Dolemite Is My Name screens Friday, October 25th through Thursday, October 31st
Dolemite screens Saturday, October 26th through Thursday, October 31st
Halloween’s right around the corner but let’s take a break from the spooky fun to appreciate the fact that The Frida Cinema has not one but two blaxploitation-themed movies opening this weekend!
While many people are familiar with the idea of blaxploitation, not that many have actually seen any films belonging to the subgenre. Conventional wisdom seems to dismiss them as enjoyable but crass attempts by cynical producers to cash in on the increased mobility and visibility of African-Americans after the success of the civil rights movement, and indeed this was the perception of many black critics. Activist groups charged the movies with feeding into racist stereotypes about African-Americans, with the National Urban League, the NAACP, and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference even going as far as to organize a coalition to combat what they saw as the films’ malign influence.
Yet for all the detractors’ protests, they weren’t able to stop African-American audiences from turning out in droves for blaxploitation features. Instead of catering to the respectable, socially conscious tastes of the activists, these movies offered both urban fantasy and frank commentary on race relations for viewers craving to see both. They also provided many African-Americans shut out of the existing Hollywood system the chance to work on productions of such scale for the first time, paving the way for blacks to direct, produce, and star in their own projects. Filmmakers as diverse as Do The Right Thing’s Spike Lee and Boyz n the Hood’s John Singleton have drawn from blaxploitation even as they poke fun at it, but its most visible proponent has to be Quentin Tarantino, with his crime drama Jackie Brown being a long love letter to the subgenre.
Though it spread out into genre-bending variations of Westerns with The Black Bounty Killer, horror with Blacula, and general weirdness with The Black Gestapo, we’re just going to look at five titles that serve as a good beginner’s guide to blaxploitation.
The irony of D’Urville Martin’s Dolemite is that as often as it’s held up as a prime example of blaxploitation, most people don’t realize that it’s supposed to be a parody of the genre. In fact, the film was written as a vehicle for Rudy Ray Moore’s most famous stage persona, a boastful pimp given to crude language and rapping. As such, to criticize it for being outrageous is to miss the point of the film and what it’s trying to accomplish.
Now, that isn’t to say that the movie isn’t outrageous! Not at all: from the clownish outfits the male characters wear (one can’t help but wonder how much of the film’s budget went to Mr. Moore’s wardrobe in particular) to the shamelessly contrived story, it’s clear that Moore and Martin knew they weren’t making Citizen Kane. Sprinkle in comical kung-fu choreography, eyelines that are almost allergic to matching with each other, and most notoriously, repeated boom mic intrusions and you’ve got a recipe for ridiculousness befitting the film’s B-movie status.
Where the movie shines is how much it believes in its own craziness, overcoming its low budget and inexperienced crew with a cockiness that makes viewers buy into the nonsense unfolding before them. This quality is personified by Moore himself, who carries his portly self around with the self-assured swagger we’ve come to associate with pimps. Between impressing ladies with his bodacious dad bod, free styling for oohing onlookers who are never seen again, and literally ripping out enemies’ livers, it’s tempting to think of Dolemite less as a character in a blaxploitation parody than an urban superhero who improbably but surely saves the day.
As for the rest of the cast, they get in on the over-the-top action to varying degrees as well. Made up largely of Moore’s friends and associates, the supporting players’ lack of acting experience shows in their hammy, often imprecise delivery of their lines, adding another layer of hilarity to what is already a pretty funny movie. While all the characters engage in this exaggerated manner of acting, it is especially pronounced (perhaps purposefully so) in the white characters, who have to be some of the goofiest antagonists in blaxploitation history. The two detectives who try to frame Dolemite, for example, are virtually impossible to take seriously even as they hurl threats and racial slurs at him and it’s hard to view the corrupt mayor as anything other than a strange combination of Steve Buscemi and Jon Polito who wandered in from some forgotten Coen Brothers’ film.
On the subject of slurs, the movie drops n-bombs and other obscenities like there’s no tomorrow. This is consistent with the genre’s general disregard for political correctness in favor of what is presented as raw authenticity, but Dolemite’s excessive use of them seems to put it in line with the Lenny Bruce theory of desensitization: that is, using obscenities over and over again will eventually take their power away. Whether that’s correct is a whole other can of worms we won’t get into, but it’s not a stretch to say the spirit of Bruce is at work in the film’s subversive use of offensive language.
With an intrepid energy that complements both its star’s ambitions and the unlikely story of its production, Dolemite overcomes its many technical flaws to present a courageously comedic send-up of the movies whose footsteps it followed in.
