This has been a fun week for me. Today, it’s just remembering films of the genre that we know. Looking back over this week, I hope you can see why I feel that Blaxploitation hasn’t gotten it’s due. The creativity in front and behind the camera where Black folks could be everything on film – hero and villain….I love these movies.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a 1971 American independent drama film, written, produced, scored, directed by, and starring Melvin Van Peebles, father of actor Mario Van Peebles (who was also in the movie). It tells the picaresque story of a poor African American man on his flight from the white authority. Van Peebles began to develop the film after being offered a three-picture contract for Columbia Pictures. No studio would finance the film, so Van Peebles funded the film himself, shooting it independently over a period of 19 days, performing all of his own stunts and appearing in several unsimulated sex scenes. He received a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby to complete the project. The film’s fast-paced montages and jump-cuts were unique features in American cinema at the time. The picture was censored in some markets, and received mixed critical reviews.
The musical score of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was performed by Earth, Wind & Fire. Van Peebles did not have any money for traditional advertising methods, so he released the soundtrack album prior to the film’s release in order to generate publicity. Initially, the film was screened only in two theaters in the United States. It went on to gross $4.1 million at the box office. Huey P. Newton celebrated and welcomed the film’s revolutionary implications, and Sweetback became required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party. According to Variety, it demonstrated to Hollywood that films which portrayed “militant” blacks could be highly profitable, leading to the creation of the blaxploitation genre, although some do not consider this example of Van Peebles’ work to be an exploitation film.
A young African American orphan (Mario Van Peebles) is taken in by the proprietor of a Los Angeles brothel in the 1940s. While working there as a towel boy, he loses his virginity at a young age to one of the prostitutes. The women name him “Sweet Sweetback” in honor of his sexual prowess and large penis. As an adult, Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) works as a performer in the whorehouse, entertaining customers by performing in a sex show. One night, a pair of LAPD officers come in to speak to Sweetback’s boss, Beetle (Simon Chuckster). A black man had been murdered, and there is pressure from the black community to bring in a suspect. The police ask permission to arrest Sweetback, blame him for the crime, and then release him a few days later for lack of evidence, in order to appease the black community. Beetle agrees, and the officers arrest Sweetback. On the way to the police station, the officers arrest a young Black Panther named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales). They handcuff him to Sweetback, but when Mu-Mu insults the officers, they take both men out of the car, undo the handcuff from Mu-Mu’s wrist, and beat him. In response, Sweetback uses the handcuffs, still hanging from his wrist, to beat the officers into unconsciousness.
The remainder of the film chronicles Sweetback’s flight through South Central Los Angeles towards the United States–Mexico border. Sweetback is captured by the police and violently interrogated about his previous assault on the arresting officers, but he escapes when a riot breaks out. Sweetback goes to a woman who cuts his handcuffs off in exchange for sex. With his handcuffs off, Sweetback continues onward, only to be captured by a chapter of the Hells Angels. The female leader of the gang is impressed by the size of Sweetback’s penis, and agrees to help him and Mu-Mu escape from the police in exchange for sex. The police find Sweetback and Mu-Mu at the bikers’ hangout, but Sweetback escapes on foot while Mu-Mu goes away with the bikers. Mu-Mu and one of the bikers (John Amos) are killed. After his escape from the bikers’ hangout, a white man sympathetic to Sweetback’s cause agrees to switch clothes with him, allowing the usually velour-clad Sweetback to blend in. The police find Sweetback’s former foster mother, who reveals that Sweetback’s birth name is Leroy. The film concludes in the desert, where the L.A. police send several hunting dogs after Sweetback. He makes it into the Tijuana River, and escapes into Mexico, swearing to return to “collect dues”.
Blacula is a 1972 American horror film produced for American International Pictures. It was directed by William Crain and stars William Marshall in the title role about an 18th-century African prince named Mamuwalde, who is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula and later locked inside a coffin by the Count after a party at the latter’s castle in Transylvania that he attended with his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee). Two centuries later, the now-undead Mamuwalde rises from his coffin attacking various residents in modern day Los Angeles, the first two being the interior decorators who unknowingly release him after purchasing and bringing his coffin from Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. Mamuwalde later meets Tina (also played by Vonetta McGee), a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his deceased wife Luva.
Blacula was released to mixed reviews in the United States, but was one of the top grossing films of the year. It was the first film to receive an award for Best Horror Film at the Saturn Awards. Blacula was followed by the sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream in 1973 and inspired a small wave of blaxploitation themed horror films.
In 1780, Prince Mamuwalde (William H. Marshall), the ruler of the Abani African nation, seeks the help of Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) in suppressing the slave trade. Dracula, refusing to help, transforms Mamuwalde into a vampire and imprisons him in a sealed coffin. Mamuwalde’s wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee), is also imprisoned and dies in captivity. In 1972, the coffin has been purchased as part of an estate by two interior decorators, Bobby McCoy (Ted Harris[disambiguation needed]) and Billy Schaffer (Rick Metzler) and shipped to Los Angeles. Bobby and Billy open the coffin and become Prince Mamuwalde’s first victims. At the funeral home where Bobby McCoy’s body is laid, Mamuwalde spies on mourning friends Tina Williams (Vonetta McGee), her sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas), and Michelle’s boyfriend, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), a pathologist for the Los Angeles Police Department. Mamuwalde believes Tina is the reincarnation of his deceased wife, Luva. On close investigation of the corpse at the funeral home, Dr. Thomas notices oddities with Bobby McCoy’s death that he later concludes to be consistent with vampire folklore.
