Blaxploitation Lost In Translation

Brother from another genre: Director Antoine Fuqua on the set of 'King Arthur'
Touchstone Pictures

Though the title suggested an academic snoozeathon, "Blaxploitation: Misnomer and Misunderstood" proved to be one of the five-alarm highlights of the recent Los Angeles Film Festival. I attended this panel discussion knowing that the master of ceremonies--New York Times critic-turned-Sony Pictures Entertainment executive Elvis Mitchell--was a connoisseur of '70s blaxploitation, and imagined that the talk would be an autograph show-style traipse down Memory Lane. (So, Jack Hill: How did Pam Grier manage to hide that straight razor in her Afro?) Instead, it was as if all the well-cached resentments of the African American artists in attendance--most of them pushing 70--had been given permission to spew forth. The results were as shocking and lurid as...uh, the pickled dick in Hill's Foxy Brown.

Standing around before the show began, Mitchell fake-boxed various hangers-on and slapped hands, peering down from his great height like Nick Nolte playing a college professor. When a geeky white LAFF staffer introduced Mitchell as the "coolest guy in the world," the former critic faked running out the rear exit; when Mario Van Peebles, auteur of Panther and BAADASSSSS!, messed with Mitchell off-mic, the emcee pretended to crumble, crooning, "Ay-ait, brotha! Ay-ait!"

The question arose: When the fuck did this guy become Dave Chappelle? Maybe those years of chitchatting with A.O. Scott and waxing Wordsworthian rhapsodic about the likes of Sony's Hellboy are what sent Mitchell into this shtick. But whatever the reason, the moderator's ebullience set the blaxploitationists free. You can be sure that Sam Greenlee--author of the pulp novel on which Ivan Dixon's 1973 blax classic The Spook Who Sat by the Door was based (he's now a seller of antiestablishment screeds in Chicago barbershops and bars)--was addressing the white panelists directly when he said, "We're never gonna have a black cinema until black filmmakers have their own source of funding!"

The white guys in the swivel chairs got squirrelly so fast you'd think they had woken up in the middle of a road-show production of Putney Swope. Michael Campus, Caucasian director of the overrated pimp pageant The Mack, reminded us that he didn't just bring tall hats, platform shoes, and metrosexual minks to the big screen: He had also directed the earnest problem drama The Education of Sonny Carson. Joel Freeman, producer of Shaft, extolled the genius of Isaac Hayes while looking as if he'd just had a whole beef brisket Heimlich-maneuvered out of his sternum. And then Hill, that master of the black Bs, had to go and put his foot in it.

"A producer, talking about black audiences, once said to me, 'Jack, you know what they like. I don't get it. I know they don't want it good. I guess they want it a little funny.' And this," Hill said, leaning in for conspiratorial emphasis, "from a Jewish guy."

Campus exploded. "Awwww, maaaa-aaaan! I expect more of you than that, man!"

Hill promptly backpedaled, opining that Jews ought to be, you know, sensitive to the plight of the victimized. Meanwhile, the would-be cool Campus, bawling out Hill, morphed into a squalling Yippie circa '68. Van Peebles sought to make peace in the kingdom with an ecumenical plea: Black filmmakers, he explained, get to make gangsta films and those booty-shakin', thong-twirlin' party comedies. Occasionally, they even get to make mocha-latte romances. "But when," he asked, "do we get to make our Lost in Translation? Where's our Good Will Hunting? Where's our Beautiful Mind?"

I thought of Van Peebles's sincere question last night while watching one of the most critically drubbed movies of the summer, the Jerry Bruckheimer production King Arthur. Critics, nearly to a one, have sneered at a movie they deemed "turgid" or "lugubrious." Time's generally Oxford-striped Richard Schickel practically seemed to pound his fists on the marble conference table, demanding more pulp and less meaning in his action movies. (Might 3 Fast 3 Furious round out the eminent film historian's summer?) Other reviewers snickered at the movie's latent homoeroticism, as if Bruckheimer were the last in the room to know that his pink polo shirt was a dead giveaway.

Has no one noticed that King Arthur--funded by Disney at a cost of more than $100 million--is the biggest Hollywood movie ever directed by an African American? Has no one peeked past the movie's surface to notice that what at first blush might seem like boilerplate Bruckheimer (Hans Zimmer's score providing its usual Enya-esque ululation) is actually an anticolonial, antiracist spaghetti Western on par with Franco Solinas's A Bullet for the General?

Solinas, co-author of The Battle of Algiers, spent several years planting Marxist messages in Sergio Leone-style macaroni; King Arthur's director Antoine Fuqua seems to have taken the man's cue. The king of the title (played by the ineffably noble Clive Owen) is a soldier for God and country who finds, by the third reel, the hollowness of both, and proceeds to transform the Knights of the Round Table from crusaders into guerrilla freedom fighters. In one of the wittiest casting strokes of recent years, Fuqua has dressed up Keira Knightley as one of the indigenous Woags, first discovered in catacombs that our president might have called "their torture chambers and rape rooms." Her first line? "They tortured me--with machines." Arthur and Knightley's Guinevere meet cute: He pounds her broken finger bones back into her hand. And by the end of the movie, Guinevere has ganged up with Merlin's half-naked painted men and led the pre-technological people's insurgent task force. Who but Fuqua (Training Day) would have cast the pale rose of English beauty as an aborigine leading her tribe in battle against the Man?

Fatalistic and romantic, King Arthur might well be the most stirring attack on American foreign policy from a major studio since Alex Cox's career-ending Walker in 1988. Could Fuqua's blackness have had anything to do with why the movie was summarily shunted aside? (Just imagine the "maturity" with which the auteur of A Beautiful Mind would have been credited if he had made this film instead of Fuqua.) Is it any surprise that the ink-stained wretches who throb with pleasure at Spider-Man 2 have missed the more...mature entertainment of King Arthur?

Not really. Still, the idealist-naif gland in my brain can't help echoing the whine of Michael Campus. Awwww, maaaaan! I expected more than that.

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