They have vanished into history, like John Wayne walking bowlegged out of the frame at the end of The Searchers. But their legacy haunts us still: Isaac Hayes shocking his date (and delighting the grindhouse crowd) by bringing a six-pack to a romantic dinner in Truck Turner, or Pam Grier whipping a razor out of her 'do and making white-girl salad in one of the many climaxes of Coffy. Black pride was only the most obvious label for the early-to-mid-Seventies renaissance known--controversially in some quarters--as blaxploitation: low-budget films that set out to exploit the audience's interest in sex, violence, and humor involving black people. Another thing to call it would be the most intense politicization of pulp material that had ever existed in American movies. (Larry Cohen's Bone, in which Yaphet Kotto's titular thief baits a white family in Beverly Hills, is the most agitprop of the blaxploitation greats--Godard's Weekend with a wah-wah pedal.)
A garish, anything-goes approach to storytelling marked the best black pulp pictures, as did a commitment to realness, to the grime and spittle of life as it's lived. No matter how outlandish the tale, how high the pimp hat, or how long the Caddy, the mortal stain of the real world colored everything in blaxploitation--making it impossible for the African-American audiences that devoured these movies to swallow fairy tales ever again.
Or until now, it seems. Hip-hop artists and mainstream black movie actors reference the golden age of blaxploitation as if it were common currency. (Samuel L. Jackson has waxed elegiac in print about Melvin Van Peebles's nearly lost Don't Play Us Cheap, which features singing cockroaches from the ghetto.) Black moviemakers from the Hughes Brothers to Master P seem to want to invoke the coarse attitude and over-the-top mayhem of those pictures. But sometime--in the Eighties, of course--a large-scale failure of nerve took place. And so today there are B movies for black people, but not blaxploitation pictures. Let's not go into the movies that try to repudiate all socially unacceptable African-American genres in toto--the Best Mans and Waiting to Exhales. Instead, an examination of the new wannabe-hard black movies might suggest why the ferocity and the truth-telling of those flamboyant Seventies pictures have flamed out.
All About the Benjamins, released in the spring to solid box-office returns, seems to ape the blaxploitation style. The gun-toting Ice Cube and Mike Epps could be a millennial reworking of the Jim Brown-Fred Williamson combo--and sure enough, the movie kicks off with the bounty-hunting Cube kicking the collective ass of a houseful of Southern racist counterfeiters. Connoisseurs will recall how blaxploitation pictures that rained violence upon oppressive white characters--Larry Cohen's Black Caesar being one of the most brutal examples--did so in a very particular way: There were generally no white characters in those pictures other than the Man, and possibly a treacherous or monstrously abused hooker or two. The implicit message was that the revenge fantasies being peddled were for black consumption only. Though white audiences would later thrill to their high style and brazen antiheroics, these were not pictures "for everybody."
But All About the Benjamins, whose makers have to answer to a corporate boss (AOL Time-Warner), can't indulge in that kind of niche moviemaking. And so the picture has to pass itself off as a racially uncoded, breezy buddy movie in the Rush Hour vein--more Poitier and Cosby than Brown and Williamson. At the same time, director Kevin Bray (or, more likely, producer and star Ice Cube) can't resist a Seventies-style scene in which an effete white baddie is handcuffed to a shower rod and questioned while the good guy probes the wound in his arm with a screwdriver. Ostensibly light and zany in the tradition of 48 HRS., the scene plays more like something from I Spit on Your Grave, with Bray's prolonged torture giving way to the sight of the Epps character's girlfriend cowering outside the bathroom, wincing and covering her ears.
At least Cube has the chutzpah to fill his picture with old-school carnage from wall to wall. The violent black movie is an endangered species now, cornered by correctness cops on the left and riot-fearing suits on the right. In its place is the doofy comedy, which thumbs its nose at authority in only one way: Its makers have given up the long-barreled Magnum of Bernie Casey for the Cheech and Chong bongload.
Ugly as a plantar wart, and paced like study hall for the slow kids, The Wash--a small triumph in this blunt sub-genre--remakes 1976's Car Wash in cruddy, unslick, direct-to-video language. As unswift buddies, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre have an amiable, unforced affinity for one another. If they aren't as sparked as Cheech and Chong, they at least have some of the cut-rate allure of the Ritz Brothers. But the hero of The Wash, the actor who recalls the golden days, is a comedian named George Wallace. Heavyset and hangdog, looking 50 years old though he could easily be younger (life experience hangs around him like a waterlogged rope), Wallace has a peculiarly ginger and winning persona: He's the Hard-Working, Exhausted, and Had-It-up-to-Here Black Man. In The Wash's finest moment, Wallace erupts with a long string of commands to his five-dollar-an-hour employees, then ends with a supremely sarcastic, "Are ya feelin' me?" Wallace's exasperated use of youthful language brings down the house and lends The Wash a fleeting glimmer of actual human truth--or human behavior, anyway. Then the actor disappears, and the movie plunges into an ashtray.
Any hope for a resuscitation of the qualities that still make blaxploitation so stirring--a commitment to authenticity, a wild visual ingenuity on a shoestring budget, a refutation of the everything's okay ethos--comes in for a bludgeoning by the nadir of the post-blaxploitation B movie. Pootie Tang will be remembered as the Infinite Jest or Corrections of blaxploitation: a meta-meta-blaxploitation movie that's a joke on a joke on a joke. The movie exists on such far rings of irony-upon-irony that you may feel you're breathing the thin air of Saturn. The protagonist is Pootie Tang, a character who talks in a deliberately moronic, Buckwheat-like variation on the slang of the millisecond. Pootie's movie within the movie is called Sine Your Dabe on the Runny Kine; the gag of the film proper is that this nothing character is stuck in a mock-blaxploitation flick with requisite tough guys, requisite pimps, requisite squealing chicks, and the requisite white Dr. Evil figure. Pootie Tang tries to pass itself off as retro in the ads, but it's really a gag on the flimsiness of Lorne Michaels's grotesquely attenuated Saturday Night Live flicks--an inept movie giggling at its ineptitude. The blaxploitation story elements--and even the looks of the characters--seem perfunctory now, the way every AM-radio hit from 1970 to 1979 has been sampled in something or other.
So: Does this creative black hole suggest an opportunity for rebirth? For reinvention of the genre with political subtexts and freewheeling story structures that are of the moment rather than quotations of past relics? For a new heyday of blaxploitation made by new artists eager to sink their teeth into something juicy and sociologically incorrect?
Not while Chris Tucker is still lighting his cigars with hundred-dollar bills.
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