(Welcome to Marathon Man: the monthly column where I examine a series of films and compare, contrast and analyze them until either your brain or mine explodes.)
The term "blaxploitation" conjures up some very specific images for many movie fans. Afros. Poor production values. Awesome soundtracks. Sweet clothes. Cool-as-ice black people kicking the stuffing out of evil white people who have been been up to all kinds of no good.
A genre so easily parodied, so incredibly undervalued and so under-watched by modern audiences, it is often easy to forget why "Black Exploitation" films are not only a fascinating cinematic time capsule, but a massive cultural leap forward: black actors, often working with black filmmakers (although almost always financed by rich white guys) making films for black audiences. Although it's been argued that these violent, explicit films, with their depictions of African Americans as gangsters, pimps and drug dealers, ultimately did more harm than good, it's the first instance of the African American voice making itself heard in Hollywood, paving the way for a new generation of black filmmakers. They are, for better or worse, a cultural milestone.
February is Black History Month. While it may be more politically correct to honor that by holding a marathon of Spike Lee or Sidney Poitier films, a marathon of eight blaxploitation classics sure sounds like a lot of fun.
To design the line-up for this month's marathon, I turned to fellow Cinematical writer and blaxploitation expert Brian Salisbury. The decision was made to move away from silly, campy movies and instead concentrate (mostly) on films that are legitimately good and hold up in the face of low budgets and occasionally poor acting. Sadly, limiting this marathon to eight films meant a lot of interesting, famous films will be left out ('Dolemite and 'Foxy Brown' are probably going to be the two biggest omissions here).
My look at each film will be divided up into four sections: Our Titular Hero (an examination of the film's protagonist, whose name is usually the title of the film), Race Relations (how the film addresses the subject of race, if it does at all), Brian Says (where the ever-knowledgeable Brian will unleash a fun fact or opinion about the film your way) and ending with any of my lingering Thoughts on the film itself.
'Shaft' (1971), directed by Gordon Parks
Brian Says: "The gold standard. Shaft is often erroneously credit as the first blaxploitation film; that honor belongs to Melvin Van Peebles' nigh unwatchable 'Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song.' Melvin was fond of telling people that the original script for 'Shaft' was a run-of-the-mill detective story staring a white actor that was altered after the success of his film, but it was actually based on a novel about a black detective so the story doesn't hold much water."
Our Titular Hero: Let's take a look at the lyrics to Isaac Hayes' Academy Award winning theme song to 'Shaft' and see what we can learn. Is he a black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks? Yep -- and dick means cop. Keep your mind out of the gutter. Is he the man who would risk his neck for his brother man? Yeah, sure. Is he the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about? Ya damn right! There's a reason Richard Roundtree's performance as rogue police officer John Shaft is so iconic -- he's just the epitome of cool, the very definition of a classic badass. He may not be as overtly flashy as other heroes in the marathon, but he's the template. He set the standard. He's Shaft, baby.
Race Relations: It's not so much that Shaft hates white people -- they're just big squares who don't know nothin' about anything. The few white people who aren't bumbling morons who shout at an apathetic Shaft from behind a police chief's desk are the Mafia goons who turn out the be the true villains of the film. The racial politics of 'Shaft' are dialed down compared to other blaxploitation films, but the concept of a potential "war" between white and black gangsters does a fine job realistically outlining the racial tensions of New York circa 1971. Oh, and there's the bit where Shaft recruits a small army of black militants to take on the Mafia in the bloody climactic shoot-out, because if you're going to kill whitey, that's how you do it.
Thoughts: 'Shaft' is all about attitude, a good thing since the film's plotting is a little muddled and it's "cop-on-the-edge" storyline is something we've seen a thousand time before and since. In its opening moments, the film shows us exactly where we are: New York city of the early 1970s, dirty and gray, but teeming with life and a dangerous vibrancy. Shaft patrols the streets, vaguely amused by his surroundings, jaywalking across a busy street and flipping the bird to whoever honks at him. Man, Shaft just doesn't give a sh*t. His ethics are loose, at best. He never listens to authority. He manages to blend his police work with private jobs, working behind the backs of criminals and the police. He should be a nasty, despicable piece of dirt, but Roundtree is so charming and the world of 'Shaft' so unpleasant, that we just can't blame the guy. Shaft just does what he has to do. This is survival. In the end, the cops win, the black crooks win, the white mobsters lose (because they're all very dead) and most of all, Shaft wins. It may not be pretty, but when something works, you've just got to keep on doing it.
