Color Thee Bad
Oak Street Cinema
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Mondays through August 12
THE EARLY '70s genre known as "blaxploitation" has gained repertory juice over the last couple of years, but it still gets a bad rap from at least two tribes. First, there's the sort of nerdy mainstream critic who, seemingly unaware of The Mack or Foxy Brown or Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, implies that the very idea of a genre in which black people fight the power is offensive--that it would never be worthy of revival at, say, Walker Art Center. Then there are some blaxploitation "fans" who, preferring to see farce rather than drama, end up ghettoizing the films as mere camp. In both cases, the result is the same: Movies in which black writers and directors managed to seize an unprecedented measure of control in the industry are construed as not political, not works of art, not to be taken seriously.
Partly, this mirrors the stigmatization of the B-movie in general, a consequence of Hollywood's monopoly on what "quality" filmmaking is supposed to cost and look like. But the beauty of the Bs (or "exploitation" films) is that their low budgets permit, and often times dictate, an adventurousness of form and content. Would Sweetback (1971)--a radically styled portrait of a young black stud (Melvin Van Peebles) who kills two white racist cops and gets away with it, dedicated to "all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man"--ever have been permissible on a studio budget? Writer-producer-director-star Van Peebles figured not, and opted to abandon his three-pic deal at Columbia in order to finance Sweetback himself. Like the character he played, Van Peebles took his power through "disreputable" means (and ended up grossing huge). The mode may have been exploitation, but it couldn't have been otherwise--and besides, the context matched the theme. As one dope-dealing player says in Superfly: "I know it's a rotten game, but it's the only one the Man left us to play."
Following the course of black radicalism in the real world, the genre flourished only briefly; the bulk of the 30-odd films were released in a flurry between 1972 and 1975. Most of these feature gratuitous sex, cool soundtracks, and enough racist brutality to stoke the viewer's lust for retribution. Moreover, they offer strikingly consistent takes on: religion (a fraud); activism (a waste of energy); cops (straight-up menaces); white women (pathetic); and sell-out blacks (not much better than whitey). But one of the virtues of Oak Street's 11-film blaxploitation series is to indicate how diverse the movies actually were--encompassing the gangster film, certainly, but also screwball comedy (Uptown Saturday Night), horror (Blacula), action-adventure (Three the Hard Way), and borderline parody (Black Caesar).
The tone of the films varies greatly as well: Foxy Brown is defined by its relentlessly lurid plot, and Superfly by its laid-back hustler ambience. The Mack might well contain the genre's most quotable dialogue ("Pimpin's been goin' on since the beginning of time, man... Can ya dig it?"), while Sweetback is a triumph of cinematic technique, pushing Godard's Breathless into the realm of agitprop. Gordon Parks's Shaft isn't part of the Oak Street series (it was included in the Walker's Parks retrospective); indeed, it doesn't fit the mold of blaxploitation. Made at MGM, Shaft is the story of a crime-fighter, a businessman who struggles successfully to stay legit. Conversely, the heroes of blaxploitation are pimps, players, and hustlers--heirs to the throne of public enemies like Scarface and Little Caesar.
In the '30s, gangster films were required to punish the gangster, lest his lifestyle appear too alluring. Likewise, whether the result of an innate sense of morality or a prudent attempt to secure financing, most of the post-Sweetback movies disapprove of criminality--sort of. In Superfly, pusher Youngblood Priest (Ron O'Neal) struggles to get outta tha game, maybe to ease his conscience, maybe not. Similarly, The Mack sets up a running debate between pimp Goldie (Max Julien) and an activist friend who's unusually sympathetic by the genre's standards. Not in every case is the conflict of the films black and white: Several of the movies feature black villains guilty of collaborating with whites, and radical black characters whose politics are ridiculed or discounted.
Failing to evolve over time, the blaxploitation films send increasingly compromised, dubious messages: The only way a black woman can empower herself is through sex; the only viable expression of black male rage is criminality; the only alternative is to become a snitch or a sellout. Significantly, none of the blaxploitation films were allowed to preach the virtues of organized resistance; put another way, it took Melvin Van Peebles about 25 years to make Panther.
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