The House That Sweetback's Built 

Blaxploitation and beyond at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater

Thursday, Sep 30 2010

Sometimes an artist's work spawns imitations that are at direct political odds with its inspiration's intentions. That particular irony of lineage is on full display with the opening-night program of the UCLA Film & Television Archive's retrospective Paint It Black: Revisiting Blaxploitation and African American Cinema of the 1970s.

Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 experimental, surreal, art-house, black-pride manifesto Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is on the same bill as Gordon Parks Jr.'s formally straightforward drug-lord tale, Super Fly, released the following year. In countless interviews over the years, Van Peebles has agreed without hesitation that his film was the spark that lit the blaxploitation blaze, but he also has wryly noted that Sweetback's celluloid progeny (many of the films had white writers and/or directors) had been stripped of politics and then populated with buffoons.

The legendary filmmaker's assessment is both true and incomplete. It rightly laments the ways Hollywood pimped his template, but fails to give credit to those black talents (behind and in front of the camera) who soldiered on in his wake, injecting racial radicalism in the conventional genre tropes (Western, horror, action) they were using.

click to enlarge "Everybody's some kind of freak": Ganja & Hess.
  • "Everybody's some kind of freak": Ganja & Hess.

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It also fails to factor the ways in which a lot of everyday people in the black audiences of the '70s gave complex reads to what they were viewing. Those reads took place long before cultural theorists peeped beyond problematic images and story lines and gleaned the films' often subversive takes on history, race, class, gender and sexuality. Those nuanced layman's readings were happening before there was much official positive value assigned to the ways in which many of the films gave voice (even if caricatured) to communities that were in the midst of being gutted by self-hate, government indifference, police brutality and new manifestations of old-fashioned institutional racism.

One measure of blaxploitation cinema's legacy is its influence on hip-hop culture, which references the film genre's storytelling and hood reportage in both content and stylized presentation, and has been afforded a similarly complex reception. Hip-hop has underscored that connection in everything from heavy sampling of film dialogue to references to iconic characters, to music videos that pay homage to classic film scenes.

The term "blaxploitation" most immediately conjures images of pimps, drug dealers, prostitutes and cool-as-ice, gun-blazing avengers (male and female), but it also has been applied to everything from 1975's iconic coming-of-age tearjerker Cooley High to 1973's philosophy-drenched, multilayered meditation on race, religion and addiction, Ganja & Hess, both of which are included in UCLA's program. And while there were black films made during blaxploitation's heyday (early to mid-'70s) that were not tagged with the label, including Sounder and Lady Sings the Blues, both released in 1972, it often seems that almost any film made during that time that featured black folk in leading parts was considered blaxploitation fare, illustrating how meaningless the term can be.

The strength of the Archive's lineup lies in its reach, so that while aficionados may grumble about what little-seen cult darling is not on the program, or about the inclusion of titles that already saturate consciousness (Coffy, Shaft), there's a valuable conversation sparked by the assembled films as they talk to each other, and to their audiences. This conversation runs the gamut of topics, from race, representation and the ways that radical content is thwarted and then rebounds; to age-old tensions between art and commerce complicated by intraracial class tensions; to the conflict between "good" Negroes and "bad" Negroes, a binary twisted by who is granted center-frame, and who simply jacks it.

While the retrospective's big hook for weed heads and professional ironists might be stuff like Cliff Roquemore's Human Tornado, starring Dolemite, here's hoping that folks also show up for Jamaa Fanaka's Emma Mae, about a small-town girl navigating her way through the sordid side of Los Angeles after being orphaned; for Parks Jr.'s Romeo and Juliet remix, Aaron Loves Angela (1975), in which an African-American boy (Kevin Hooks, who'd go on to direct Passenger 57 and episodes of Fox TV series Prison Break) and Puerto Rican girl (a pre-Fame, pre-Sparkle Irene Cara) fall in love on the border of Harlem and Spanish Harlem; for the Western double bill of Parks Jr.'s Thomasine & Bushrod, starring Max Julien and the late Vonetta McGee, and Sidney Poitier's Buck and the Preacher, to catch the ways both films package class warfare and black and brown unity; and for the supernatural double bill of Blacula (again featuring McGee) and Ganja & Hess, whose female lead Marlene Clark is scheduled to appear at her film's screening.

In rewatching several of the films for this article, two moments burned themselves into my brain: Ruby Dee's monologue in Buck, in which her character, Ruth, says that although she wants to be a mother more than anything, she refuses to have a child in America, where racism "soaks the ground like poison." It's a riveting moment that pushes the film into a realm of pain and rage that almost scorches the viewer. And on the flip side, there's Clark's bitchy Ganja, in postcoital honeymoon bliss. When her vampirelike new husband asks her, "And the fact that you think I'm psychotic doesn't frighten you?" she responds drolly, "Man, everybody's some kinda freak."

Screenings run Oct. 1-31 at Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. www.cinema.ucla.edu.

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