'Trouble Man' (1972), directed by Ivan Dixon
Brian Says: "One of the better, lesser-touted blaxploitation films. Marvin Gaye provided the soundtrack, which is fantastic."
Our Titular Hero: It's easy to see that the hero of 'Trouble Man' only goes by "Mr. T" and immediately think of the fool pitier who fought Rocky Balboa and drove the A-Team's van. There truly couldn't be a more unfair point of reference. Mr. T may very well be the greatest blaxploitation hero of this marathon, a character who, while certainly not deep, is infinitely fascinating. Using a pool hall as a Base of operations, Mr. T specializes in "fixing" things. Sometimes that involves giving a troublesome youth a good talking to. Sometimes that involves roughing up a city official. No matter where he goes, he has the respect of the criminal underworld as well the cops. He's on the level: he's the best ally you'll ever have unless you double cross him -- then he becomes the deadliest enemy you could possibly imagine. Most blaxploitation heroes are thoroughly one-dimensional, with even the best of them just being singers or retired football players playing a variation on themselves. Robert Hooks' Mr. T is a real performance, a tough guy that may not be the biggest or the strongest, but he's always the smartest the guy in the room. And he always wins.
Race Relations: One of the driving forces in every blaxploitation movie is the idea of our African American heroes operating against or entirely outside of white society. It's an angry depiction, one that has more truth to it than many modern people may want to admit and to see a black hero stand up to oppressive white gangsters or corrupt police officers must have felt cathartic. Which is what makes the almost total lack of significant racial bias in 'Trouble Man' interesting. Sure, Mr. T's pool hall seems to exclusively cater to black players and he definitely throws a "honky" or two around, but he seems to value loyalty far higher than skin color. White or black, you're a dead man if you screw with him.
Thoughts: Although buoyed by an unforgettable lead performance, 'Trouble Man' is often painfully slow, moving at a snail's pace when it just begs to take off. A shame, since the nuts and bolts of the story are simply incredible (and unlike so many others in the marathon, not implausible) and the film itself is far better shot than many of its contemporaries. In a genre where campy excess often reigns supreme, 'Trouble Man's attempt to be a real movie is admirable and refreshing. Not to mention the action, which is stripped down and simple compared to the what was to come, but is thrilling in a real, visceral way, capable of inspiring gasps instead of guffaws. If most blaxploitation films are a "black" take on a popular genre, this is undeniably a riff on film noir. Strange, though, how this "riff" manages to capture that sense of danger that permeates classic noir, something that most modern attempts at the genre have failed to get right. Whether by accident or design, 'Trouble Man' is noir to its bones and Mr. T a perfect update on the film noir anti-hero. The flaws of 'Trouble Man' feel minute. What a great movie.
Interlude: Two movies in and I'm already thrown for a loop. Aren't all blaxploitation movies supposed to be wacky, over-the-top campfests? Where are the hanging boom mics and wooden performances? Heck, both of those movies were legitimately good! Maybe these won't be quite as hokey as I was expecting -- oh, wait. The next one is 'Blacula.'
'Blacula' (1972), directed by William Crain
Brian Says: "Not only a great blaxploitation film, 'Blacula' has flashes of legitimate horror nuance. The animated sequence at the opening of the film is phenomenal. The actor who plays Blacula, William Marshall, would later enjoy great success as The King of Cartoons on 'Pee-Wee's Playhouse.' "
Our Titular Hero: Yes, his name is Blacula, as in "Black Dracula." You don't even have to make a joke about it -- the punchline is already there. It's a silly name for what should be a silly character. Emphasis on that "should be," because William Marshall's work as Blacula is something to behold, a towering performance filled with nuance and emotion that's the perfect example of a great actor using his natural gravitas to elevate the entire movie around him. Like many classic movie monsters, Blacula wishes to be normal. He wants love and companionship. He wants to be normal and his curse is a chain around his neck and each day as a vampire only further erodes his soul, making him less human. Yeah, sure, laugh all you want at the existence of a movie called 'Blacula,' but don't you dare mock Marshall's work and the bare, naked honesty he brings to this suffering character. It's hard to find a performance this good in Academy Award winning films.
Race Relations: In the opening scene of 'Blacula,' an African prince named Mamuwalde visits Count Dracula's castle and requests his assistance in helping end the slave trade in Africa. It turns out that Dracula is not only an evil vampire, he's a complete and total racist who curses our hero to a lifetime of being an undead bloodsucker, dubbing him Blacula. His most intense racial moment actually comes in the far superior sequel 'Scream Blacula Scream.' Cornered by two black pimps armed with switchblades, Blacula chastises them for resorting to a life of crime, implying that they're still just slaves after all of these years. It's a surprisingly powerful moment, delivered with a terrifying energy by Marshall, that helps elevate the character into something more than a B-movie monster. Then he kills them, of course.
