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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Shaft? Damn right. And Super Fly, Foxy Brown and Sweet Sweetback, too. Throughout June at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, you can return to those thrilling days of yesteryear -- i.e., the 1970s -- with Blaxploitation Bijoux, an affectionate overview of low-budget, high-concept action melodramas that defined one of the most vibrant and least respectable movie genres.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: "blaxploitation," crit-speak shorthand for "black exploitation," refers to B movies aimed at black audiences during the era of Afros, bell-bottoms and platform shoes. Though the term is loosely defined enough to encompass everything from major-studio releases (Shaft and its sequels were distributed by MGM) to fiercely independent productions (Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song), the genre was governed by conventions as rigid as those that inform Restoration comedies.
For one thing, it wasn't enough for a movie of the blaxploitation period -- roughly, the late 1960s to the mid-1970s -- simply to feature a strong, self-assured and unabashedly sexy black protagonist. After all, there was a time when Jim Brown was being groomed for mainstream superstardom in several major-studio releases, some barely distinguishable from what might have been dubbed "white exploitation" movies. In The Split (1968), for example, Brown played the mastermind of a plot to rob L.A. Coliseum during a Rams game. The stellar supporting cast included such white notables as Donald Sutherland, Warren Oates, Gene Hackman, James Whitmore, Julie Harris, Ernest Borgnine and Jack Klugman.
Just four years later, however, Brown was the above-the-title star of Slaughter, a paradigmatic blaxploitation epic in which the former football great played an ex-Green Beret who goes after the mobsters who killed his parents. Mobsters, it should be noted, who were conspicuous by their whiteness.
Brutal white cops, vicious white Mafiosi, corrupt white businessmen, genocidal white racists -- such were blaxploitation's villains of choice. On the other hand, these inner-city fantasies of African-American empowerment tended to view any self-sufficient black character, even the most flagrantly criminal, as a romantic hero. (This outlaw tradition continues today, of course, in gangsta rap.)
A man could be a pimp (see Max Julien in The Mack, June 16-17) or a Harlem crime boss (see Fred Williamson in Black Caesar, June 22-23) and still appear more sympathetic than the fair-complexioned cops and criminals who dared to stand in their way. Women, too, could fend for themselves as action heroes, but with a great deal less moral ambiguity: Pam Grier in Foxy Brown (June 1-2) and Sheba Baby (June 8-9), Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones (June 22-23).
The title character in Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (June 8-9) is a sex-show performer who's radicalized when he sees two L.A. cops beating a black militant. Impulsively, he kills the pigs, then becomes one of California's most wanted as he heads toward the Mexican border. Amazingly, he gets away, and the movie ends with his belligerent promise to return someday to collect some "heavy dues" from "the man." Twenty-five years after its release, Sweet Sweetback remains startling -- and yes, exhilarating -- in its depiction of black rage triumphant. Little wonder, then, that in 1971, it galvanized moviegoers who had been spoon-fed far more genteel depictions of race relations.
In many respects, Sweet Sweetback is a dreadful film. (Most of the white supporting players would have been rejected by Edward G. Wood as hopelessly inept.) But that does not diminish its historical importance one iota. Along with the considerably more polished Shaft (June 29-30), it launched the genre -- and influenced a generation of black filmmakers. Among the most heavily influenced: Mario Van Peebles, the director's son, who raised a different kind of ruckus with his New Jack City and Panther.
Blaxploitation Bijoux kicks off Saturday and Sunday, June 1-2, with one of its most notorious melodramas: Super Fly, a sordid piece of work in which an inner-city cocaine dealer named Priest (Ron O'Neal) is meant to appear morally superior to white drug kingpins primarily because, well, he isn't white. The 1972 release was enormously popular, and not simply because its Curtis Mayfield soundtrack was one of the great movie scores of the decade.
As author Nelson George notes in Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies: "One of the chief appeals of blaxploitation's best films ... was that by changing the point of view of a generic film you could capture, even fleetingly, some glimpse of our urban reality." In the case of Super Fly, George found it particularly relevant that a secondary drug dealer was murdered by corrupt white cops employed by Mafia crime lords. "For me, as a black audience member," George wrote, "the existence of nefarious policing was no hyperbole but a rendering of how blacks are squeezed by the police and how effectively they work as pawns of ruling ethnic elites."
Well, maybe. On the other hand, it's worth noting that when the time came to produce a sequel, Super Fly T.N.T. (1973), the producers -- sensitive to criticism that they had romanticized a peddler of cocaine -- decided to give Priest a shot at redemption. So they placed the former drug dealer in the middle of an African revolution, where he did the right thing. Also worth noting: The T.N.T. screenplay was written by then-struggling novelist Alex Haley. T.N.T. flopped. Haley, however, went on to bigger and better things.
Blaxploitation Bijoux runs through June 30 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet (enter at Main Street door). 639-7515.
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