"The way I saw it then and still see it now is that the biggest obstacle to progress in America
is our conditioned susceptibility to the white man's program. Our minds have been colonized
by images of black humiliation, marginality, subservience, impotence and criminality that are
ubiquitous in mainstream American cinema. These are the supposed self-images seen when
African-Americans look into the socio-cultural mirror of the cinema. We've been violated,
confused and drained by this colonization and from this brutal, calculated genocide the most
vicious racism has grown. It was with this starting point in mind and intention to reverse the
process that I went in to cinema in the first fuckin' place."
- Melvin Van Peebles, "Classified X"
"Three Honkies the Hard Way": in which Blevo, Colonel Kurz, Mod Hip and their brother that the pusher put out of commission, Derninan (who may cameo with a guest review here and there), have had enough of the Man! We've each selected a number of blaxploitation films we've not yet seen to view and report on at our own pace along with several already-beloved titles to highlight as entries in the soul cinema canon.
As a white male in Midwestern America, I know all too well what it is to feel the icy cold tingle of the Man’s foot up my ass. I relate to my soul brotha’s and sista’s from the documentation of their righteous fight against the insurmountable honky forces of evil. These so called “Blacksploitation” films (a moniker imposed by the Man to try and turn the struggles of soul brotha’s and sista’s in to some sort of joke) capture what it is to live on the streets. Our heroes are the hustlers and the pimps, the saints and the soldiers, and everything that is REAL in this world (including garish purple suits and larger than life hats). So sit back and enjoy the show mothah-fuckahs, this shit is about to get funky.
"Blaxploitation" is a bit of misnomer. It suggests that black people were being exploited, which is not really the case. Many of the defining blaxploitation movies were made by black directors with black stars for black audiences, mostly urban. It's true that even more were made by white directors, especially when Hollywood caught onto the trend. But does that make it exploitation? Sure, in a way any time someone offers to fulfill an audience need by making them pay money, it's exploitation, but we don't call "Death Wish" whitesploitation, even though it mostly panders to a very white audience.
It was originally coined blaxploitation by, depending on who you're talking to, either a white writer for Variety or someone in the NAACP because its subject matter of sex, violence and “super-cool” individualism was the opposite of what civil rights movements in the early seventies viewed as appropriate black imagery. But almost nobody involved in the actual films ever saw it that way. After about seventy years of mostly being sidelined in Hollywood films as mammies, slaves or butlers in bit parts, slowly black actors like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier made their way onto the screen in leading roles, but these were black roles that where clean to the point of sainthood, with perfect civilized upper class diction, no personality faults to speak of and no kind of sexuality. Black people that lived up to what white America wanted of them.
What blaxploitation, for lack of a better word (although soul cinema might be that better word, that's an even newer term that was slapped on the 'genre' upon DVD release, so let's stick to the more problematic word for now), offered was something new. Black urban heroes on the screen, that frequently “stick it to the man” and don't conform to dominant (white) society standards, that definitely were very sexual and powerful indeed. Sure, partly they adhered to and created new stereotypes, or were often at least partly stereotypical, but at the same time they were empowering in their refusal to play by the white man's rules. This often resulted in criminal behavior, sometimes portrayed as the only option left to black inner city inhabitants that also want to achieve the American Dream.
There was often a difference between the protagonists of white and black director's movies. While the heroes of “white” movies often also inflicted hurt on their own black community (like in "Black Caesar") for personal gain, which is emphasized, for which they might be punished in the end, the main characters of “black” movies are a sort of black folk heroes who mainly fight the white power and superstructure and get away with it, like Shaft, Sweetback and Priest ("Superfly"). It's all the above-mentioned subversiveness, that characterizes most blaxploitation movies, that I love about the genre. There's also a realistic feel to a lot of these, in the sense that they were shot on location in the streets they depicted, not unlike Italian neorealism. Of course there's also the soundtracks, that are so elemental to these movies and determine the atmosphere that makes them so pleasant to watch.
From cinema's beginnings the white man has called the shots with a white audience in mind. As early as when Thomas Edison first put images to film in the 1890s began the most widely influential characterization yet of blacks as ever-quaking, watermelon-chomping hoofers - a stereotype placing our brothers and sisters only a rung or two above apes and ultimately, however unintentionally, keeping the brown man down. Viewed from a white perspective, this could be and was revered as simple fun with no harm done, but subconsciously these characterizations grew inside brains both white and black. In all, even the most ingenuous, is the great educator propaganda, and in a fashion that still exists through media today, whites' prejudices were being seasoned and blacks were being further alienated and confused by their screen portrayals.
Come the end of WWII, once racism had been given even worse a reputation and America needed to embrace its status as a "melting pot", Hollywood introduced "the new negro". Though this was a more fleshed-out, less minstrel approach to black characters, whiteness still reigned in the mainstream and "the new negro" (and "pinky" films, for that matter) only inflicted deeper insults through boxing in and subtle justification. All-black films reflecting genuine humanity but still plagued with the acceptance of white class supremacy were produced on tiny budgets and distributed to rare blacks-only theaters, but it wasn't until 1971 with Melvin Van Peebles' independent break "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" that studios realized good money was to be made from black audiences... and "Sweetback" wouldn't be anything without the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
It is fitting that the Panthers made "Sweetback" required viewing for all members thus spawning the blaxploitation wave (most prolific from 1971-'74) as it can easily be said that blaxploitation films perpetuate racism against whites within the black community, which was to an extent a mentality of the Malcolm X-inspired movement. So if I'm white, how come I love these films so much? Here's the thing - I think the vast majority of us everyday people, black, blue, white or green, can relate to being kept down by "the Man". I sure can, thereby I find it empowering to watch those who have famously been treated unfairly in reality and represented unfairly in film in unfair manners rise up in the public eye with supremely funky attitudes and fight for what's right.
Then, what are the parameters of blaxploitation? The more I look into them, the more vague they appear. Some may trace blaxploitation (an iffy label that may or may not mutate through the ages depending on who you're talking to) back decades upon decades while others confine it to the post-"Sweetback" '70s. I think it has more to do with subject matter. What is really being exploited, and what held more precedence - the message or the money? With this in mind, certain films regarded within the genre may not be as such at all. All kinds of discussions can and may be had over the origins and consequences of blaxploitation, but from where I sit a retaliation was needed, has proved mostly positive with its effects and sure makes for good moviegoing.