Thoughts: It goes without saying that 'Blacula' isn't in the least bit scary. Asking a blaxploitation horror movie to accomplish that would be like asking another to tell a fast-paced, competent story -- it's just not gonna' happen. Still, like the best of the genre, 'Blacula' succeeds thanks to its wonderful leading performance and several coffin-loads of charm (See what I did there? Coffin-loads?!) The film suffers when it switches focus to the typical "black cop on the edge" who's investigating the mysterious string of vampiric murders that have been popping up all over town (of course he has a white, jerk-ish captain who tries, unsuccessfully, to lay down the law), but whenever Blacula himself is on screen, the movie enters its zone. Marshall is effortlessly charming and likeable, easy to sympathize when he's battling his inner demons. When he enters kill-mode (and oh, Blacula enters kill-mode a lot, especially in the climax, where he seems to kill most of the police force), he's a physically imposing monstrosity, with Marshall making full use of his massive, muscular build. Anti-heroes as good as Blacula are a rare commodity, indeed.
'Slaughter' (1972), directed by Jack Starrett
Brian Says: "The most successful attempt by the genre to create a blaxploitation Bond. Jim Brown made a name for himself as an unstoppable NFL running back before he was ever in films. The theme song for 'Slaughter' rivals that of 'Shaft' as best in blaxploitation and was creatively "borrowed" by Quentin Tarantino as the introduction music for his Nazi-killing Hugo Stiglitz (a name he also borrowed from exploitation) in 'Inglourious Basterds.'"
Our Titular Hero: Jim Brown is probably not an actor with considerable range, but you'd be hard pressed to find a role that fits him better than that of Slaughter, a former green beret out to avenge the murder of his father. A persistent action hero is a dime a dozen, but Slaughter is a special case. If you had a role in harming his family, he will kill you. Think that plane is going to save you? It won't. Think fleeing south of the border will save you? It won't. Think retreating into your massive lair with dozens of armed guards will save you? Take a guess. Nothing will stop this guy -- look at his friggin' name! As tough as Slaughter is, Brown imbues the character with a quiet dignity. After all, the man's a soldier, not a gangster. Sure, he'll kill all of the bad guys and seduce all of the ladies, but you'll never once hear him brag about it. He's a professional. He does what he's trained to do, he does it well and he goes home. You've got to respect a guy like that. As Billy Preston's theme song says "Slaughter's going to blow your mind, Slaughter does not waste his time."
Race Relations: If you were to take a step back and take in everything you see in blaxploitation movies as pure, unadulterated fact (not recommended, by the way), you'd realize that most of the evil in the world is committed is not just committed by white people, but by Italian white people. I'm not just talking about Italian mobsters, I'm talking about the corrupt Italian FBI agents who threaten to send you to prison unless you do their dirty work. Of course, once the white Italian sidekick who accompanies you on your mission sees how effective your punch first, blow 'em up later methods are, he will be won over by you and become a valuable ally. See? Martin Luther King Jr. was right. We are all capable of change.
Thoughts: 'Slaughter' is a James Bond movie. Albeit, a low-budget, less polished James Bond movie starring a former American football player instead of a British gentleman, but a James Bond movie nonetheless. It has all of the proper elements: a globetrotting hero sent to an exotic country to take down a criminal mastermind, a lot of suave investigation, an encounter with the lead baddie in a high stakes casino (complete with Slaughter himself in a tux!) and a final raid on the villain's fortress compound. Heck, 'Slaughter' so effortlessly incorporates Bond elements that it's not surprising to note that the next Bond film, 'Live and Let Die,' was itself a blaxploitation riff. As a film, 'Slaughter' is one of the strongest films in the marathon, one of the rare films in this genre to maintain its crazy intensity throughout with very few lulls. Let's spell that out: at the fifteen minute mark, Slaughter is battling an airplane with his car. That's act one. Before he goes to South America. Before he really starts to bring the hurt to the evil mobsters that iced his father. Although not as well made as other films in this marathon (which, considering the genre, is saying a lot, really), in terms of raw content, it's a completely upper tier kind of amazing and one of the pinnacles of blaxploitation.
Interlude: By this point in the marathon, I'm usually feeling a little woozy, but 'Slaughter' managed to really wake me up. What a crazy movie. That movie is like 90 minutes of pure concentrated caffeine, filtered through testosterone, human blood and gun powder. I could watch these things all day.