vulgar.

Programme

  • Black Caesar

    aka The Godfather of Harlem

    1973

    Written, produced & directed by Larry Cohen
    Starring Fred Williamson, Minnie Gentry, Julius Harris, D'Urville Martin, Gloria Hendry
    Music by James Brown & Fred Wesley; performed by James Brown, The JBs & Lyn Collins (on Polygram Records)

    Larry Cohen's two Blaxploitation flicks - BLACK CAESAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM - are often accused of ripping off the genre whitey-style. But Cohen is a sharp genre-crossing exploitation master. He delivers the funk and the action in BLACK CAESAR and rams it hard and fast. Fred Williamson - ex fighter and wannabe actor - sweats, grins, chomps and shoots in characteristic fashion. Loosely based on LITTLE CAESAR and fused with the exploits of real life heroin kings in Harlem. Gangsta style rules: Williams' Tommy Gibbs dresses like he's in a 30s gangster movie. You hardly ever find references to the Blaxploitation gangster cycle in any historical compendiums of the gangster genre published in the 70s. Scared? Embarrassed? Ignorant? To have overlooked BLACK CAESAR amounts to racism - the same racism which allowed Washington to plaster PG stickers on Gangsta Rap records. Shoot 'em up, Fred.

  • Cleopatra Jones

    1973

    Written by Max Julien & Sheldon Keller
    Directed by Jack Starett
    Starring Tamara Dobson, Shelly Winters, Bernie Casey, Brenda Sykes, Antonio Fargas, Bill McKinney
    Music by J. J. Johnson, Joe Simon, Millie Jackson (on Ace Records)

    The most camp of all Blaxploitation flicks. 70s in style - 60s in tone. Hollywood's typical decade-lag makes this a stew of funky fun. Everyone tries to be real mean - especially Tamara Dobson, a 6' plus Vogue glamour model. Pre Grace Jones. The streets are dressed as if it's a fashion shoot. Cleo struts them like catwalks. Baby, she's a star. Her Corvette custom number plate reads: CLEO - US Government. And - like all good Blaxploitation stars - she thinks she can do karate. In platforms. BATMAN in drag hardcore LA style. Antonio Fargas shines as Doodlebug, freaked over his hair while maintaining a mansion with a white British chauffer. Shelly Winters beams as Momma, the campiest dyke drug runner ever. The dialogue is 30% heroin jive, 30% crooked cop talk, 40% fashion notes. Everyone moves with impossible style. Everyone cracks one-liners. Trail bikes. Soft lenses. Record player cartridges. Black power posters. Hoop earrings. Op Art paintings. Mail order wigs. DEEP THROAT. The LA stormwater drains. Fur coats. Junk yards. Right on.

  • Foxy Brown

    1974

    Written & directed by Jack Hill
    Starring Pam Grier, Peter Brown, Terry Carter, Kathryn Loder, Harry Holcombe, Antonio Fargas, Sid Haig, Juanita Brown
    Music by Willie Hutch (Motown Records)

    "Superbad. Dig it. The lady is Superbad." Willie Hutch's theme song says it all - with drum machines, even. Pam Grier is Foxy Brown and all that. A sassy woman whose performances have defined the feline finery of many Blaxploitation flicks, Grier is to the genre what Kitten Natavidad is to sexploitation. As Foxy Brown she moves through it all: black-light flock-painting lover, dynamite Bond chick, smooth designer clothes horse, denim-toting bump & grind street fighter. Her chameleon unbelievabilty is sexy and charming - as affectionately parodied in Spike Lee's GIRL 6. Social consciousness is flagged with the Anti Slavery Committee and hookers with children to support. Violence is cheesy, topped with ketchup shoot-outs. Justice is represented by old white judges hot for dark meat and sweet chocolate. The standard revenge plot is peppered by Jack Hill's savvy direction: a lesbian bar brawl, cool platforms and spicy wigs, Willie Hutch songs every time someone turns on the radio, and the infamous wop penis in a pickle jar. OK - let's play those opening credits one more time.

  • Shaft

    1971

    Written by Ernest Tidyman & John D.F.Black
    Directed by Gordon Parks Jr.
    Starring Richard Rowntree, Moses Gunn, Antonio Fargas
    Music by Issac Hayes, The Bar Kays and Movement (Enterprise Records)

    Times Square. The Sony logo. Marquees: HE AND SHE, THE ANIMAL, SCHOOL FOR SEX, THE WILD FEMALES. 1971. Welcome to New York City in 35mm winter. Turf of John Shaft - or that smooth-skinned ESSENCE-subscribing ex-model, Richard Rowntree. Nice guy, quick gun, loud wah-wah. All the jokes are about Issac Hayes' inimitable score and theme song (Oscar for Best Song, 1971 - only time the Academy were ever right). The film is different. More laid-back, a touch gritty, doco-textured with the smell of the streets. Rowntree is always a bit too clean, but that's the trip. Clean up the streets without getting your plaid flared suit ruffled or your polo neck tussled. He dresses like those guys in old ads you still see in tailors' stores. He says "right on" as convincingly as Benny Hill. Despite all this, SHAFT is a solid, mainstream example of inventively reworking the 40s private dick with racial overtones and funky undercurrents. Plus, this has to be the brown-est movie ever made. Can you dig it?

