August 2012, arsenal cinema

Blaxploitation - 12 Black Action Films 1970–74


Before the backdrop of the African American liberation movement and the crisis in the Hollywood studios, a new genre emerged in US cinema in 1970. The Blaxploitation films of the first half of the 70s gifted Afro-American cinema its first (and thus far only) great boom. With the exception of Sidney Poitier and several musicals with all black casts, black people in Hollywood had only been in line for the role of the butler, the gardener and the shoeshine boy until well into the 60s. In the face of a new Afro-American confidence and the fact that the Hollywood studios were in desperate need of new markets, by 1970 the time had come to correct the image of the Afro-American on the movie screen. Within 18 months, four enormously successful films by Afro-American directors had founded a new genre of black protagonists whose every larger-than-life line of dialogue and action announced that "Black is beautiful." The plot and setting of these films – the independently produced SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971) and SUPER FLY (1972) and the two major studio productions COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970) and SHAFT (1971) – served as the stylistic template for the many black action movies that followed. The definitive setting was a black ghetto milieu dominated by drugs, pimping and the respective gangster bosses. In addition to the cool private detective or cop, the pimp and the pusherman were also favored protagonists. These black action heroes showed suitable poise to stand up to "the Man" aka the "white men in power" in surroundings not dissimilar to those lived in by black people in American cities. The images of black urban culture conveyed by these films, whether street slang, the Afro look, hip clothing, stylish cars and groovy soundtracks, played a major role in their popularity, both in the USA and beyond. The music, a specific mix of soul, rhythm & blues, funk and jazz, took on an important, often narrative function in the process, which gave the films an element of depth often to some extent lacking in the scripts themselves. During the brief flowering of the genre, James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and others wrote some of the most thrilling soundtracks in the history of film.

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (Ossie Davis, USA 1970, July 25 & August 17) Two black New York police force detectives unmask a treacherous sect leader who has stolen donation money and keeps it hidden in a bale of cotton. The directorial debut of black actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis was the first black action film to be produced in Hollywood with a largely Afro-American cast. The basis for the script was provided by Chester Himes, an African American author who began writing in prison and lived in exile in Paris from 1953 onwards. Funny, action-packed and hip, the film was shot on location "with the cooperation of the people of Harlem" and served as a source of inspiration for subsequent black action movies. With this film at the latest, "Is it black enough for you?" entered the general vernacular.

SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG(Melvin Van Peebles, USA 1971, July 28 & August 7) A pimp saves a member of the Black Panthers from police violence and kills two racist cops in doing so, whereupon a merciless hunt for him begins. Sweetback’s allies in his adventure-filled flight and parallel political awakening: prostitutes, the ghetto community and a troop of Hell’s Angels. Screenwriter, producer, editor, director and leading actor Melvin Van Peebles used the money he earned with the Hollywood comedy Watermelon Man (1970), the story of a white racist who wakes up one morning black, to shoot the first independent black action film on the streets of Los Angeles. This furious, polemic blend of black power, sex and the struggle against "the Man" was celebrated by Black Panther leader Huey Newton and "rated X by an all-white jury", as the posters announced with suitable marketing savvy. The soundtrack was by the then unknown Earth, Wind & Fire. "The mother of all Blaxploitation films and still the benchmark for the genre; substantially more radical, intense and original than the commercialized works that quickly followed as a result of its surprise success, SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG appeared as a true independent film. A raw, furiously edited expression of black self-image, "dedicated to all brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man."" (Christoph Huber).

SHAFT (Gordon Parks Sr., USA 1971, July 21 & August 10) Private detective John Shaft is supposed to free the kidnapped daughter of a gangster boss in Harlem and ends up caught in the crossfire of a Mafia war. He receives support in his fight against the kidnappers from the members of a militant civil rights movement. Richard Roundtree as the super cool Private Dick served as the stylistic template for the many black heroes in the wave of Blaxploitation movies unleashed by the film’s enormous success. SHAFT showed Hollywood that there was an international audience for Afro-American films.  By 1973, MGM had produced two sequels with the sexy, leather-clad private detective, followed by seven episodes of a TV series of the same name. Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for the score, while the soundtrack reached platinum status, an unparalleled achievement for an Afro-American artist at the time.

SUPER FLY (Gordon Parks Jr., USA 1972, July 27 & August 17) The story of a black cocaine dealer in New York who tries to stand up to his white boss and wants to leave the business after the last big job. Influenced by Iceberg Slim’s autobiographical story Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967), which was written in prison, SUPER FLY introduced a new type of stylish protagonist to the nascent genre in the form of the pusherman. The omnipresent music by Curtis Mayfield, who also performs in the film with his "Experience" band, is one of the absolute highlights of Blaxploitation soundtracks.

COOL BREEZE (Barry Pollack, USA 1972, July 27 & August 21) In order to found a "Black People's Bank", Sidney Lord Jones plans the ultimate coup "in the name of the people", a spectacular 3 million dollar diamond robbery in Los Angeles. COOL BREEZE was made by MGM in the wake of SHAFT as a black remake of the John Huston classic The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Alongside Thalmus Rasulala as a charismatic gang leader, Pam Grier makes her first appearance in a Blaxploitation film, one year before she became the first superwoman of the genre as "Coffy". Unreleased in Germany, the film has a soundtrack by Solomon Burke.

