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Thursday, February 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Despite incendiary name, blaxploitation genre was about empowerment

By Mark Rahner
Seattle Times video writer

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When drug-pusher Priest climbs into his monstrous Cadillac at the end of "Superfly," he's like a Western hero mounting his horse and riding off into the sunset.

The analogy — from University of Southern California cinema professor Todd Boyd on the new "Superfly" DVD — is a good one to remember when anyone suggests that blaxploitation films are an unfit subject for Black History Month.

Constant hip-hop references and film homages have made the genre that flourished in the first half of the '70s an enduring pop-culture presence — with "Jackie Brown" director Quentin Tarantino alone acting as a one-man blaxploitation preservation society.

Watching the steady trickle of these titles onto DVD makes one irony apparent: Despite the often unintentional humor from low budgets and acting to match, the most empowering film genre in black history gave black audiences their first heroes, in raw, cathartically unmodulated movies that told it like it was. But in today's climate, where avoidance and childish doublespeak masquerade as sensitivity, you can barely print the titles of some of these films.

That can't be what those filmmakers were striving for. It would be a low-down dirty shame if the legacy of blaxploitation were only kitsch.

METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER
Gordon Parks, director of "Shaft" and "Shaft's Big Score," appearing in a scene from 1971's "Shaft."
"Times have changed. Things have been camouflaged more," says filmmaker Robert Townsend in his commentary for 1973's "The Spook Who Sat By the Door." Released on DVD two weeks ago, it's little known among general audiences but left a legendary imprint on those who saw it young. The plot: To avoid racism charges, the CIA hires its first black agent. We're not talking James Bond. The agent, Freeman, keeps his cool during five years of condescension and menial tasks, then resigns ostensibly to take a social-work job. But he's really using his agency skills to train black guerrilla revolutionaries to wage urban war against The Man amid riots already erupting. Freeman's soldiers' provocative acts include dosing a racist National Guard leader with acid, painting him black, then sending him into the streets on a bicycle to get gunned down.

"Hollywood Shuffle" actor-director Townsend says that movie planted a seed. Indisputably baaaad and sometimes just bad, these films were every bit as much products of their era as hippie movies were in the decade before them. Which is one reason John Singleton's recent remake of "Shaft" had none of the 1971 original's impact. The civil-rights movement was relatively young, and Sidney Poitier was the only black star to have hit the big time — and still in white-Hollywood mainstream pictures.

WARNER BROS. INC.
Carl Lee, foreground, and Ron O'Neal in 1972's "Superfly," which also features a Curtis Mayfield score. A bonus of the DVD is a vintage featurette with O'Neal.
The term remains misunderstood, and some of the genre's stars even object to it, but "blaxploitation" is the term that stuck. Here's the score: It isn't and wasn't a pejorative term that signified black people were being exploited. In fact, just the opposite.

Exploitation films were common fodder for drive-ins and grind houses long before the films that focused on the black experience. With low budgets and no major stars, they relied on exploitative content you'd never find in a Hollywood picture, namely more violence and sex. And they started reeling in black viewers with Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." Its huge success (and low overhead) led the way for the roughly 200 titles that followed. The flicks helped resuscitate cash-strapped studios, gave audiences relevant, nontraditional heroes and made a few lasting stars.

Not every "blaxploitation" flick was heavy on skin and broken bones, but those roughly 200 titles were part of that same explosion of films by and for black audiences. There were horror ("Blacula," "Blackenstein"), comedy ("Five on the Black Hand Side"), Westerns ("Soul Soldier") and other subgenres within it.

Seattle's Scarecrow Video carries about 170 titles in its blaxploitation section, along with sections devoted to directors Van Peebles, Gordon Parks ("Shaft," "Shaft's Big Score") and Jack Hill ("Foxy Brown," "Coffy").

Scarecrow's Kin Ferate says, "People who are into them are curious about the '70s. They get a feeling of what was it like to be alive in the '70s. A lot of these films capture a cultural aspect back then that you don't read about in the history books."

Or see much in timorous contemporary entertainment. With the notable exception of Dave Chapelle's "Chapelle's Show," which hilariously ignores caution on Comedy Central, most race-themed entertainment — not to mention humor — doesn't have a sliver of the frankness, directness and fire of blaxploitation. And any Seattle fan has seen people cringe at the mention of the genre.

