by Monica Castillo
September 26th, 2010
"Don't let your mouth get your ass in trouble."
Of the founding fathers of the blaxploitation genre, Shaft was
mainstream Hollywood's first foray into ethnocentric entertainment
geared towards black urban audiences. Before then, Hollywood merely
churned out stories from a white viewpoint. From the first silent
blockbusters throughout the sixties, minorities only played
supporting rolls; the maid, the laundry attendant, and the occasional
villain or seductress were the limited acting choices of the day.
But from the ashes of the Civil Rights struggle in the '60s, the '70s
gave the first opportunities to black writers, directors, and actors
to explore what was once considered noncommercial topics. At the
start of the Disco daze, audiences began to clamor for these
nontraditional movies. Stories from destitute projects, the pervasive
drug culture, and gang violence were theirs to share. For the first
time, real struggles and concerns were not only portrayed on screen
They were conquered.
Like in Shaft, where a headstrong detective is called upon by a gang
to help find the leader's daughter-kidnapped by none other the rival
mob. Shaft shoots the bad guys, ambushes the men sent to kill him,
and reports to his white boss at the NYPD with a kind of biting snark
that told the precinct: "I can do this by myself." But the tough guy
has a soft spot for his wife, and a laughably classic seventies-esque
love scene is our reward. The movie looks its age: the images are
grainy, the mob and Shaft chase after each other in platform shoes,
Times Square looks like it does before the clean up of the eighties
(think porn theaters instead of tourist shops), and bright red
"blood" would pour out of those unfortunate enough to get shot. Oh,
how the times have changed.
In many of the blaxploitation films, powerful hyper-sexualized
protagonists fought discrimination, drug dealers, corrupt cops, and
mobsters. Minorities both led and triumphed in these films like they
had never before in history. They were both cool and unmoved when
situations took a serious tone. Fighters like Foxy Brown must fight
against her brother's killers and Vietnam vets return home to a
racial war zone. Even Shaft has a moment where the titular detective
comes to term with his mortality. Throughout impossible odds (see
also: improbable), characters walk away with their revenge and lover
for a happily ever after.
But for all the positive messages of triumph over evil
discrimination, the movie portrays its characters through a distorted
lens. As I mentioned before, most of the leading actors and actresses
are hyper-sexualized, almost caricatures of stereotypes. Feminists
may find these movies nauseating to watch as the women are treated as
objects or worse. Domestic abuse is glamorized or expected in
relationships. Even the strong leading lady, Foxy Brown, is
considered a "woman that must be tamed." Shaft clearly talks down to
all in his life, his wife included. Racial slurs run freely from both
sides, good and bad. Another downfall of the genre is the tendency of
the characters to partake in illegal activities. Pimps and drug lords
in Superfly were rampant. Many critics blame these movies for
perpetuating the stereotypes of criminal culture.
Some forty years from the age of Aquarius, a new cult film was making
rounds in late night showings. Black Dynamite, a spoof on the genre,
has reinvigorated interest in the history of the movement. Poor
production value, over-the-top acting, timely editing, and the
tackiest clothing of the seventies have made it into one of the most
enjoyable commentary on the genre and its commercial draw. I say
commercial because for the first half of the seventies,
blaxploitation films usually made quite the box office. But thin
plots and an over-saturation of the movie market whittled down the
genre to phase out by the end of the decade. Sporadic tributes,
sequels, and spoofs punctuated the following years. Black Dynamite is
just the latest success story of making fun of a serious subject. Its
wit is hidden behind the ridiculous plot and dialogue. The color is
just a tad faded, off-color jokes end up in a climax that leads all
the way to the top of the list of corruption.
I recommend checking out Shaft, the fore-father of the genre, and
Black Dynamite, the screwy send-up of the aforementioned genre.
Serious issues like drugs and poverty are Kung-Fu'ed to destruction.
For the strides towards regaining fortune and honor, there were many
steps backwards in terms of gender equality and breaking stereotypes.
Pros and cons, you get to make the decision for yourself. View a good
example of the original era and a recent satire over some popcorn and
see what has influenced filmmakers like Spike Lee to Quentin
Tarantino. The rich and varied history of underground cinema hold
many secrets, and blaxploitation is merely one of many.
"They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother… / SHUT YOUR MOUTH! / I'm
talkin' 'bout Shaft. / THEN WE CAN DIG IT!"
Strap on your Disco leisure suit, there's plenty of good music too!
Shaft:B+, Black Dynamite: A-