Blaxploitation, a cinema of rage*

By Heitor Augusto

*Originally published in acrobata nº7 – October 2017 (Teresina, Piauí, Brazil).

A camera roams around the streets, as if it was looking for someone specific. As a black man emerges from the NYC subway, a low-pitch sound emphasizes his arrival and the film switches camera angles – from an establishing shot to a close up –, positioning Richard Roundtree’s face slightly in front a white face printed on a billboard in the background. What takes place in the following four minutes of the opening credits is a diva-like performance of masculinity: John Shaft holds the city in his hands.

John Shaft is not merely a man, but an überhuman entity. His coolness allows him to navigate between the brothers and the white establishment, as well as operate independently from the mechanisms of power and control. Both real and imagined, he’s a superhero made of flesh, bones and especially color – black. John Shaft is the protagonist of Shaft (1971), the most iconic of the Blaxploitation films, a genre that emerged and proliferated during a brief hiatus when US film industry was struggling to get people to actually go to the movie theaters, rather than staying at home in front of a TV.

Blaxploitation represents a unique moment in film history, in which Black people were not only seen as the target audience of the films – which in a certain way connected with the tradition of the race pictures [1] –, but as the sole protagonists. To watch a Blaxploitation movie is to leave the theater or your home screen with the feeling that the world is absolutely black.

Blaxploitation’s legacy of images and representations are not easily suitable for either structuring a revolutionary agenda or for pleasing the sensibility of the white liberal left’s search for the thematization of social problems. What this production does offer our contemporary audiences, specially the works released between 1970 and 75 [2], is a revenge cinema that maneuvers the restraint and the release of rage. It’s no coincidence that these characters are the embodiment of cool, for to be cool in the racial landscape of the United States is to negotiate being a threat. As Questlove has precisely pointed in a seminal essay,

What if the mask is lifted and the heat released? That threat can be physical or sexual or intellectual, but it’s always felt. Look: That person has power that he or she is not using. Think: What will happen if he or she uses it? React: I don’t exactly know, but I better keep watching to find out. [3]

Blaxploitation plays with our longing for Black rebellion and it’s a cinema of symbolic revolts and triumphs, where roles are inverted and acts of pure villainy are performed by white bodies, contrary to the stereotypical American cinema representation. As a black spectator, a film such as Shaft offers me the opportunity of healing from the scars caused by the violent existence of characters as Gus from The Birth of a Nation (1915), Mammy from Gone With the Wind (1935), the treacherous servant from A Filha do Advogado (1926), the atrocious cartoon Scrub me Mama With a Boogie Beat, from of what Brazilian Cinema did to Grande Otelo and the infamous dance scene from Cacá Diegues’ Xica da Silva (1975), from the “No sir, Yes sir” of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967). Shaft reinstitutes in me the right to be angry.

Complexities, contradictions and getting real

The fact that the Blaxploitation is regarded as something less important can be traced to both its connection to the conventions of the genre cinema and the centrality of the black experience.

These movies have been largely relegated to oblivion in Brazil by Academic film studies, which tend to ignore chapters of cinema history that have not been universally solidified as a must-see school (as it’s the case with the French New Wave, Brazilian Cinema Novo or New Hollywood). The average cinephile doesn’t recognize these films as a typical codification of art house cinema. The mainstream film journalists and critics are broadly unaware of their existence and online film criticism don’t find them interesting enough to engage in lines of battle. Militants and activists tend to see only their surface, rejecting the Blaxploitation heroes and heroines because they don’t fit in a stricter understanding of the struggle against racial oppression.

However, let me be clear: repositioning the Blaxploitation films on a noble shelf of our knowledge, where they deserve attention and call to being seen, debated and analyzed does not imply blindness to their contradictory representations. We must not ignore that we are dealing with a massive body of work, executed under different production circumstances [4]. Entangled in contradictions, these productions have both left us images that can be the anteroom of the liberation or can hint at a troubling espousement of traditional conservatives perspectives.

The performances of coolness that we enjoy from the main characters of Shaft, Super Fly (1972) or Truck Turner (1974) can also be a source of pain, for it is sometimes equated with black virility, as if they were sex machines who couldn’t control their “natural” tendencies (a stereotype largely used to justify castrating the black man). Quite frequently, Blaxploitation explores a notion of blackness that represents solely the straight man. With the noble exception of Cleopatra Jones (1973), women are commonly seen as sex partners, complementary to the hero. Even in a movie whose protagonist is a woman – Foxy Brown (1974) comes to mind –, what we first learn and see from the character are her physical attributes – does anyone remember the boobs shot in the opening credits?

cleopatra jones3

There is no escaping the fact that in the same way that classical Hollywood portrayed Black people as subhuman or inhuman, Blaxploitation movies have shifted their stereotypes to other minorities, specially lesbians and gays [5].

My intent here is not to romanticize the genre, but rather to invite a deep look at the totality of the experience brought about by these films. It fascinates me how the great Blaxploitation movies – some of them cited in this article – always carry within themselves conflicting forces pushing the films towards liberation or conservatism. They introduce us to black characters with a level of agency and determination rarely seen in either commercial or independent films, tackling sensitive issues with an in-your-face approach that is far more powerful than some well-intended social problem pictures (yes, I do have a problem with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, though I’m not blind to the importance of the film at its time and relevance of Sidney Poitier).

Cleopatra Jones does not shy away from exposing structural racism and police brutality. Ganja & Hess (1974) is quite assertive about cultural appropriation. Blacula (1974) is a heartbreaking tale about slavery trauma. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) portraits the US State as a terrorist body that forces the black man and woman to be on the run. The Mack (1973) shows that there is no power without political power. Black Ceasar (1973) is a highly creative sampling of the gangster film genre. Shaft teaches us about navigating different racial worlds.

Once seen, these pictures give us images that won’t leave our imagination: the painful fall of Tommy Gibs, the Godfather of Harlem; Tamara Dobson’s first introduction in a marvelous CinemaScope shot; the jazzy editing from Melvin Van Peebles; the colonization of time and space by Sun Ra; the tragical prince who was ripped from his throne; the conflicts between a drug dealer and a Panther member; Shaft’s wokeness on which is his real side in the game.

Images that call for our (re)discovery.

[1] Films directed and starred only by black artists. The large sum of the race pictures date from the 1910’s to the 50’s. The main figure is by far Oscar Micheaux, whose Within our gates (1920) represents a pioneering effort of an accurate representation of the Black experience.

[2] To establish a timeline of the Blaxploitation productions poses a real challenge. In my research I tend to prioritize this time frame since I read Novotny Lawrence’s Blaxploitation of the 1970’s: Blackness and Genre (2007).

[3] Questlove’s How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part III: What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool?, available at https://www.vulture.com/2014/05/questlove-hip-hop-failed-black-america-part-3-black-loses-cool.html

[4] A good example is Ganja & Hess. Director and writer Bill Gunn was hired to basically shoot a sequel to Blacula, but turned a potentially hip film into a deep, resounding reflection on the destruction of Black artists by the industry.

[5] Once again, Blacula, which is one of my favorite movies. Who is first killed by the ex-prince turned vampire? A gay couple. Which is a variation of the “black dude dies first” in movies. Take Cleopatra Jones, another one of favorites. The villain is an over the top, hysterical, greed-driven lesbian whose first line in the movie is screamed in full lungs: “Whaaaaat? That bitch! That goddamn black bitch!”. Charming, isn’t it?

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