"There's a lot of white guilt that gets into play about this," Ferate says. "Seattle is a very PC town. People are trying to be as polite as possible. People don't talk about their anger or frustration about race relations, but there's different problems we have now that they didn't have then."

Here are some blaxploitation titles recently resurfaced on DVD:

"Superfly" (Warner, 1972, R): Actor Ron O'Neal's death last month was a sad milestone. Along with Richard Roundtree's private eye "Shaft," his pusher Youngblood Priest — trying for one last huge score to escape The Life — is the genre's most revered. Grittier, too. Curtis Mayfield's score is one of the most effective of any film, period. USC professor Boyd supplies insightful DVD commentary, and a vintage featurette with O'Neal shows the film's impact.

"The Spook Who Sat By the Door" (Monarch, 1973, PG): "Their first mistake was letting him in. Their worst mistake was letting him out." Ivan Dixon (Kinch from "Hogan's Heroes"!) directed the incendiary, satirical adaptation of Sam Greenlee's novel. Freeman (Lawrence Cook) runs an arduous gantlet to become the CIA's first black agent. A model employee, he resigns after five years then passes on his skills to followers to wreak revolutionary havoc in major cities. The DVD includes an interview with septuagenarian Greenlee, who recounts the film's "stolen" shots because filmmakers couldn't get a permit to shoot in Chicago.

"Black Gunn" (Columbia Tristar, 1972, R): Jim Brown plays the self-assured owner of a blacks-only club who counsels his trouble-bound militant kid brother that he doesn't change his thing for anyone. When the brother is killed after robbing a mob gambling operation, racist henchmen (led by Martin Landau) come looking for what's theirs, and Gunn goes looking for revenge. Significantly, while Gunn talks about taking it to The Man, he enlists the cops and the militants for help.

"The Mack" (New Line, 1973, R): Max Julien in his iconic role as an ex-con who fights his way to the top of the players' heap. The clothes, the real pimps, evil white cops, the incredible dialogue (one of the harsher epithets: "poop butts") and Richard Pryor as the sidekick make this required viewing. Julien contributes to the DVD commentary, and there's a "Mackin' Ain't Easy" documentary.

"The Monkey Hustle" (MGM, 1976, PG): A weak last comedic gasp of the genre, with petty thief Yaphet Kotto, his young thieves-in-training and flamboyant neighborhood boss Rudy Ray Moore trying to hustle each other and everyone else in a Chicago 'hood threatened by a freeway project.

"Blacula" (MGM, 1972, PG): Booming-voiced William Marshall plays African prince Mamuwalde, who travels to Europe to discuss halting the slave trade with fellow royalty, namely a Transylvanian count who bites and imprisons him. Modern-day castle-buyers unwittingly free him and become appetizers. But Blacula's hungry for love, too, when he spots a dead ringer (Vonetta McGee) for his beloved wife.

"Scream Blacula Scream" (MGM, 1973, PG): "What's up, blood?" A voodoo cultist resurrects Mamuwalde to wreak revenge on colleagues who pass him over for leadership. Mistake. The caped one snacks on him, then turns to the new voodoo priestess (Pam Grier) to help free him from his torment — while her ex-cop boyfriend closes in. Much more laughable than the original, but it's still got Grier and a scary last act.

"Hammer" (MGM, 1972, R): Fred Williamson ("Black Caesar") gets fired from the docks and starts a promising boxing career. A cop (Bernie Hamilton from "Starsky and Hutch") tries to warn him away from the mobsters running the show and "helping" him with his wins. Do you really think The Hammer is going to take a dive when they order it? And do you doubt he's going to face off against big, scary, sadistic henchman William Smith?

"Bone" (Blue Underground, 1972, R): Less a strict blaxploitation entry than an underappreciated, edgy social satire from "Black Caesar" auteur Larry Cohen. When thug-rapist Yaphet Kotto tries to rob a rich middle-age white couple, their world comes permanently unglued, and he's flabbergasted at what he's set in motion.

"The Soul Cinema Collection" (MGM) packages five titles already on DVD — "Coffy," "Foxy Brown," "Cooley High," "Hell Up In Harlem" and the spoof "I'm Gonna Get You Sucka" — with a CD music sampler.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com


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