SLAUGHTER (Jack Starrett, USA/Mexico 1972, August 1 & 24) Green Beret veteran Jim Slaughter is searching for his parents' murderer. The trail leads him to Mexico to the racist Mafioso Dominick Hoffo. A high body count and a Western-style showdown characterize the box office success Slaughter, in which former football star Jim Brown established himself as a black superman in the title role. Billy Preston, session musician for the Beatles amongst others and practically the sixth Rolling Stone from 1969-75, provided the congenial, raw and funky soundtrack. Quentin Tarantino used the title song in Inglourious Basterds (2009).

ACROSS 110TH STREET(Barry Shear, USA 1972, August 4 & 16) "Trying to break out of the ghetto", as Bobby Womack sings in the title song, three small-time black Mafia criminals steal 300,000 dollars, shooting five clan members and two policemen in the process. In the subsequent chase, the links between the police and organized crime are brought to light, as is racism in the communities. Captain Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) and young African American Lieutenant Pope (Yaphet Kotto) vye with one another to lead the investigation and represent two entirely different methodologies.  Bobby Womack's soundtrack reached new levels of popularity 25 years later when Quentin Tarantino used it to accompany the opening sequence of JACKIE BROWN.

BLACK CAESAR (Larry Cohen, USA 1973, July 28 & August 23) Tommy Gibbs works his way up from shoeshine boy to Mafia hitman in order to take command of the Harlem underworld himself piece by piece. A Blaxploitation film as a Brechtian people’s theater piece, which works through class and race relations with analytical precision and no shortage of thrills. BLACK CAESAR made former footballer Fred Williamson into a superstar of the genre. The title borrows from the gangster film classic Little Caesar (1931). A further point of reference is Coppola's The Godfather, which had arrived in theatres a year earlier, leading BLACK CAESAR to be shown in German cinemas under the title "Godfather of Harlem" in order to benefit from the earlier film's success. The soundtrack is by "Godfather of Soul" James Brown.

COFFY (Jack Hill, USA 1973, July 20 & August 11) After dealers turn her eleven-year-old sister into an addict and she is fobbed off with impure dope, nurse Coffy kills several drug bosses out of revenge. Pam Grier as a black superwoman armed with a pump gun, setting out in a Ford Mustang on a revenge campaign against pimps and drug pushers. One of the most popular Blaxploitation films and  "one of the most entertaining movies ever made" according to Quentin Tarantino. Roy Ayers' soundtrack "Coffy Is The Color" was as successful as the film.

CLEOPATRA JONES (Jack Starrett, USA 1973, July 20 & August 2) "She's 6 feet 2 inches of Dynamite … And the Hottest Super Agent Ever!" was Warner Bros' tagline for the second black superheroine, released only a few weeks after the AIP production of COFFY with Pam Grier. The 1.88 m tall ex-model Tamara Dobson plays CIA agent Cleopatra Jones, who battles a band of drug smugglers led by the unscrupulous "Mommy". As a high-heel-wearing female take on James Bond and a larger-than-life Afro-American female super hero, Cleopatra Jones appears in keeping with the times: emancipated, intelligent, attractive, independent, hip, self-confident and fashion conscious. Whether giving chase in her Corvette or in a kung-fu fighting duel, she casually dispatches each and every one of her opponents to the sounds of J.J. Johnson and Joe Simon.

SHAFT IN AFRICA (John Guillermin, USA 1973, July 21 & August 10) "The Brother Man in the Motherland" is how MGM advertised black private detective John Shaft's third adventure. Shaft leaves Harlem and his leather jacket behind in order to break up an international people trafficking ring in Ethiopia, which transports Africans to Paris, where there are exploited as illegal guest workers under inhumane conditions.  Johnny Pate wrote and performed the soundtrack.

FOXY BROWN (Jack Hill, USA 1974, August 11 & 18) Pam Grier in her fourth collaboration with B-movie director Jack Hill, which finds her at the peak of her Blaxploitation fame following the enormous success of COFFY. As the titular Foxy Brown, she covertly enters the drug ring that controls the city following the murder of her lover, an undercover agent working for the drugs authority. She is taken prisoner and mistreated but takes brutal revenge with the help of a "neighborhood committee". Due to its the explicit depiction of violence, the film was only shown in cinemas in a cut version in several countries; in West Germany, FOXY BROWN, much like COFFY, had seven minutes removed from its running time. The soundtrack of the film is by Willie Hutch.

JACKIE BROWN (Quentin Tarantino, USA 1997, August 4 & 18) Stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) supplements her salary by smuggling money for arms dealer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson). When she is arrested at a control, the authorities offer her immunity from prosecution if she helps them bust Ordell. With the help of bail bondsman Max (Robert Forster), Jackie tries to outfox both sides in order to pocket the money herself. Tarantino's homage to Pam Grier and Blaxploitation cinema is his most mature entry in his post-modern genre revitalization project: an ironic, labyrinthine crime thriller, a moving, mellow love melodrama, and an expertly modulated word game of pop culture references.

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arsenal cinema: Blaxploitation - 12 Black Action Films 1970–74

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Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Melvin Van Peebles USA 1971 DigiBeta OV 97 min