  • Superfly

    1972

    Written by Philip Fenty
    Directed by Gordon Parks Jr.
    Starring Ron O'Neal, Carl Lee, Julius Harris, Shelia Frazer, Charles McGregor
    Music by Curtis Mayfield (Curtom Records)

    Gordon Parks Jr. removes the smoothness from SHAFT and reshapes it into diamond strength hardness in SUPERFLY. Shot with pimp-funding, a largely black crew and with the illegal use of street pole electricity, SUPERFLY is the success story of renegade Blaxploitation film making. The definitive pre-cursor to Gangsta Rap's ambiguous glorification of drug power. Curtis Mayfield's Greek chorus style song-score drives the film's message home: drugs are all around and nothing can stop them except your own will. The social repositioned in the individual. Superfly - Ron O'Neal - realizes this. A coked-up black Christ with chest fur and pointed sideburns, he plays the Game - and wins. Sets up a big score to enable him to retire in luxury. The real black street dream: get in ... then get out. Everything he does is Super. Another black ego out of control, but a solid depiction of black aspiration and cunning. (Ron O'Neal's ego really gets out of control in the sequel SUPERFLY T.N.T..) "Pusherman" was a No.1 hit in 1972. When Ice-T covered it for "I'm Your Pusher" in 1988, it was banned on US radio because Ice-T said the word "nigga". Times change. Dumbness don't.

  • Truck Turner

    aka Black Bullit

    1974

    Written by Oscar Williams, Michael Allin & Jerry Wilkes
    Directed by Jonathan Kaplan
    Starring Issac Hayes, Yapphet Kotto, Alan Weeks, Annazette Chase, Nichelle Nichols, Sam Laws, Paul Harris, Scatman Cruthers, Dick Miller
    Music by Issac Hayes (on Enterprise Records)

    No doubt. TRUCK TURNER is the best Blaxploitation film. Many come near - but this one rides high on top. This is Issac Hayes (Mack Truck Turner) inside and out: from his dropped-octave murmuring to his piqaunt music arrangements. From the gun holster across his naked chest to his non-actor swagger. From his foul-mouthed utterance of "nigga" every minute to his Dirty Harry-style wide-angled magnum shooting. Best of all, every moment of the film is violent. Intensely, viciously, existentially, casually. Not just the gory, well-staged shoot outs, but the way people speak is violent. The editing cuts hard. The clothes stab your eye. The dialogue bites your ear. The LA sun shines hard and bright. (Especially in Yapphet Kotto's amazing death scene at the end.) The opening montage is Ed Hopper but without the warmed-over nostalgic ambience. Liquor stores, strip joints, fast food joints, supermarkets, bus stops, bail joints, pay phones. Ugly electrical poles crowd every shot. This is the LA that America hates. And it's black. Pimps dress loud and talk smooth. Their women dress tough and talk filthy. And if swearing offends, stay well away from this nigga-bitch-ho-pussy talk-fest - most of which streams from the most underrated actress of the genre: Nichelle Nichols. No doubt about it.

  • The Black Gestapo

    aka The New Master Race

    1975

    Written by Lee Frost, Wes Bishop & Ronald K. Goldman
    Directed by Lee Frost
    Starring Rod Perry, Charles P. Robinson, Phil Hoover, Ed Cross, Angela Brent
    Music by Allan Alper

    The black community with the aid of white money forms the People's Army. In some white eyes, that could only spell - THE BLACK GESTAPO. Whitey wears plaid leisure suits and white loafers. Brothers and sisters are more into uniforms and arm bands. The ideals of Malcom X and Farrakan go astray in this allegory of unrestrained black power. The People's Army gets drunk on that power. Hardcore offensiveness lies in the depiction of Panther-style separatism as the desire to control illegal profits in the ghetto. The black generals drive pimp mobiles and hang pool-side with skinny white bimbos. Director Lee Frost previously made numerous 60s sexploitation flicks. Continual exposure of white breasts and references to 'black titties' give the film a porno aura. Scenes of castration, comb-overs, toupees and chest carpets give it a porno stench. Low budget, bad taste and a raw aggressiveness. The real face of Blaxploitation cinema. The Stax Riots raged less than one year later.