Super Fly (1972)
Going back three years before Dolemite, Gordon Parks, Jr. offered a very different take on blaxploitation with Super Fly. Transformed into an irresponsible celebration of pimps and drug dealers by people who likely only know it by reputation, Parks’ crime drama is as far removed from the way the public remembers it as it is from the antics of Rudy Ray Moore.
Right off the bat, the production value is leagues above Dolemite, with any possible shortcomings reaching nowhere near the level of that film. The involvement of Warner Bros. certainly had to help, but the film was still financed largely by Parks and his partners, making the movie’s comparatively polished look all the more impressive. More impressive, however, is the end to which the filmmakers used their modest resources.
Despite protests by the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality that it promoted criminal behavior and negative stereotypes about African-Americans, the movie is straight and unflattering in its portrayal of prostitution and the drug trade. The characters engage in their illicit activities and get paid for them but it’s shown to be a job like any other, with responsibilities, inconveniences, and the ever-present worry you’ll have to answer to somebody else if you mess up. Nobody takes the work lightly, and almost everyone acknowledges that what they are doing is not only dangerous but probably wrong as well.
No one feels this more strongly than Youngblood Priest, played by Ron O’Neal (who some might remember as the Cuban commander in Red Dawn.) A pusher on top of his game and on top of his world, Priest has come to the shocking realization that there’s more to life than profiting off other people’s addictions. What exactly he isn’t sure, but he knows that whatever it is has to be better than pimping and pushing. Given a dignified, almost regal authority by O’Neal, Priest is equally believable undergoing an existential crisis as he is exchanging blows with disrespectful subordinates and crooked cops.
Priest’s weariness is mirrored in the film’s drab color palette. Awash in grays and browns, Super Fly errs on the side of subdued in contrast to the bright pastels and primary colors of Dolemite. Also adding to the overall atmosphere of loneliness are the long scenes of the characters walking the mean streets of Harlem. Combine these with ambient shots of night-time New York traffic and it’s almost hard not to expect Priest to bump into Frank Serpico or Travis Bickle.
Though it may lack the hilarity of Dolemite and other similarly silly blaxploitation titles, Super Fly is an unexpectedly potent reflection of the frustration felt by many in the post-civil rights era, with its message of disaffection resonating with viewers to this day.
Another movie with a markedly different approach from Dolemite is Shaft, a film that not only came out a year before Super Fly but was also directed by Gordon Parks, the father of that film’s director. Often credited with singlehandedly saving MGM from bankruptcy, Shaft was a smash hit when it came out as well as one of the first true blaxploitation movies.
As one of the earliest examples of the subgenre, the movie owes more to other genres that preceded it than it does the tropes and conventions commonly seen in later blaxploitation entries. Namely, it lifts formal and narrative elements straight from classic noir, which is hardly surprising considering the story was adapted from screenwriter Ernest Tidyman’s detective novel of the same name. Characters are shrouded in dark and shadow, the soundtrack employs strained brass and tight percussion, and the basic set-up of a private investigator being asked by a dubious party to investigate a disappearance all speak to noir’s influence on the production.
Even when it invokes traditional blaxploitation conventions, it uses them in ways not often seen in later films. Instead of depicting drug lord Bumpy Jonas (played with menacing refinement by Moses Gunn) and his associates as bungling gangbangers, the movie shows them to be the threateningly competent members of an African-American organized crime family that clearly exercise power far beyond what is seen onscreen. Furthermore, the movie’s dialogue is shockingly clean compared to the two films previously listed, with there being exactly one n-bomb and one f-bomb said throughout its runtime. This isn’t to say that it detracts from the movie, but it surely does make for a safer viewing experience for old ladies and guilty white liberals.
All that being said, the movies lives but never dies by its hero. The theme song tells us he’s a black private dick who’s also a sex machine to all the chicks and that’s certainly cool, but Shaft’s personality is the most beguiling thing about him. In contrast to the loquacious bravado of Dolemite and the elegant power of Youngblood Priest, Richard Roundtree is charmingly slick as the turtleneck-clad PI. While he is more than capable of handling himself in the physical arena, Shaft is shown to prefer using his wits and powers of observation to get by and do what he needs to. From the trivial like trading barbs with unfriendly cops to the serious like faking an amorous phone call to trick mobsters, Shaft is a refreshing variation on the quick-thinking hero who would rather use brains than brawn to solve problems.