Prince Mamuwalde continues to kill and transform various people he encounters into vampires as Tina begins to fall in love with him. Thomas, his colleague Lt. Peters (Gordon Pinsent), and Michelle follow the trail of murder victims and begin to believe a vampire is responsible. After Thomas digs up Billy’s coffin, Billy’s corpse rises as a vampire and attacks Thomas, who fends him off and drives a stake through his heart. After finding a photo taken of Mamuwalde and Tina in which Mamuwalde’s body is not visible, Thomas and Peters track Mamuwalde to his hideout, the warehouse where Billy McCoy and Billy Schaffer were first slain. They defeat several vampires, but Mamuwalde manages to escape. Later, Mamuwalde lures Tina to his new hideout at the nearby waterworks plant, while Thomas and a group of police officers pursue him. Mamuwalde dispatches several officers as one shoots Tina. To save Tina from death, Mamuwalde transforms her into a vampire. After Peters manages to kill the vampire Tina, Mamuwalde believes he can not live any longer after losing her twice. Mamuwalde leaves for the surface where the morning sunlight rots his flesh quickly and kills him.
THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) – The title of this explosive film, based on the controversial novel by Sam Greenlee, plays on the old double meanings of the slang expression “spook”. While spook could be used as a derogatory term for a black person it could also refer to a secret agent.
The story’s hero, played by Lawrence Cook, is an African American working in the domestic offices of the Central Intelligence Agency. While outwardly an efficient and capable paper pusher he inwardly regards himself as an undercover operative for his own race, infiltrating the white intelligence establishment.
After five years of learning all he can via secretly reading CIA operations files our protagonist, significantly named Dan Freeman, decides to launch a covert operation of his own to destroy the white power structure and elevate his people to positions of authority.
Resigning from the CIA, he returns to his native Chicago and uses classic intelligence techniques to establish clandestine cells staffed by fellow African Americans. Over time his subversive campaign utilizes violence and infiltration of local government agencies in a spectacularly successful way. Freeman next extends his “cell” approach to other major cities with the same success.
Eventually the day arrives when his expanding organization is far- reaching enough that Freeman can abandon clandestine behavior and function more openly, launching coordinated armed uprisings that succeed in seizing entire portions of the United States as sovereign African American territory. These scattered territories proceed to wage a larger and larger war against the rest of the United States until Freeman gets what he wants.
This movie is very powerful and only its low budget prevents it from having the full impact it might have had. The film’s efforts at verisimilitude are so effective that for some audiences seeing it in 1973 it must have felt like a cinematic version of Orson Welles’ legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast from the 1930′s. A particularly nice touch is the covert radio operator calling himself “Uncle Tom” with undisguised irony as he broadcasts propoganda and coded messages to Freeman’s operatives around the country.
Lawrence Cook turns in the performance of a lifetime as Freeman, playing things low- key and intense rather than affecting grandiose “man with a vision” posturing. Sam Greenlee wrote the screenplay, adapted from his 1969 novel and the director of this thought- provoking film was none other than Ivan Dixon, better known as Carter, the black GI on Hogan’s Heroes.
DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975) – This brilliant satirical action film is easily the most misunderstood movie on this list. It deserved, but never achieved, a Rocky Horror Picture Show- sized cult following.
Syreena (Trina Parks) is the leader of a foursome of black female bikers who return to Syreena’s inner-city Los Angeles home in search of her missing mother. It turns out that her old neighborhood is suffering a rash of disappearances and our heroines spend the rest of the film trying to get to the bottom of it all. Their adventure is punctuated with various romantic or purely sexual encounters as well as conflicts with a Los Angeles police force depicted as nasty racists who are even more inept than the Keystone Kops.
The main villain is a figure clearly based on Colonel Sanders, the well- known founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. That villain, called Colonel Cross (Cross. Get it?) is a similar Confederate colonel figure. Just as KFC’s slogan was “finger- lickin’ good” the slogan for Colonel Cross’ rib joints is that his product is “bone- suckin’ good”.
As an example of this film’s wry, daring sense of humor, it explores the deeper implications of what an advertising icon who looks like a Confederate colonel might mean to African American consumers by depicting Cross owning an actual southern plantation in the middle of Los Angeles. Cross is behind the epidemic of disappearances of black people in L.A. As you’ll figure out very early in the movie the ribs served in Colonel Cross’ restaurants are fatally extracted from the African Americans his white- robed minions abduct.
Colonel Sanders is not the only old advertising icon who gets slammed for their explicitly racist premise. Among the slaves serving on Cross’ Los Angeles plantation are sendups of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemimah and the ugly stereotype who was the mascot of the old Sambo’s restaurant chain. (This chain eventually changed the name of their restaurants due to public pressure)
The wildly outrageous humor of this movie could be described as Richard Pryor meets South Park. Among the joyously (and intentionally) tasteless comedy set pieces interspersed with the action sequences and musical numbers are a dark parody of old Minstrel acts complete with an Interlocutor and Mr Bones, plus Cross’ elaborate scheme to create a “black baby machine” that will produce African Americans he can harvest for their ribs without the need for kidnapping.
In the end Colonel Cross is defeated and is reduced to a busboy in one of his own rib joints, where he will answer to the new African American owners of the business. All this plus the film features songs by the Dramatics, John Gary Williams and the Newcomers. If you have friends who are so simple- mindedly politically correct that they won’t get this film’s irreverent humor watch it with them just to see them turn purple with uncomprehending outrage.