  • The Human Tornado

    aka Dolemite II

    1974

    Written by Jerry Jones
    Directed by Cliff Roquemore
    Starring Rudy Ray Moore, Lady Reed, Jimmy Lynch, Gloria Je Lani, Howard Jackson, Java
    Music by Arthur Wright, Ben E. Taylor & Rudy Ray Moore

    Gratuitous use of disco mirror balls, fake furs, big butts and the word "muthafucker". Welcome to the rhinestone world of Rudy Ray Moore. Entrepreneurial brother from Planet Black. Incomprehensible, potent, hedonistic, crazed, downright rude. But he runs the show. A live comedian whose dirty records sold enough for him to make his own raunchy action movies - starring him and his beautiful black butt. An ego out of control. A fashion stylist gone mad. A karate expert in his dreams. Rudy Ray Moore films have no plot - they only have a throbbing, chubby centre: Rudy Ray Moore. His voice, his body, his presence. Whitey is portrayed as retardo hillbillies or lisping queens. The revenge of years of black caricatures. All Elvis got was a picture of himself holding an honorary FBI badge with Nixon. Rudy Ray Moore created himself as Dolemite - the most foul-mouthed wanna-be action stud ever. Dig it or drop dead.

  • The Mack

    aka The Mack & His Pack

    1973

    Written by Robert J. Poole
    Directed by Michael Campus
    Starring Max Julien, Don Gordon, Richard Pryor, Carol Speed. Roger E. Mosley, Dick Anthony Williams, Juanita Moore, Paul Harris, Annazette Chase, Sandra Brown, Junero Jennings
    Music by Gene McDaniels (on Ala Records)

    Never has a film lionized the sex industry to such an extent. And despite its down tone, it's deadly serious. Max Julien - not exactly a good-lookin' dude - struts around embarrassingly in definitive Mack-style. He does a standard rise-and-fall of the pimp who wants it all. Julien went on to create CLEOPATRA JONES. Roger Mosely spouts Panther-esque rhetoric which mixes queasily with the ruthless self-empowerment codes of the Mack. Richard Pryor cracks uncomfortably funny jokes in a prequel to the edginess he would later develop - prior to living out his own free-basing power trip. Written by convicted pimp Poole, and featuring a cast of actual 'Players' who get special advisory credits. A key scene is set at the Players Ball: an annual event held in Oakland CA where hookers dress up and vote for the best Mack (ie. pimp) in town. With dialogue based on Iceberg Slim's books, and performances by some of the greatest Blaxploitation character actors, THE MACK is fatally in awe of the reality it reflects. Part documentary, part fiction, all delusion. Not for the politically squeamish.

  • Sugar Hill

    aka Zombies of Sugar Hill & Voodoo Girl

    1974

    Written by Tim Kelly
    Directed by Paul Maslansky
    Starring Marki Bey, Robert Quarry, Don Pedro Colley, Betty Ann Rees, Richard Lawson, Zara Cully
    Music by Nick Zesses, Dino Fekaris, The Originals (on Motown Records)

    Smooth, sexy, sweet. Afrodisiac style oozes in every frame. Costume and production design are flagrantly fetishized. Shots usually start with a close-up on clothes, shoes, hats. Marki Bey is Sugar Hill - a fashion photographer. Love those sessions she does. Her main man Langston is offed by Mafia thugs. Check COUNT YORGA's Robert Quarry at his Thespian best. Sugar is left to flirt with detective Valentine and his round, round afro. Afro consciousness, though, is replaced by Haitian rediscovery. Sugar solicits supernatural power from funky bijou Mama Latress. The unforgettable Baron Samedi is awoken. Up come some seriously deranged zombies: caved chests, cobwebs and chrome bulging eyeballs. The Mafia gets it one by one as Sugar's taste for revenge and her afro wig get out of control. A paean to the mystery of black power. A testament to funky bouffants, soft lenses, freaky synthesizers and ghost train spookiness.

  • Three The Hard Way

    1973

    Written by Eric Bercovici & Jerry Ludwig
    Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr.
    Starring Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, Sheila Frazier, Jay Robinson, Charles McGregor, Alex Rocco, Junero Jennings
    Music by Richard Tuffo, The Impressions (on Curtom Records)

    Three cities: LA, Washington and Detroit. Cesspools of the 70s urban black. A pseudo-Nazi plan will cleanse these American citadels of the Negroid gene. Their water supplies will be injected with a serum that selectively kills all African Americans. But leaves the Caucasian races unharmed. Three tight polyester pants. Three bulging cocks. Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly drive Cadiallacs and Rolls Royces. Kiss women real slow. Live it up on the town in soulzak tableaux of classic Afro-aspirations fostered in EBONY Magazine. Engage in James Bond style action sequences in car washes, marina bridges and hydro electrical power stations. Jim Brown talks too slow but wears the biggest lapels. He's a record producer - of The Impressions, no less. Fred Williamson smokes long cigars and wise cracks. Jim Kelly does serious kung fu in flared leather pants. In slo-mo. Three vessels of male hormones out of control. Watch out for the Kawasaki-riding halter-necked lesbian interrogation trio. The most perfect document of hysterical racial/sexual paranoia produced in the 70s.