While some critics at the time panned it for hewing too closely to the conventions of older detective fare, Shaft has been vindicated as an effective and entertaining neo-noir as well as one of blaxploitation’s finest films.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
But as distinct from one another as Dolemite, Super Fly and Shaft are, they might as well be carbon copies of each other when compared to Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
Released the same year as Shaft, Sweetback endeavors to achieve much more than the comparatively modest goals of that film. Frustrated by Hollywood’s predilection for portraying African-American characters as little more than servants and passive victims, Van Peebles took it upon himself to make a movie about, as he bluntly put it, “a brother getting the Man’s foot out of his ass.” The opening dedication explicitly states as much, offering the film to “all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man”.
With a message like this, it’s little wonder that no studio would touch the project, forcing Van Peebles to direct, act, and fund it all on his own. Despite having to switch between helming the project, performing his own stunts, and participating in simulated and unsimulated sex scenes alike, he was able to complete filming in 19 days, an amazingly short amount of time to shoot a feature. What Van Peebles did with the footage he shot is just as remarkable: coming down from the high of the late 60s, the film looks very much the part, with colored filters, unusual camera angles, and deliberate jump cuts creating a dreamlike atmosphere in what is otherwise a sober, straightforward story.
Contributing to the overall sense of unreality is the innovative sound design. Believing sound to be just as important a dimension to film as dialogue and visuals, Van Peebles combines Earth, Wind & Fire’s (yes, that Earth, Wind & Fire) soundtrack with characters’ lines and sound effects to assemble an auditory collage that emotionally emphasizes the beats that the formal narrative strikes. When police question Sweetback’s biological mother about him, her matter-of-fact answer that she “might have had a LeRoy once, but I don’t rightly remember” loops like a sample in a song, while his attempt to evade the authorities is intermittently punctuated by an a cappella chorus singing lamentations at the oblivious fugitive. Making sense on a subconscious level, the end result bears more resemblance to a surreal music video than it does any of the other movies on this list.
As for the titular character, Van Peebles is convincing as the soulful-eyed whorehouse performer without saying as much as five full lines of dialogue. Sweetback’s silent nature works to the film’s advantage, underscoring the idea that he is not a unique individual so much as a stand-in for African-Americans collectively fed up with their country’s mistreatment of them. Indeed, the real star of the movie is, as the opening credits helpfully point out, “the Black Community”, with the raucous performers Sweetback works with and the unhelpful friends and associates he approaches while on the run all fleshing out the movie’s interpretation of the black experience.
Bolstered by its groundbreaking mix of an experimental aesthetic with Black Power ideology, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a cinematic triumph that is as radical today as it was in 1971.
The subject of this last entry isn’t as revolutionary-minded as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song but it does differ from all of the films listed above in a very significant way: it has a female protagonist! Along with fellow 1973 release Cleopatra Jones, Jack Hill’s Coffy helped kickstart a sub-genre within the sub-genre of blaxploitation features with strong female leads who go head to head with men and kick butt.
And kick butt she does, as Coffy actually has a shocking amount of violence compared to any of the aforementioned movies. It’s hard to explain why this is the case, but one might speculate that the filmmakers felt they could get away with more with a female protagonist than they would a male one. Yet even without taking this double standard into account, the intensity of the violence really stands out. This obviously makes for a more exciting picture what with cat fights, car crashes and all, but at least one of these scenes is a little too visceral for comfort.
The scene in question involves two mobsters carrying out a gangland execution by tying a rope around a black character’s neck and tying the other end to the back of their car as they drive. The subtext (or simply the text, since it’s so upfront) is lynching, and the kinetic action of the car moving and the body flaying around behind is real enough to be disturbing.
Thankfully however, our heroine is more than able to hold her own against the brutes responsible for this horrific act! Portrayed by Jackie Brown’s very own Pam Grier, Coffy is a kind-hearted nurse who becomes a shotgun-toting vigilante after her sister becomes addicted to heroin. Not afraid to use her feminine charm to make her enemies’ let their guard down, she is as alluring as she is badass, with the righteous fury she unleashes on the pushers being quite the sight to behold.
Standing in the way of Coffy’s quest for justice is a city-wide conspiracy of gangsters, politicians, and police bringing drugs into the city, with two figures filling the role of foil to her dogged moralism especially well. The first is Howard Brunswick, a corrupt city councilman played by Booker Bradshaw, and the second is Omar, a sadistic mob enforcer played by Sid Haig. While Omar is obviously the more intimidating of the two (there’s just something deeply unwholesome about hearing Captain Spaulding say the n-word), Howard is actually worse because not only does he betray her, he betrays the black community to enrich himself at their expense. Needless to say, it’s deeply satisfying when Coffy finally corners him and he isn’t able to sweet-talk his way out of it.
With violence that is real enough to be unsettling yet extreme enough to be engrossing, Coffy is an unforgettable revenge film that deserves to be seen by anyone who can handle it.