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Can You Dig It? Right On!

3 minute read
James Poniewozik

When Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Oscars in this year’s much discussed Black Hollywood moment, they paid their respects to Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier, not to Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree. In the remembrances of African-American cinema past that followed, there wasn’t much tribute to Foxy Brown, Superfly or Hell Up in Harlem. Blaxploitation–the genre of small-budget, big-action and bigger-Afro movies that flourished in the early to mid-’70s–has been something of an embarrassment to Hollywood and the black intelligentsia alike. (The term black exploitation was popularized by mainline African-American groups–the N.A.A.C.P., core–that protested the movies’ sex, violence and criminal heroes.) Blaxploitation movies didn’t win awards. They just filled seats by the millions, which is, of course, the way movies change the world.

So it’s appropriate that blaxploitation’s theatrical tribute came this summer from a pair of popcorn movies: Undercover Brother and Austin Powers in Goldmember (with the foil fatale, Foxxy Cleopatra, played by Beyonce Knowles). But now director Isaac Julien aims to put blaxploitation into the canon with the documentary BaadAsssss Cinema (IFC, Aug. 14, 10 p.m. E.T.), which unashamedly argues that those movies had artistic merit and political force.

Emphasis on force: part of the reason bourgeois black groups were turned off by the genre is that it owed its world view to their antipodes–militant groups like the Black Panthers. Blaxploitation didn’t have a dream; it had a shotgun. And if many of its heroes were pimps and pushers, at least they could do the pushing without getting punished for it onscreen. Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song (1971)–“Rated X by an all-white jury,” bragged the poster–stunned audiences simply by showing a strong black man who fought, had explicit sex and tangled with white cops, yet didn’t get killed for it by the end of the movie. Blaxploitation’s heroes, men and women, had attitude and style and were true to the experience of black moviegoers. Roundtree’s John Shaft, as Isaac Hayes sang, was “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”–but couldn’t hail a cab in Manhattan. “We knew him,” Samuel L. Jackson remembers. “We felt him.”

BaadAsssss also examines the music, which the larger (i.e., white) audience probably knows better than the movies. There is archival footage of Shaft’s director, Gordon Parks, coaching Hayes as he records the movie’s funk-legend theme, and critic Elvis Mitchell explains how Curtis Mayfield’s antidrug score for Superfly subtly rebuts the movie’s pusher-glorifying plot (the same tension as exists in much gangsta rap). The documentary confirms blaxploitation’s lasting influence on music and movies by interviewing Afeni Shakur (mother of late rapper Tupac) and Quentin Tarantino, the white boy whom blaxploitation made. The Oscars may not recognize the legacy of blaxploitation anytime soon. But, Julien shows, the world outside the academy is full of fans who know it and feel it.

–By James Poniewozik

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